On Wednesday, August 1, 2018, cultural heritage advocates, law enforcement officials, and members of the public streamed into Meyer Auditorium at the Freer Gallery of Art to hear a talk given by Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, director of the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TPC). Organized by the Antiquities Coalition and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, the event welcomed an audience of nearly 200. Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned marble sanctuary of the Freer, audience members took shelter from the Washington humidity and enjoyed a one-and-a-half-hour-long event focusing on threats to cultural heritage and what can be done to address them. As Richard Kurin, acting director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, noted in his opening remarks, the Freer was designed after the model of a Roman villa. A centerpiece of 20th-century efforts to fashion the National Mall as a centerpiece of civilization, the museum was a fitting venue for the General’s speech.
Parrulli began his remarks by introducing the audience to the history of the Carabinieri TPC and the scale of its operations. Founded in 1969, the art squad predates even the 1970 UNESCO convention against cultural racketeering, the landmark treaty which ushered in the current era of cultural heritage protection. With a portfolio that includes fighting looting, investigating thefts and forgeries, and promoting public awareness, the TPC’s officers keep themselves busy. In a half-hour, the General recounted some of his force’s greatest successes and outlined how the TPC is preparing for the challenges of the future.
With colorful maps, impressive statistics, and striking images, Parrulli revealed the extent of the TPC’s work to preserve cultural heritage. Present in every region of Italy, the TPC also has several missions stationed abroad, including at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. And in times of crisis, the General’s team jumps into action, deploying to countries whose heritage is under threat. In recent years, the TPC has deployed to Iraq and Kosovo to support and train local police forces in the safeguarding of cultural property. In his words, the officers of the Carabinieri TPC work to “prevent cultures becoming commodities.” Working closely across borders and partnering with other countries, the TPC is eager to provide global leadership in protecting cultural heritage.
From left: Acting Director of the Freer Gallery of Art Richard Kurin, Antiquities Coalition founder and chairman Deborah Lehr, and Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli discuss threats to cultural heritage after Parrulli’s speech.
After the speech, Kurin served as moderator for a discussion with the General and Deborah Lehr, founder and chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. They spoke about the most significant obstacles in the fight against cultural racketeering and the TPC’s active efforts to overcome them. Lehr explained that this field has traditionally been relegated to national ministries of culture, which are often among the weakest government agencies. One of her goals in establishing the Antiquities Coalition was to get foreign affairs and defense ministries involved in addressing this issue, given their greater stature, to advocate for policy change. In Italy, this has been the case since the TPC’s founding in 1969. The Antiquities Coalition seeks to redefine cultural racketeering as a national security issue: after all, it is closely linked to terrorist financing and organized crime. The TPC has done exactly that. During his speech, the General recounted how the Carabinieri has striven to add cultural heritage crimes to the agenda of many of the world’s top forums for international politics: the G7, the Counter-Daesh Finance Group, the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union.
General Parrulli discussed several cases of high-profile restitutions made possible by the Carabinieri, including two Roman statue heads stolen during the Second World War and repatriated to Italy just a few months ago.
The Carabinieri’s officers work with objects that are hundreds, even thousands, of years old, but they embrace innovation. The spirit of Silicon Valley is strong in the 17th-century Baroque Palazzo Sant’Ignazio that houses the headquarters of the Carabinieri TPC in Rome. The General highlighted his squad’s use of cutting-edge technology to protect cultural heritage and fight the trafficking of antiquities. In one of the most exciting moments of his speech, Parrulli showed a video of TPC officers using a drone to survey a damaged church. No longer only the playthings of hobbyists and millennial tech geeks, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have become a useful tool in protecting cultural heritage. After earthquakes collapsed historic buildings in central Italy in 2016, the Carabinieri used drones to explore the interiors of ruined buildings deemed too unsafe to enter. In the General’s example, a drone helped the Carabinieri locate a precious altarpiece, which was then removed to safety.
The TPC also maintains “Leonardo,” a massive database of stolen works of art. In seconds, an officer can conduct a search to determine if a suspect object has been previously recorded as stolen. With 1,231,663 entries as of the first week of August, 2018, Leonardo is the largest database of its type in the world. Parrulli also explained that the TPC includes a Data Processing Unit, which leverages the power of smartphones to fight cultural racketeering through its app, iTPC. Free to download and currently available in both Italian and English, iTPC allows users to input a photo of a work of art and search for a match in its database of stolen cultural property. This tool has the potential to be extremely useful for buyers to practice due diligence: when they consider purchasing an item, they can bring up iTPC on their phones as the first step of provenance research. The app also provides the public with information on the Carabinieri and allows for crowd-sourced contributions to the database. Given the TPC’s international focus, Parrulli said that iTPC will soon be available in additional languages, starting with Spanish, French, and German. In her remarks, Lehr described how a lack of data on the illicit trade in antiquities can hamper efforts to convince governments to take action. If few statistics exist for art trafficking, it can be difficult to make the argument that it should be a major concern on policymakers’ agendas. The TPC’s vigorous pursuit of data collection can begin to fill this information vacuum.
The General emphasized that the Carabinieri TPC does more than investigations and rescue operations: he also considers education a key mission of the force. In the question and answer period of the Smithsonian event, he declared that societies today have a responsibility to the next generation to pass on cultural heritage at the heart of community identity. Italy, gifted with a rich history, is leading the charge. Through presentations at local schools and universities across the country, as well as digital initiatives such as the iTPC app, the Carabinieri work to instill in today’s youth the values of respect for culture and commitment to its protection. As the General said, not only do his officers respond to the crises of today, they work to ensure a safer future for humanity’s cultural treasures.
Andrew Lokay is an intern at the Antiquities Coalition. Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, he is now a student at Stanford University, where he studies International Relations and French. If you are interested in interning at the Antiquities Coalition please send a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.