December 31, 2010

Benevento Missal finaly returns home to Italy because of Nazi loot restitution laws

Posted at 12:07 pm in Similar cases

More coverage of the return of a manuscript from the British Library to Benevento in Italy. The return was made possible by new laws allowing the return of items looted during the Nazi era.

The Art Newspaper

Benevento Missal returns home
Sixty-five years after the end of the second world war, the precious manuscript is the first item of Nazi-era loot to be returned by a UK national museum
By Martin Bailey | Web only
Published online 24 Nov 10 (News)

BENEVENTO, ITALY. Laureato Maio, the 84-year-old cathedral librarian, lifted the early 12th-century missal from its box, and brought it to his lips. He closed his eyes and kissed the bound codex for a full minute, deep in thought. On 11 November, 65 years after the end of the World War II, the precious manuscript from Benevento (near Naples) became the first item of Nazi-era loot to be returned by a UK national museum, in this case the British Library.

Maio is the 49th librarian at Benevento Cathedral since records began, in the year 998. He remembers the chapter library in the late 1930s, in his early teens, and as a young seminary student he witnessed the terrible destruction wrought on his city by allied bombing in 1943. The cathedral was almost totally destroyed, but its manuscripts were saved. However, soon afterwards one of the early codices disappeared: a missal written in Benevento’s unique script soon after 1100.

In 1944 the missal was bought from a book dealer in Naples by a British army officer, who sold it three years later at Sotheby’s, where it was acquired by the British Library (see related article). Following a ten-year legal claim, the manuscript was finally restituted. On 9 November it was formally handed over to Jeremy Scott, the UK lawyer from Withers who was acting for the cathedral chapter. Working pro bono, he had assembled the evidence and successfully argued the case. Scott also acted as a courier, flying to Naples with the extremely valuable manuscript as hand luggage.

The handover ceremony took place two days later at an international academic symposium on medieval Latin literature. The venue was the city’s Teatro Comunale, which had remained a bombed ruin until 1997, when it was eventually reconstructed. In Benevento, the war still seems ever-present. By coincidence Scott was speaking when the clock struck 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month—the moment when Britons and Americans remember their war dead.

Talking to The Art Newspaper just after the restitution, the archbishop said that the return of the missal was like “a son coming back to join his family”. With real emotion, he thanked the British Library for having looked after the manuscript so carefully since 1947.

Following the meeting, I walked to the chapter library, arriving just at the same moment as Mario Iadanza, head of the cathedral’s culture office. He was clutching the heavy carrying case provided by the British Library for the missal and he was struggling to find his keys.

Iadanza obviously did not want to put the case on the damp paving stones, so I instinctively offered to help, reaching out to take the case. Iadanza unlocked the door. And so it was that I carried the missal over the threshold into the library for the last few yards of its 1,000-mile journey from London.

Ten years ago, when I visited Benevento to research the loss of the missal, Maio told me that he had given up all hope of ever seeing it again. There had been a legal claim against the British Library in 1978, five years before he took over as librarian, which had been rejected. On my 2000 visit, I explained that the British government had recently introduced a new policy on artworks spoliated during the Nazi era and a panel had been set up to deal with claims.

Maio expressed disbelief that there had been any real change, but the then archbishop, Serafino Sprovieri, persevered and submitted a claim to the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel through Scott. When the recommendation eventually went in Benevento’s favour, Sprovieri told us that “England is great in the esteem to which it upholds the law, contrary to the popular proverb ‘Perfidious Albion’…”, a favourite expression of Mussolini.

Last month, after lovingly greeting the bound volume, Maio opened it, showing me a few of the most beautiful illuminated initials. He then found some Beneventan musical notation, which is among the earliest in Europe (along with those for Gregorian chants). Maio quietly began to chant from the missal.

When the manuscript was eventually being put away, I asked whether its former inventory number 29 would be inscribed on the spine of the rebound manuscript, to match the style of the other forty early codices in the cathedral’s collection. “Definitely,” Iadanza said, immediately adding “and also 3511”—which was the British Library’s inventory number. This was the cathedral’s gracious way of acknowledging that although legal ownership of the manuscript has returned to Benevento, it had spent 63 of its 900-year-old history in London, where it was well cared for.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , , , ,

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away