The Italian Almanac


A Charriot for Two Cows

Italian villagers are suing three successive Italian culture ministers in their latest bid to get an ancient Etruscan chariot back from a top US museum. The town council in Monteleone di Spoleto voted unanimously on Wednesday to sue incumbent Francesco Rutelli and his predecessors Rocco Buttiglione and Giuliano Urbani for not doing enough to get the artefact back from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The decision was taken at a special session in which the village's 670 residents were present.

''The artefact is part of our town's perpetual and inalienable heritage,'' said the suit filed with the main law courts in Spoleto. The villagers have been trying for years to secure the return of the chariot, the most complete and beautiful of the 300 or so found in Italy over the past 200 years. Monteleone-born lawyer Tito Mazzetta, who practises in Atlanta, has written sheaves of letters for Mayor Nando Durastanti - enlisting the support of a New Jersey mayor and two congressmen. But the Met has rejected all pleas for the chariot, which was unveiled in April as one of the star attractions of the museum's renovated Greek and Roman galleries.

The chariot, which is 2,600 years old, was unearthed in 1902 by a local farmer, who reportedly swapped it for two cows. It ended up in Florence the following year, where it was sold to the Met, dismantled, and smuggled out of the country, allegedly with the help of the financier JP Morgan. Monteleone's inhabitants say the chariot is rightfully theirs. They claim the farmer had no idea of its value, while its purchasers undoubtedly did.

Furthermore, they say the Met cannot prove its ownership and that the chariot was taken from Italy illegally, as government authorities did not approve its export. But the Met says it has owned the chariot for 100 years, pointing out that any deadline for a legal claim of this kind would have lapsed long ago. The Met has led the way among US museums in agreeing to return looted antiquities to Italy, signing a landmark deal with the government last year. Italy still has a few more requests pending with the museum - but the chariot is not yet one of these.