On Friday, Vittorio Sgarbi announced that he would resign as Deputy Minister of Culture. A scandal had been haunting the art historian for weeks. Investigations by Italian journalists made it plausible that he, the second most responsible for protecting Italy’s cultural heritage, was in possession of a stolen painting.
And not by mistake, but according to the journalists with clear intent. When Sgarbi presented it in an exhibition in 2021, the painting stolen in 2013 even had an element added; A candle suddenly appeared on the originally dark background, to make the work less recognizable as the stolen canvas. In 2021, the authorities also started an investigation into Sgarbi, who allegedly illegally exported another painting worth 5 million euros.
A second police investigation followed in January, during which authorities searched Sgarbi’s three houses. The Deputy Minister of Culture said at the time that he had nothing to worry about: “I have nothing to fear.” A few weeks later the world looks different, probably because the February 15 deadline is approaching.
By that day, the Italian competition authority would rule on whether Sgarbi’s side activities are compatible with his role as deputy minister. With his resignation, the controversial art historian is already taking an advance on this. For the second time, Sgarbi sees the role of deputy minister of culture slipping through his fingers prematurely: from 2001 to 2002 he held the same position in the second government of Silvio Berlusconi, to whose party he then belonged.
At the time, he had to resign due to continuous arguments with the Minister of Culture, who is one step higher in the hierarchy. In the years that followed, in which he held many mayoral positions, Sgarbi became known in Italy mainly for his endless appetite for polemics. At his most recent resignation, he returned to the role in style. Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano (Fratelli d’Italia) in particular must suffer. “I have not spoken to Sangiuliano since October 23,” says Sgarbi, who calls his ex-colleague “a man without dignity”.
The government has remained extremely quiet around Sgarbi in recent weeks: neither Minister Sangiuliano nor Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni responded publicly to the painting scandal. His resignation is undoubtedly a relief for them, although it could also set a precedent. Sgarbi is not the only minister who has gotten into trouble with the law in the past fifteen months, since the right-wing government took office.
For example, tourism minister Daniela Santanchè (Fratelli d’Italia), who was investigated for financial fraud, has remained stubbornly in place until now. Deputy Minister of Justice Andrea Delmastro (Fratelli d’Italia) is also under investigation on suspicion of revealing an official secret. It will become clear in the near future whether Sgarbi’s resignation will have consequences for the sustainability of their positions.