Police in Italy fight back against theft of art from churches

Most of the works of art were stolen from churches in southern Italy and some are nearly 500 years old.

Police in Italy fight back against theft of art from churches
A bronze statue of Zeus recovered by Italy's cultural heritage squad in 2010. Photo (not related to story): Tiziana Fabi/AFP.

Italian police have recovered more than 100 works of religious art following investigations into 24 specific cases of theft from churches and religious institutions in central and southern Italy. The artwork retrieved has an estimated value of more than €7 million. 

The recovered items follow a joint investigation by police forces in Isernia, in the southern Italian province Molise, and Velletri, a municipality in the neighbouring province of Lazio, near Rome, together with Italy's protection of cultural heritage squad. 

Among the pieces of art recovered as part of Operation Start Up is Station XII of Via Crucis: Jesus dies on the cross, dated 1520 and removed on July 2, 1980, from the Sainte Waudru religious institute in Mons (Belgium), according to branch of the Italian police that investigates crimes related to cultural heritage

At least 20 suspects in the cases have been charged with aggravated theft. 

“The investigation was born following careful analysis of the thefts of ecclesiastical cultural assets which were located near Caserta, but also in the province of Isernia, committed in places of worship and religious institutes,” says the statement.

Last year a statue of the Archangel Michael dating to 1330 was stolen from The Church of San Michele in Molise, reports Il Quotidiano Molise, a local newspaper

A statue was stolen two days ago from a church in Acerno, a town approximately 100 kilometres south of Naples, according to Il Mattino. 

In 2015 alone, Italian police registered 474 of thefts of “art and architectural material,” according to data from Italy's national statistics agency ISTAT. 

Vincent Van Gogh's Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and The Beach At Scheveningen During A Storm were recovered at the home of a drug baron in Naples in September 2016. The paintings were stolen in 2002. 

READ MORE: IN PICTURES: Italy's art squad save cultural heritage damaged in earthquakes






‘Bank robber’ rescued in Rome after tunnel collapses

Four people were arrested in Rome after a suspected would-be bank robber was rescued from a tunnel under a road, police said on Friday.

'Bank robber' rescued in Rome after tunnel collapses

An Italian man had to be rescued after becoming trapped in a collapsed tunnel near the Vatican, suspected of being part of a gang burrowing its way to a nearby bank.

Firefighters spent eight hours digging him out from under a road in the west of Rome, before he was finally freed on Thursday evening and taken to hospital.

“Two people from Naples were arrested for resisting a public official and two, from Rome, for damage” to public property, a police spokesman told AFP.

The rescued man, one of the two Romans, remains in hospital, he said without giving an update on his condition.

“We are still investigating, we do not exclude that they are thieves, it is one of the theories,” he said.

For Italian newspapers, however, the motive was clear, with reports noting the tunnel was found near a bank ahead of the August 15th long weekend, when residents traditionally head out of town and much of Rome is left empty.

“The hole gang,” headlined newspapers Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, while La Stampa said: “They dig a tunnel to rob a bank, and one of them is buried underground.”

Other reports referred to the suspected burglar as l’uomo-talpa, or ‘mole man’.

An AFP reporter at the scene on Thursday saw the man brought out alive on a stretcher, after a day-long operation involving dozens of emergency service workers using mechanical diggers.

The tunnel began underneath an empty shop that had recently been rented.

“We all thought that the people there were renovating the place. So we had no suspicions and we did not hear noises either,” a resident, Michele, who lives in the same building told AFP.