Bad news for the art thieves who for years have been selling Italy's ancient treasures to foreign museums: 'Il Bulldog' is on your case. Alastair Smart meets the resolute attorney demanding their return
Pasquale Camera didn't do light lunches. After a third plate of veal Napolitano, washed down by his nth glass of Barolo, the 25-stone ex-police captain galumphed his way out of a Naples restaurant, climbed into his Renault 21, and set off north for Rome. The August heat was intense, and just a few miles up the motorway, he fell asleep at the wheel, smashed into the guardrail and overturned his car. He died instantly.
Yet, as local police officers learnt from searching his glove-box, Camera was more than just the latest fatality on Italy's roads. On his death in 1995, they found photographs of 10 looted artefacts, setting off an international trail of raids, investigations and seizures that uncovered a vast antiquities-smuggling network, connecting Camera and the team of tombaroli (tomb raiders) he employed, via a pair of shady art dealers, to America's most prestigious museums.
Thirteen years after Camera's somersault off the motorway, and with an estimated 1.5 million items looted from Italy's myriad archaeological sites in the past four decades, the government is finally clamping down. Its uncompromising state attorney, Maurizio Fiorilli, has forced heavyweight art establishments such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, and the J.Paul Getty Museum in California, to relinquish 100 dubiously acquired masterpieces and return them to Italy. Seventy of these are now on show in a stunning state exhibition in Rome.
Nicknamed 'Il Bulldog' by the Italian media for his over-my-dead-body approach to cultural diplomacy, Fiorilli, after sealing one prickly Stateside deal, reportedly insisted on travelling with the recovered prizes, from museum to airport, and seeing them back onto their plane to Italy.
Fiorilli's office, at the Avvocatura dello Stato (Government Law Bureau), sits in the suitably historic setting of Rome's medieval backstreets. It's rather spartan inside, with sober mahogany furniture and little by way of ornament, except a huge bust of Hercules placed proudly at the front of his desk.
Though he speaks fluent English, Fiorilli has insisted that we conduct our meeting in Italian - making him speak my language, not his, would be cultural imperialism, and Fiorilli has made a career of standing up to that. Disarmingly, Il Bulldog greets me with a warm smile. But why? Have the former Getty curator Marion True and the American dealer Robert Hecht, both on trial in Rome for trading in stolen antiquities, just been found guilty? Or has he forced another chastened museum director into surrendering an Etruscan bronze or Apulian vase?
'No, neither. There's never any forcing or surrendering. Relations with the museums we've signed deals with are good,' Fiorilli tells me. 'They know we're not trying to empty their entire collections, but just addressing 38 years of illegal excavating and export of Italian artefacts'.
His dating is so precise, because 1970 was the year of the landmark Unesco Convention, by which United Nations states, in response to the rampant looting of archaeological sites worldwide, outlawed the importing of another nation's 'cultural property' without consent.
Peru, Egypt and Greece (Elgin Marbles, anyone?) are among the many states clamouring to get antiquities back from foreign museums, but Fiorilli stresses that their gripes are usually about pre-convention lootings and are very different from Italy's. 'Since 1970, whole new rules of behaviour have been in force for art-purchasing internationally, and pieces illegally trafficked after that date must return to Italy not as a concession, but as a matter of course.'
The attorney speaks from a position of strength and he knows it. Unlike his peers in Athens, Cairo or Lima, he can assert a legal, as well as a moral, right for the return of looted material: he can cite not just the Unesco Convention, but also an Italian law of Mussolini's, that from 1939 onwards any item found on its soil belongs to the Italian state. 'We've even got proof of where pieces ended up,' adds Fiorilli, pointing to half-a-dozen boxes on the shelf beside his desk, each marked in thick red ink with a different museum's name.
In their investigations after Pasquale Camera's car crash, Italian police learnt that he had been one of various 'middlemen', employing tombaroli and then selling the finds to leading Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici - head, allegedly alongside Robert Hecht, of an international smuggling ring. Medici's warehouses in Geneva were raided by police later in 1995. They discovered not only 10,000 looted artefacts but also, more significantly, Polaroid photos of a few thousand others, shot just after their excavation while many were still encrusted in soil, and accompanied by a list of their purchasers, predominantly the top museums in America.