When a ceramic relief depicting the Madonna with Child was returned to the church of Scansano in Tuscany, Italy, after five decades of absence, the town threw a solemn celebration. The local bishop, priest, prefect, mayor, and law enforcement officials all attended. On a September morning in 2020, a crowd gathered. The torso-sized relief was propped up, surrounded by plants. A band blared nearby.
The relief, by celebrated Renaissance sculptor Andrea della Robbia, had been stolen on a summer night in 1971, and had been missing ever since. “I was a kid, but I remember it there, on the altar,” mayor Francesco Marchi told the Italian publication La Repubblica. “I remember the dismay the day after the theft.”
After Italian authorities found and seized the priceless artwork in Canada, but before it made its return to Scansano, the relief spent a few months in a little-known vault tucked away at the edge of Trastevere, a district of central Rome where, under normal circumstances, swarms of tourists would stroll among washing strung above their heads, climbing plants, and all manner of eateries. On the ground floor of an unremarkable orange, three-story building, behind a 20-foot wall, and under the 24/7 gaze of carabinieri surveillance, the Madonna sat among hundreds of Roman sarcophagi, Renaissance paintings, and legendary violins. Every item that finds itself in the vault has one thing in common: a brush with crime.
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