A museum, a heist, a rescued ‘Madonna’

Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century painting “Senigallia Madonna’’ comes with a backstory worthy of a detective novel.
Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century painting “Senigallia Madonna’’ comes with a backstory worthy of a detective novel.Museum of Fine Arts

The call came into Katie Getchell's office late last January with an offer no museum could refuse. The Italians wanted to send to Boston a priceless 15th-century painting, a work that had never before been seen in the United States.

Wonderful, said Getchell, the deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts.

This week, that oil painting by Piero della Francesca, "Senigallia Madonna" or "Madonna and Child With Two Angels," goes on display. For the museum, this is more than a loan. The 24-by-21-inch work is a prime example of how a seemingly grim acknowledgment — that the MFA had acquired works most likely looted from Italian soil — has been turned into a bountiful cultural exchange.


Back in 2006, under pressure and scrutiny from Italian investigators with photographic evidence that showed works looted sometime before they arrived in US museums, the MFA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York struck deals to send objects back.

For the MFA, the return of 13 works came with the vague promise from the Italians of a partnership. It clearly has become much more.

"This is what we all dreamed the relationship could be," said Getchell. "It is quite remarkable, given how often the Italian government changes, that we have been able to carry through on the vision we had at that time. We had hoped for this but couldn't have guaranteed it."

The call that January day came from Rosanna Binacchi, an official at Italy's Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism. Over the years, Binacchi and Getchell have spoken regularly, not only about potential loans but also whenever the MFA has been interested in acquiring an Italian work with an unclear ownership history. Getchell estimates that of the more than a dozen objects she and Binacchi have discussed over the last decade, the MFA has decided to pass on acquiring just two or three.


The January offer came without any conditions. Binacchi provided a list of a half-dozen works available for loan. Getchell quickly sent it to Frederick Ilchman, the MFA's curator of European paintings.

He didn't need much time to choose.

Only seven of Piero's works can be found in US museums, including a fresco depicting Hercules at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. "Senigallia Madonna" would "easily be the most important Italian painting acquisition in the decade if it were to be acquired by an American museum," he said.

What's more, the painting comes with a backstory worthy of a detective novel. In 1975, "Senigallia Madonna" was one of three Renaissance works stolen from the Ducal Palace in Urbino, a crime The New York Times referred to as "Italy's most sensational art theft in years."

A year later, police recovered the paintings in a Swiss hotel.

The loan of the Piero is part of a campaign by the Carabinieri, Italy's military police, to publicize their effort to recover stolen artworks. So the MFA's Lee gallery will feature extensive wall labels detailing both the significance of the work as well as the tale of the theft. The gallery will also feature a 17-minute film showing the Carabinieri at work.

The painting will remain at the MFA until Jan. 6. Later, it will travel to the Met.

Virginia Curry, a retired special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who has worked closely with the Carabinieri and also on the 1990 Gardner theft, said the MFA loan truly helps both parties. The MFA gets to show a priceless masterpiece. The Italians, sometimes criticized for reclaiming artworks on prime display in the United States and putting them in storage or in little-seen galleries, are able to share the country's culture.


"That's really the purpose of it," said Curry, who is based in Texas. "They're showing that they're willing to bring something back. That they're not just going to demand the return of this material to be placed in a storehouse in Italy because they can't display it as well as at the MFA or at the Metropolitan. They're trying to show some responsibility and willingness to share their culture."

This isn't the first time the MFA's 2006 agreement has resulted in important loans. That same year, Italy allowed the museum to display the marble statue Eirene. Several works were provided for the 2009 exhibition "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice." And Italy loaned the MFA classical pieces for 2011's "Aphrodite and the Gods of Love."

Still, Ilchman, the European paintings curator, admits he was thrilled when Getchell came to him with the list. Back in 1999, Ilchman was a 32-year-old Columbia University graduate living in Venice when he jumped into a gray Fiat and spent two days on the "Piero trail," touring sites significant in the artist's life.

He said the painting is notable not only because it is probably Piero's final work. It is simply exquisite.


"It takes a subject that you could assume was formulaic, virgin and child and two angels, but does it in such an elusive and poetic manner," said Ilchman. "There's the most beautiful light, an almost eerie sense of calm. It's cool, it's classicist, and very influential to late-20th-century artists. You look at this and you can think of Cezanne and de Chirico."

He had considered grouping the painting with several the MFA owns from the same time period. Then he realized the Piero would be more effective in its own space.

"A visitor should just let his or her eyes sink into it," Ilchman said. "Enjoy the stillness, take some time. After a minute or so, it'll become pretty clear why Piero deserves his fame. This painting is mesmerizing."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.