On a dark night in mid-October 1969, thieves with ties to the mafia snuck into a Palermo church and spirited away Caravaggio’s Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence. Nearly 50 years later, the masterpiece has not been recovered. Appalled by the theft of this work of creative genius from a place of worship, Italy formed a special task force to combat art crime. Since 1969, the Italian Carabinieri has dedicated a special unit, the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC), to combat the theft and looting of Italy’s cultural treasures. Fresh off of the art squad’s successful completion of a massive sting operation in July 2018, the Antiquities Coalition was honored to host the leader of the unit, General Fabrizio Parrulli, for a week-long visit in Washington, D.C.
Just prior to the General’s visit, the Antiquities Coalition published a review of The Medici Conspiracy, journalists Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini’s fascinating account of the Carabinieri’s investigation of a transnational antiquities trafficking operation at the turn of the 21st century. For readers eager to learn more about the Carabinieri or the black market in cultural property in general, this would be a great place to start.
On Wednesday, August 1, 2018, the Antiquities Coalition partnered with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative to organize an event at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. featuring a speech by General Parrulli on the TPC’s efforts to protect cultural heritage. Richard Kurin, acting director of the Freer and Smithsonian ambassador-at-large, gave introductory remarks and moderated a discussion between the General and Deborah Lehr, founder and chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. Speaking before nearly 200 members of the audience in the classical marble villa of the Freer, Parrulli focused on themes including technology, international cooperation, and education. With gripping videos and photos, the General showed off the TPC’s use of innovative tech, including drones and its new smartphone app, iTPC. In another of the speech’s captivating moments, he spoke about culture and youth. Today’s society, the General declared, has a responsibility to the next generation to pass on cultural heritage in the best condition possible. This strong sense of duty is what motivates his work and guides the TPC’s initiatives to promote awareness of cultural racketeering through lectures at schools, universities, and other venues like the speech at the Freer Gallery. Those interested in the event can learn more about the General’s speech by reading the Antiquities Coalition’s full coverage.
Later that afternoon, Parrulli and Lehr recorded an episode of the Middle East Focus podcast on international efforts to fight antiquities trafficking. Issued by the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., the podcast regularly features experts on foreign policy and contemporary issues in the Middle East. In a conversation with Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy research and programs at the Middle East Institute, Perrulli and Lehr highlighted the Carabinieri TPC’s work protecting cultural heritage in Libya and Iraq.
The next day, the General took part in a roundtable discussion with cultural heritage experts hosted by the Middle East Institute. He presented an overview of the Carabinieri’s high-level achievements and future objectives. Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis then moderated a conversation about ongoing challenges in the fight against the illicit trade in antiquities. Participants shared accounts of experiences from different countries and explored strategies for strengthening international cooperation.
Indeed, collaboration across borders was a major theme of the week, as General Parrulli sought to deepen ties between Italian and American advocates of cultural heritage protection. At the end of his remarks at the Freer, the General expressed the TPC’s mission to move from “the restitution of cultures to a culture of restitution.” By fostering connections between different countries, between governments and NGOs, and between the culture and security spheres, General Parrulli’s week in Washington sought to accomplish just that.
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.