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Silvio Berlusconi’s Worthless Art Legacy and the Political Hysteria of Collecting Art



Opinion by Ilaria Bortot, International Consultant


The 12th of June 2023 was a significant moment in Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, one of the most controversial figures of the Italian political scene died at age 86 in Milan. Berlusconi marked the business and communication fields in Italy in the 1980s. He created the first television network that could challenge the national monopoly and acquired movie theatres, publishing houses, and the AC Milan football team. His first political appearance was in 1994, at the head of his conservative party Forza Italia. Although he was elected as Prime Minister, he resigned soon after, due to an investigation that saw him accused of collaboration with mafia, corruption, and fraud. He was elected again in 2001-2005, 2005-2006, and finally in 2008-2011. After the 1994 election, Berlusconi ran with a new party, il Popolo della Libertà: however, since 2013, he returned to Forza Italia, which still remains one of the main political parties in Italy.[1] Berlusconi was constantly in the middle of scandals, accusations, and trials. Among his most infamous activities, it is worth mentioning the connection with Italian organised crime, sexual scandals, and soliciting underage prostitution through his private parties, or Bunga Bunga, in his house in Arcore.[2] Also, it is important to mention his support to notorious international political figures such as Gaddafi and Putin, his disrespectful treatment of women, and causing an enormous economic crisis in Italy from which the country has not recovered yet.[3] Berlusconi’s populism, charisma, and money led him to be both loved and hated. The country is still split between those who consider him a business hero, and those who see in him the embodiment of the patriarchy, and the man who ruined Italy.

After his death, the media unveiled a less well-known aspect of Silvio Berlusconi’s life, i.e., his obsession with collecting art. Berlusconi’s heirs have indeed inherited a collection of €25.000 artworks, mostly nudes and Madonne, which were stored in a warehouse in Milan.[4] In his quest to become a top collector, Berlusconi accumulated a collection that costs €800.000 per year to maintain. However, it is worthless. As it has been stated by art expert and politician Vittorio Sgarbi to RAI Report, only six or seven pieces, such as paintings by Parmigianino, Tiziano and De Chirico, are of value. Everything else is simply croste.[5] According to Sgarbi, during the last few years of his life, Berlusconi used to purchase artworks through late-night shopping channels, online auctions, and small dealers. Using Sgarbi’s words “there was no research, he (Berlusconi) worked with the idea of buying a bunch of artworks indifferent to what they were”, and he would give them as gifts to his friends.[6] Although there has been speculation of creating an ad hoc museum to contain and display the artworks, which would cost €25 per ticket, the collection is basically worthless. Ironically, the ticketed museum would be Berlusconi’s last game to trick the Italians.

It is interesting to notice how Silvio Berlusconi, a man who had everything and who directly or indirectly dominated every social, political, and economic aspect of Italy, felt the need to become a top art collector. The relationship between art and political authority has been part of history since ancient times. In fact, almost any past or more recent ruler has used the promotion of the arts, or artistic projects, to increase their dominance and political propaganda. Furthermore, history has provided at least two main notorious examples of obsessive art collecting tuning into an actual hysteria, whose consequences are still with us. The first example comes from the late 18th and early 19th century France. Napoleon’s military victories and conquests led to one of the vastest plunders of art in the history of Europe. In a letter to Guillaume Faipoult, French envoy in Genoa, in 1796, Napoleon wrote “Above all, send me a list of the pictures, statues, cabinets and curiosities at Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Modena and Bologna”.[7] The cities listed were not only rich of art but also housed some of the most prestigious and extravagant patrons of Renaissance art, such as the Visconti and Sforza families. It is obvious that from the very beginning of his political and military establishment, art was a key element in Napoleon’s mind. He wanted to collect works of the highest quality in order to increase his political prestige, and, to straighten this, he used to parade them as trophies. Napoleon aimed to make Paris the capital of culture in Europe, and he displayed the pieces at the Louvre, which he wanted to be the greatest museum in the world.[8]

