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The Last Tombarolo

The krater and its delegation arrived the next day at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport at around 11:20 A.M. Led by the Carabinieri art squad, employees of an Italian shipping company loaded the vase into a truck equipped with satellite tracking, and Carabinieri cars escorted the truck to the art squad’s headquarters in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. By coincidence, the building—a former monastery where St. Francis of Assisi stayed when he first came to Rome—was crawling with journalists. Francesco Rutelli, the culture minister, was there, too. They were gathered for the art squad’s annual presentation of its cases solved, tombaroli busted, churches robbed, and clandestine digs discovered. Many of the reporters, knowing the Sarpedon krater had been taken off view at the Met a few days earlier, had come hoping to see a homecoming.

Where was the Euphronios krater now, a reporter from the Associated Press, Marta Falcone, asked. “It’s traveling,” Rutelli said, laughing. “It’s in arrivo.” It’s arriving. The journalists couldn’t know this, but it had already arrived, and they were the ones who were blocking it from reaching its destination.

Outside on Via Anicia, the Carabinieri had directed the white truck to park on the street along the wall that circles the police compound. There, near the front gate, they waited. Once everyone left the news conference, they could finally drive the krater onto the grounds. It had gone from in arrivo to arrived.

Pulling up near the door to the building, the shippers slipped the inner blue box out of its crate and placed it on a mechanical lift at the back of the truck. After lowering it to the ground, they placed it on wheels and pushed it inside. Some of the usual suspects gathered around to see the prize they had worked so hard for over so many years. Anna Maria Moretti Sgubini, on whose father’s watch the krater had been stolen, stood alongside Maurizio Fiorilli, who had negotiated the deal, and Marshal Salvatore Morando, the Carabinieri officer who discovered the Hecht manuscript that became the key evidence to win the krater’s return. Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor who had won Giacomo Medici’s conviction for smuggling the krater and was now prosecuting Robert Hecht for the same alleged crime, also joined the group. Danny Berger, the bow-tied Met employee and Culture Ministry consultant who greased the way for Italy’s accords, was also there.

Before they could have their moment of satisfaction, several different people had to perform arcane alchemy on the box.

A representative of the Foreign Ministry had come down from the north of the city to remove the seal to this “diplomatic pouch.” With that, the contents were technically inside Italy. This immediately raised a legal issue for which the Carabinieri were prepared. The krater, once out of the pouch, was stolen property that fell under their jurisdiction. As far back as 1972 the Carabinieri and various state prosecutors had investigated the krater and tried to bring to justice those involved in its excavation and smuggling. So there in the corridor—after thirty-six years—the Carabinieri were able to seize the Euphronios krater.

And then, as quickly as they had taken it, the Carabinieri un-seized the vase and turned it over to the Culture Ministry in a flash of pomp and paperwork.

That was it. It was time for Sarpedon to get his beauty sleep. After spending his first night back in Italy in the monastery-turned-police-station, the following day, Friday, January 18, he would have to meet his adoring public.

The Culture Ministry called the hastily organized debut for 1:00 P.M. at the Italian attorney general’s office on Via dei Portoghesi. Not that Giacomo Medici would have gone anywhere near the event, but that morning he was stuck at home in Santa Marinella with the flu and couldn’t even manage to eat lunch.

I headed to the krater presentation. One by one, the players in the saga arrived beneath a sunny, blue sky with just a few wisps of white clouds. Marshal Morando was among the first to enter and helped to set up the event. At one point before the doors opened to guests, the policeman found himself alone for the first time with the krater. He couldn’t resist; Morando opened his bare hand and placed it flush across the image of Sarpedon’s bleeding body. He felt a shiver run through his body. Then he quickly pulled away.

Once the room was prepared, General Giovanni Nistri, the current Carabinieri art squad commander, pulled up in a dark Alfa Romeo sedan at 12:25 P.M., followed eight minutes later by Ferri, who hopped out of a modest government car, sporting a blue police light. Inside they were joined by about a hundred others—including police, archaeologists, journalists, and family members of the men and women who had won back the treasure—in the grand, frescoed Sala Vanvitelli, a towering room bathed in sunlight.

The room was arranged with tall-backed wooden chairs in a V formation. To the left of the front row, the Culture Ministry press office had set up a section for television and still cameras. To the right, on a wooden table covered with a red cloth was an object with a circular top, hidden by a white sheet. Two Carabinieri stood guard next to the object, which was further protected by a braided red rope, suspended by two brass poles, each topped with a decorative brass ball.

Along the room’s back wall, at a long table, were the seats for Rocco Buttiglione, the former culture minister who had led the agreement with the Met; the current minister, Rutelli; and the attorney general, Oscar Fiumara, who was the host of the event. That role had fallen to him by default through the protocol of needing neutral ground in which the former and current ministers could take credit as equals.

The invited guests filed in, kissing on cheeks and shaking hands, as 1:00 P.M. approached. As the ceremony began, some of the honored guests took assigned seats. In the front row left of the aisle, opposite the krater, sat Fiorilli at the far end, with Ferri, Giuseppe Proietti, and Giovanni Nistri, the new art squad commander, filling in the spots toward the middle. The other half of the front row included the American embassy’s cultural attaché and Franco Bile, the seventy-eight-year-old president of the Constitutional Court, which just three days earlier had heard Medici’s request that the court dismiss the charges against him—including his conviction for smuggling the very krater in front of them.

The krater, of course, was under the white sheet. Before anyone could see it, the culture minister delivered opening remarks, first thanking Fiorilli, and then the man who had brought the criminal charges. “Next to him there is Dr. Ferri, who has pulled off a function truly decisive with his actions,” Rutelli said, as the crowd applauded Ferri. After adding thanks to Proietti the archaeologist and the leaders of the Carabinieri art squad, he introduced his predecessor, Buttiglione, who had been in charge when the Met agreed to hand back the Sarpedon krater.

