Italian Mayor Refuses to Loan Piero della Francesca Masterpiece Fearing It Won’t Be Returned

The ownership of the priceless fresco has been disputed for decades.

Monterchi, a small town in the Italian region of Tuscany, has turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from Rome’s Capitoline museums after refusing its request to borrow Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto fresco, fearing it might never be returned.

The Renaissance masterpiece has been subject to dispute since World War II and its ownership is still unresolved, which made Alfredo Romanelli, Mayor of Monterchi, believe that if he lets the fresco leave, it might never come back.

“We cannot lose possession of the Madonna, even for a minute,” Romanelli told the New York Times. “Anyone who wants to see the Madonna has to come to Monterchi.”

The storied fresco was originally painted by Francesca in the 1450s onto the wall of a local church just outside Monterchi.

In the 18th century, Catholic prelates bequeathed the church containing the fresco and its grounds to Monterchi. Since that time, the town has been defending the fresco, with local legend even telling the story of townspeople chasing Nazi looters away from the church with pitchforks.

“We defended it before, and we defend it now,” Romanelli told the NYT.

Monterchi, Tuscany Photo: Adri08 Wikimedia Commons

Monterchi, Tuscany. Photo: Adri08 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1991, the fresco was removed from the church and placed in a local disused schoolhouse for restoration where people began to visit it, and it has never been returned. The fresco attracts an estimated 30,000 visitors a year to the town.

Over a decade later, in 2003, the local diocese launched a legal action against the town, claiming ownership and demanding the fresco be returned to the original church. Monterchi City Hall then sued the Ministry of Culture, after the ministry asked its local office to develop a plan to return the fresco to the original church.

In 2009, however, the local diocese said the fresco could be displayed in a convent opposite where the fresco is currently hung, and that it would donate the convent to the town.

This would involve renovating the convent to turn it into a proper museum to host the masterpiece, which created further disagreements in relation to the campaign to raise the necessary funds.

After some 12  years of dispute, a court ruled in favor of the town in 2015, yet town officials are still reluctant to renovate and use the convent, as they believe that the fresco may be whisked away by the Church in a clandestine manner.

“I have nothing to fight about with the people of Monterchi,” Archbishop Riccardo Fontana told the NYT, suggesting crowdfunding to renovate the convent. “Nothing at all. They want to keep their Madonna, and they can keep it.”

Local authorities remain unconvinced, and are demanding a concrete plan before any plans are made to move the fresco from the schoolhouse

Meanwhile, the Church seems un-phased.

“We are famous within Tuscany because we have horrible relations with everybody else,” the archbishop joked to NYT. “We are fighting, always.”


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