Because of Italy’s cultural richness, the peninsula suffered from Napoleon’s obsession with collecting. Under Napoleon’s orders, specialised groups of scientists and artists travelled from France to Italy in order to examine and select the best masterpieces to take away. The Vatican was therefore emptied of its treasure, and Italy saw some of its most significant pieces being taken away. Among the main paintings and statues that were stolen by Napoleon it is important to mention the Laocoon, now back in Rome in the Vatican Museum, Verone’s Wedding Feast at Cana, still at the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, the Resurrection of Christ and the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, both by Perugino.[9] Overall, just in Italy, Napoleon stole around 600 items. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, only half of the Italian treasure was returned, while the other half is still in France, mostly at the Louvre. The process of repatriation is still long and not without obstacles, and each case requires an individual application from the claiming country. In addition, although France is progressively returning cultural items stolen from former colonies, the attitude surrounding the Louvre is still the one of an encyclopedic museums that feels entitled to hold global collections.

Obviously, Napoleon’s looting did not stop in Italy. The Egypt campaign directly led to the taking of the Rosetta Stone. However, when the French were overcome by the British Army, they had to surrender the prestigious artefact, which today is at the British Museum, and the center of several debates claiming its repatriation to Egypt.[10] When Napoleon defeated the Prussians in 1805, Berlin had to deliver 54 paintings, Vienna, lost 250 pieces from the Belvedere Gallery, The Duke of Brunswick lost 278 paintings, as well as 9 busts, 74 small bronzes, 83 ivories, and 70 objects sculpted in wood. Because the Louvre could not hold all of them, the artworks were sent to Fontainebleau and other royal residences.[11] Finally, the royal collection of Spanish king Ferdinand VII was confiscated after Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, and the country lost precious items from churches, monasteries, and royal houses.[12]

Napoleon’s obsession with art goes at the same pace as his military successes. To him, “collecting”, in this case looting, was a tool to establish French political superiority. Here, however, French power was a direct consequence of his own power, and accumulating beautiful cultural objects was the visual expression of that. As Cynthia Saltzan reports, “by acquiring records of genius, (Napoleon) could link the names of the greatest High Renaissance artists- Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Veronese- to the Republic of France and his own".[13]

As mentioned, Napoleon’s looting of the European cultural heritage in the 19th century was the most extended case in Europe. However, Hitler managed to overcome it. The Nazi plunder saw the stealing of approximately 20% of European art, and over 30,000 items have not been returned yet, and I mentioned in my previous article, the reasons were primarily economic and ideological.[14] Taking a step back from Hitler’s use of art as a tool for the Aryan propaganda, it is important to remember that the second biggest collection of artworks right after Hitler’s belonged to Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering, one of the most powerful of the Nazi leaders and creator of the Gestapo. Here again, another powerful political figure with a particular relationship with art. In fact, among the human atrocities and war crimes he was responsible for, Goering was an avid collector.

During the years of the war, Goering formed a private collection that had to be passed to the Reich after his death. The collection included thousands of items stolen from museums, private owners, and, mostly, Jewish families, and it had a value of $200 million in 1945. It encompassed various styles and cultural traditions, such as antiquities, Renaissance paintings, and artworks that would fit under the category of Degenerate Art. [15] As reported by the Smithsonian, the artworks mostly came from France, and they were hidden in various locations until the Monuments Men found and saved them. Goering frequently visited the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, where specific masterpieces were selected for him, and used it as his personal warehouse. Furthermore, Goering took possession of over 700 artworks through the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazi organization in charge of cultural property, and he even founded the Devisenschutzkommando. The latter was a Nazi special unit in collaboration with the SS that oversaw the confiscation of art and cultural objects.[15] As reported by the Smithsonian, the artworks mostly came from France, and they were hidden in various locations until the Monuments Men found and saved them. Goering frequently visited the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, where specific masterpieces were selected for him, and used it as his personal warehouse. Furthermore, Goering took possession of over 700 artworks through the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazi organization in charge of cultural property, and he even founded the Devisenschutzkommando. The latter was a Nazi special unit in collaboration with the SS that oversaw the confiscation of art and cultural objects.

