Monday, April 18, 2016

Tracking Down the ‘Italian Art Squad’ in Fiction (no. 42)

 by Larry Witham


MEET THE "ITALIAN Art Squad" in fiction. In the real world, it was formed in 1969 as a seminal event, the first national police force in the world dedicated to art crime. The squad began to appear in novels in 1991, and since then, three authors have tapped the Italian institution’s bravado, or otherwise, to craft stories of crime, art and mystery.
            The first out the gate was British novelist Ian Pears, whose The Raphael Affair (1991) launched his “art history” mysteries (seven installments through 2000) with the story of a forlorn British art history academic in Rome meeting his match, a female art-crime investigator.
            He is Jonathan Argyll and she is Flavia di Stefano, the “brightest assistant in the Italian National Art Theft Squad,” according to her boss, General Taddeo Bottando. Argyll, unable to land a good job, has become a traveling agent looking for good art purchases for a London art dealer. This takes him to Rome, embroils him in an art theft and murder, and mingles his and Flavia’s lives.
            She is all business, a feisty northern Italian. In contrast, Argyll’s detective instincts prevail in spite of his bookish self. In each novel, while General Bottando fights for his budget, and against the Italian police bureaucracy, Jonathan and Flavia—sometimes he in the lead, sometimes she—traipse into murder cases linked to art world figures, typically academics, collectors, and dealers.
            The delight of these novels is not so much the cache of art information (which Pears leaves to a bare minimum) as the dialogue between Jonathan and Flavia. She is “a woman with a long-standing disapproval of those who smuggle the Italian heritage out of the country,” Jonathan reports.
            They start out getting on each other’s nerves. Even by novel no. 3, The Bernini Bust (1993), the story laments that: “She was a wonderful companion and a perfect friend, but though Argyll had worked hard to persuade her to be something more, his labors had produced remarkably little result.” That would change, of course. By the last novel, they are married and teaming up on art crime.
            Taking up the art-squad-fiction-baton in 2007, art historian Noah Charney wrote The Art Thief. He did so as director of an institute for the study of international art crime. The novel, much more of an academic treatise than anything in Pears’s works, opens with the theft of a Caravaggio painting in a small Italian church. Indeed, as one of the lengthy lectures in the novel explicates, it was a 1969 theft of a Caravaggio that prompted the founding of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, or Carabinieri Art Squad (the Carabinieri being the Italian military and civilian police).
            The Art Thief follows a veritable maze of clues related to the theft of the Caravaggio and a “white on white” painting by the Russian “Suprematist” Kazimir Malevich. It also takes pains to show the workings of the Carabinieri and art squads in London (Scotland Yard) and France. One of the art thieves (we learn in the end) is Gabriel Coffin, a former special investigator for the Italian Art Squad. He has helped his lover, Daniela Vallombroso, wreak revenge on a former client who framed her for a past theft, putting her in prison.
            All of this novel plotting involves a good deal of technical explanation about forgery, overpainting, and cleaning. It keeps the reader’s head spinning. In all, however, it boils down to Daniela’s victory over a corrupt collector, in fact, the very man who had hired Coffin to steal the Caravaggio. With Coffin’s help, Daniela has tricked her nemesis out of the Caravaggio, and, “We’ve also deprived him of his family’s greatest treasure, his original White on White,” she summarizes.
            To tell this story, novelist Charney has the Caravaggio and Malevich paintings interchanging quite a lot, both having fake versions and then this: In the end, in a secret art room, Coffin shows Daniela how he can remove the ‘white on white” with a mild solvent to reveal the authentic Caravaggio (a fake having been returned to the Carabinieri).
            Then in 2013, the first novel of the “Rick Montoya Italian Mysteries” series, written by former Foreign Service officer David P Wagner, presents another take on the Italian Art Squad. Rick Montoya, who had studied in Italy as son of a diplomat, returns as a professional translator. To boot, his uncle is an Italian policeman. Rick’s old school friend is now head of Rome’s art squad, bearing the title Commissario Carlo Conti. He sends Rick north on a surreptitious mission.
            The suspected crime is the smuggling and forgery of pre-Roman Etruscan stoneware, valuable artifacts in the national culture. The scene of the misdeeds is Tuscany, specifically, the picturesque hill town of Volterra. Rick’s task quickly becomes ominous when, a day after he visits a gallery, one of its staff falls over a steep city cliff to his death.
             After arriving in the steep town, Rick gradually meets three suspects on Commissario Conti’s list: museum curator Arnolfo Zerbino; gallery owner Antonio Landi; and, import/export man Rino Polpetto. Rick also becomes romantically caught between his old American girlfriend, an art historian in Italy, and a gorgeous but shady local art dealer, Donatella, who seems to pursue him (and she, too, may be the villain). Moreover, the police in Volterra seem to resent Rick sticking his nose into their affairs. They follow him darkly. Even they seem likely suspects.
            We go down the list of possible villains, always feeling we’ve found him or her, and of course, it’s the person not on the A-list, or seemingly the most blameless of them all. Rick always thought it was Landi. But it turns out to be Zerbino, a learned man who is supposed to be a guardian of the national patrimony. Instead, he is discreetly selling the museum’s real Etruscan artifacts for money to support its upkeep, and then hires craftsmen to make fakes to take their place in the secure glass exhibit shelves.
            The story ends, as it must in Italy, with a good Italian meal.

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