The Italian Almanac

Burri's painting

Italian Art - May 2

In Italy, they called it Arte Povera, elsewhere "junk art": turning refuse - burlap sacks, globs of tar - into popular works. For artists like Alberto Burri, who began producing Arte Povera in the '50s, such trash would eventually become treasure. Museums and galleries such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York City and the Pompidou Center in Paris vied for his works for decades. In 1989, a collector shelled out $2.8 million for one of his prized Sacco (Sack) paintings called Umbria Vera (True Umbria). At the time of his death in 1995, Burri's most famous pieces, including the Sacks and Plastics series, could be found in modern art museums in London, New York, Venice and, most proudly for the artist, in his hometown of Città di Castello in the foothills of central Italy's Apennine mountain range.

But today, the town of Città di Castello - and part of Italy's art establishment - is in turmoil, because a large cache of Burri's work is missing. The 15th century palazzo that houses much of his output had been expecting a shipment of 30 more Burri works, kept at the artist's country cottage in the south of France. But the works have disappeared, Time has learned. Italian police believe the art was stolen and smuggled out of Europe to the U.S., but neither they nor officials from La Fondazione Albizzini, which exhibits the artist's work, will speculate about suspects. The collection includes a 3-m-tall Sacco, a piece experts estimate could fetch over €1 million.

The disappearance represents a sad ending to Burri's remarkably colorful career. Born in 1915, Burri did not set out to be an artist. He earned a degree in medicine from the University of Perugia, and, at the outbreak of World War II, was shipped to North Africa as an army doctor. Captured by the British army, Burri was turned over to American forces and interned at a prison camp in Hereford, Texas. Depressed and dispirited, Burri abandoned medicine for art. Short of materials, he turned to the abundant supply of burlap in the camp and used it as a canvas. After the war, Burri returned to Italy, where he and contemporaries Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni forged their own unique style to grab attention from the American and French modernists then in vogue.