Goering led a life of opulence and luxury, and, during the Process of Nuremberg, he claimed he acted as a cultural agent of the Reich. It follows that in the context of the Nazi regime, that was the case. Goering acted as a cultural agent for the sake of the regime, and he accumulated one of the biggest collections of stolen art through coercion, violence, and genocide. Despite Goering’s best efforts, his passion for art did not match with an actual knowledge of the subject. His collection in fact included fakes and forgeries. In 1942, Goering exchanged 150 works of art for Vermeer’s masterpiece, the Christ with the Adulteress, and he displayed proudly. After the war, the entire Goering collection was put under investigation, including the Vermeer, and the Allied found that Dutch artist Han van Meegeren was involved in its selling. Van Meegeren was a notorious art forger, the best of his time. However, the Allied initially accused him of treason and selling national treasure to the enemy. It took two weeks of deep investigation to get the artist to finally confess and exclaim “You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it wasn’t a Vermeer. I painted it myself!”.[16] That day, van Meergeren became a hero. He was no longer a notorious forger: he was the man who fooled the second most important leader of the Nazi Regime.

As in the case of Napoleon, Goering’s collection grew up together with his political influence. However, he was not really acting in the name of the Reich, despite what he said during the Process of Nuremberg. His collection was private and meant to increase his own public political figure. In both cases, the actions of two men had massive repercussions on history, and the consequences are still present today. Although Napoleon and Goering’s actions in terms of art are more damaging than Berlusconi’s, there is one element that seems to connect these three men. They collected. The objects themselves were not the main focus: in all three cases, there is no real pattern in the choice of the objects. They took everything they could, regardless of style, culture, or medium. It was not about creating a coherent collection. It was not about a passion for art. It was about taking, accumulating, and collecting a visual representation of their personal power and political influence. As I mentioned in the introduction, figures of authorities have used art and architecture as tools for propaganda. Building monuments for great cities, financing arts and artists, and using portraits to establish their status. This is different. Napoleon, Goering and Berlusconi shared a hysteria for collecting. They wanted more and more, and they were eventually left with nothing.

[1] Ginsborg, Paul. Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony. Verso, 2005. [2] Allum, Felia. "Silvio Berlusconi and his ‘Toxic’Touch." Representation 47.3 (2011): 281-294. [3] Vatta, Alessia. "Il Governo Berlusconi e la Crisi del Debito Sovrano." Politica in Italia. I fatti dell'anno e le interpretazioni. Edizione 2012. Il Mulino, 2012. 181-200. [4] Giuffrida, Angelica, “Silvio Berlusconi Heirs Weigh Up Fate of his Mostly Worthless Art Collection”, Guardian, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/19/silvio-berlusconi-heirs-weigh-up-fate-of-his-mostly-worthless-art-collection [5] Vock, Ido, “Berlusconi's Worthless Art Proving a Headache to Heirs”, BBC News, 2023. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-67162602 [6] Giuffirdan n.4. [7] Saltzamn, Cynthia, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast, Thomas & Hudson, 2021 [8] Saltzamn, 18. [9] Saltzamn n.7. [10] Charney, Noah. "Lessons from the History of Art Crime." J. Art Crime 13 (2015): 69. [11] Gilks, David. "Attitudes to the Displacement of Cultural Property in the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon." The Historical Journal 56.1 (2013): 113-143. [12] Ibid [13] Saltzman n.7. [14] Bortot, Ilaria, ““Twenty-Five Years from the Washington Principles”, Art Legal, 2023. https://www.theartlegal.com/post/twenty-five-years-from-the-washington-principles [15] Yeide, Nancy H. "The Plunder of Art as a War Crime: The Art Looting Investigation Unit Reports and the Hermann Goering Art Collection." Rutgers JL & Religion 8 (2006): 1. [16] Margit, Maya, “Fooling the Nazis: the Art Forger Who Duped Hermann Goering”, i24 News, 2016. Fooling The Nazis: The Art Forger Who Duped Hermann Goering - I24NEWS

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