BY Luisa Grigoletto in Reviews | 10 SEP 13

A Mobster’s Art Collection

At the National Archaeological Museum, Reggio Calabria, what sounds like a movie plot is actually the outcome of a long police investigation into a powerful criminal with a remarkable art collection 

BY Luisa Grigoletto in Reviews | 10 SEP 13

In a coastal city in southern Italy, an entrepreneur close to a powerful criminal organization builds a business empire, worth hundreds of millions of euros, thanks to a monopoly on video-slot machines. He decides to invest the revenue in the real-estate market and – why not? – in art. After being investigated for years, he’s charged with a number of crimes and sent to jail, while his many properties are seized and confiscated. Now his art collection, after doing time in a bank’s vault, is finally on show for the community’s appreciation, marking the beginning of a new cultural era for the city.

What may sound like the plot of a movie is actually the outcome of a long police investigation in Reggio Calabria, a city at the very tip of the toe of the Italian boot, which last year became the largest city in history to have its local government dissolved due to Mafia links.

Gioacchino Campolo, a 74-year-old businessman, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was found guilty of fraud, racketeering, running a monopoly on rigged video slot machines, and of having ties to the ‘Ndrangheta, considered the most powerful mafia in the country, as well as the hardest to pronounce. Included in his 330-million-euro fortune – from hundreds of properties scattered between Rome and Paris – is a remarkable art collection.

The exhibition ‘Arte Torna Arte’ (Art Returns Art) includes 93 of his confiscated works, including 14 by Lucio Fontana, Giorgio De Chirico, Mario Sironi, Carlo Carra and Salvador Dali, as well as drawings and paintings from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Also on display are 18 fakes, exposing the taste and (lack of) discernment of the collector, labelled by curator Fabio De Chirico as ‘a not particularly refined auction-goer’, who was poorly advised by ‘experts’. Admission to the exhibition costs only two euros, a symbolic fee meant to encourage people from across the social spectrum to attend.

Salvador Dali, Romeo et Guilietta

‘The exhibition’s rationale is about reiterating the importance of obeying the law, in a region where the population has long suffered the consequences of widespread organized crime,’ says Eduardo Lamberti-Castronuovo, a local councillor whose main role is protecting art from the influence of crime. The ‘Ndrangheta, whose roots trace back to the 19th century, has overtaken Italy’s other crime groups in recent years due to its control of the European cocaine trade, stretching its reach far beyond Italy. For instance, in 2007 members of the group based in Germany gunned down six rival gangsters outside an Italian restaurant in Duisburg, and this summer, ‘Ndrangheta kingpin Roberto Pannunzi – at the top of Italy’s most-wanted list – was caught in Colombia working with the Medellin drug cartel after three years on the run.

While all the paintings were acquired through legal channels (the only one work of art that turned out to be stolen was given back to its legitimate owner), it is the money that was used in the transactions that ‘smells of the mafia’ as prosecutors tend to say in Italy. ‘The State, and in this case the Province, which organized the show,’ Lamberti-Castronuovo tells me, ‘opposes purchases made with illicit gains’. According to the recently appointed culture minister Massimo Bray, the goal is to create a more just society, where citizens can behave responsibly to their country because they feel they have a vested stake in it.

Since Reggio Calabria has no contemporary art museum, the exhibition also became the occasion for a long-awaited – and again, symbolic – event: the collection is showcased in a selected area of the National Archaeological Museum, which has been closed for renovation since 2009. Its most famous works, the Riace Bronzes from 460–450 BC, have been unceremoniously placed on their backs inside city hall during the interim. They are scheduled to return in January, and by April the whole museum is expected to be up and running.

After the show closes on 30 November, Lamberti-Castronuovo plans to move it to a four-storey building that will eventually serve as a cultural centre. Quite apart from its intrinsic value, ‘Arte Torna Arte’ could ultimately be the start of a new period of art in a region more commonly associated with organized crime; one in which there’s an openly expressed and pursued political will to make culture and education a long-term priority and employ them as powerful means to help strengthen the social fabric and stand up to corruption.

Luisa Grigoletto is a writer based in Rome.