Culture war: Russia wants its art back from Italy

Masterpieces from Russian art collections are on loan in Rome and Milan. Russia wants them back.

Russia is seeking the immediate return of highly valuable art works currently on loan to Italy, as the repercussions from the invasion of Ukraine and international sanctions impact the world of culture.

The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has demanded the return of the works loaned for exhibitions at the Palazzo Reale and the Gallerie d'Italia in Milan.

The exhibition Grand Tour: Dream of Italy from Venice to Pompeii, running at the Gallerie d'Italia until 27 March, was organised in collaboration with the Hermitage and contains several pieces from the Russian museum including Canova's Winged Cupid.

Palazzo Reale is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to the Venetian master which includes Young Woman with Feather Hat that the Hermitage now wants back.

The show opened in late February and is scheduled to end in June. The Hermitage is also seeking the return of a Picasso from the Fondazione Alda Fendi in Rome, reports Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Picasso's Young Woman, which was painted in 1909 and had never before been on show in Italy, was due to stay on display in Rome until 15 May.

"According to the decision of the Russian ministry of culture, all outstanding loans must be returned from abroad to Russia" and "the Hermitage is a state museum that depends on the ministry of culture."

This was stated by the Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsy in a letter sent on Monday night to Palazzo Reale director Domenico Piraina and to the president of Skira editore (the publisher that organised the Titian show), Massimo Vitta Zelman.

"The request is to prepare the packaging and shipping. Our transport agent will take care of all the necessary arrangements" - wrote Piotrovsky - "I fully understand that this decision will cause you great displeasure and inconvenience and I hope for your understanding."

Italy's culture minister Dario Franceschini, in reply to questions from reporters on Tuesday, said his ministry "has no competence in the matter, they are two exhibitions organised by the municipality of Milan and the Gallerie d'Italia. However it seems clear to me that when an owner asks for the return of their works, they must be returned".

Italian online art newspaper Artribune raises the question: "What will happen now to Italian institutions that have Russian loans on display, such as Palazzo Rovella in Rovigo, which opened the major exhibition on Kandinsky on 26 February with several loans from the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg?"

There are also major exhibitions of Russian art on loan elsewhere in Europe, with imperial Fabergé eggs on display at the V&A in London and Impressionist masterpieces from Russian collections at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

Russia's move to retrieve art works from Italy comes after Milan's opera house La Scala ended its collaboration with the famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev after he refused to publicly condemn the invasion of Ukraine by his friend Vladimir Putin.

In recent days Italy has also moved to seize assets, including super yachts, belonging to oligarchs with close ties to the Russian president.

Photo La Repubblica