Buttiglione took the microphone. “I have to first thank your exquisite courtesy to allow me to give a word,” he said, lisping as usual, to the sitting culture minister, and then turning to the audience.

“We’re reflecting on a success story. The Italian state has won,” he declared—to absolutely no applause. Phillippe de Montebello had predicted the Italians would take home the krater as a nationalist trophy, but he had been wrong. The Italians exhibited some pride, for sure, but it wasn’t about winning. It was, in a mundane way, simply about the Italian government’s ability, despite its revolving door of leadership, to actually get something done.

“The Chinese vice minister of culture, when I arrived in China, gave me his congratulations, saying to me, ‘You’ve won the war with the United States,’” Buttiglione continued, drawing a laugh from the room. “It was a war, but not against the United States. Most of all it was a war within our public administration to insure effective coordination.”

When Buttiglione finished, Rutelli took the microphone: “Now let us uncover what is hidden here, the Euphronios krater.” There was an excited rumble in the crowd as guests readied their cameras and craned their necks. “To introduce it, I will read how this celebrated episode of the Trojan War came to be explained in the words, of perhaps unsurpassed beauty, that come to us from Homer.”

He cleared his throat and began. “Father Zeus…” A white-coated archaeologist from the Culture Ministry, and a deliveryman in blue jeans who had brought the krater from the airport, stood on either side of the squat table and lifted the sheet. Applause erupted, drowning out the minister’s recital, as camera flashes illuminated the scene of Sleep and Death lifting the body of Sarpedon. All but those in the first rows rose to their feet, greeting the krater with a round of applause. The culture minister paused before starting his Homeric ode once again:

Father Zeus’s strong desires Apollo did not disobey.

From the slopes of Mount Ida he dove to the bloody field

and lifting Prince Sarpedon clear of the weapons,

bore him far from the fighting, off and away,

and bathed him well in a river’s running tides

and anointed him with deathless oils…

dressed his body in deathless, ambrosial robes

then sent him on his way with the wind-swift escorts,

twin brothers Sleep and Death, who with all god speed

set him down in Lycia’s broad green land…

“…and that, now, we have had the occasion to see,” Rutelli concluded. “Grazie a tutti voi.” Thank you all, he said, as the room again burst into cheers for the return of Prince Sarpedon’s krater to the land where it had been buried more than two millennia before.

The current and former culture ministers stepped down from the dais and circled the krater, bending over slightly as they took in their prize. For a celebratory photo op, they lined up behind the vase with Ferri and Fiorilli, his boss; the attorney general; and the president of the Constitutional Court.

After the ceremony, as the guests rushed to the front of the room to crowd around the krater with their cell phone cameras, I approached Proietti. “What are you thinking right now?”

“It’s a great satisfaction, largely for the spirit of collaboration that took us to this point, a collaboration among scholars,” Proietti said, “and on the part of Dr. Montebello.” It was mostly diplomatic speak and hewed to the theme of the day.

“But for you personally?” I asked.

Si,” Proietti said. He smiled his broad, arched smile, “I began to direct the excavations in Cerveteri in 1972, my first assignment,” he said. “Right when I got this assignment, all the newspapers had photos of this thing. And after thirty-seven years…” Proietti trailed off wistfully.

The krater resonated for Proietti in many ways, being linked to his early career, to his unsuccessful intermediate efforts as a ministry functionary to win its return, and ultimately to his role as Italy’s signatory to the February 2006 agreement with the Met.

A few yards away, the scene around the krater bordered on chaos. After three decades of resting safely behind glass, the vase sat largely unprotected, balanced at waist height on a table covered with red damask cloth. Nothing but a Carabinieri sentry and a velvet rope, suspended by two brass stands, kept the crush of onlookers and television cameras at bay. Some paid their quiet respects, kneeling before the image of Sarpedon’s bleeding corpse.

But the crowd also did its share of jostling, and in the crush, someone toppled one of the brass stands holding the velvet rope. The pole, topped with a brass ball, swung away from the spectators and toward the krater. The hard ball passed within two feet of the front face of the Euphronios masterpiece before crashing to the floor with a clang. One of the minders from the Culture Ministry quickly helped pick up the pole, and the event continued, with the incident barely noticed.

After about half an hour, the room all but emptied out, and the technicians and deliverymen boxed up the krater. Once again, Sarpedon was on the move. They wheeled the blue box out to the street, hoisted it into the white truck, strapped it in, closed the back, and then pulled out onto Rome’s cobblestones. The krater was headed for the studios of RAI 1, the main state-run television channel.

On the 8:00 P.M. national news, Sarpedon had a repeat of his 1972 Today Show interview. The krater sat on the news desk, next to anchorwoman Tiziana Ferrario. Sarpedon had his half hour of fame. For logistical reasons—you just don’t pick up and put down the Euphronios krater on cue—the vase was in place, on the far end of the TG1 anchor desk, for the entire broadcast.

Ferrario began the news by introducing the vase during a tease for a story on its return. The Sarpedon krater, looking itself like an interviewee, glowed orange under the TV lights. Then, at 8:27 P.M., Sarpedon came on screen again with Francesco Rutelli. The ancient hero was ready for his close-up.

“We’re talking about this marvelous archaeological work, the Euphronios vase, which we exceptionally have this evening in the studio,” the anchorwoman said, “a great emotion, I have to say, to have this archaeological artifact that is twenty-five hundred years old, a Greek vase…”

The culture minister interrupted: “Imagine if anyone had said to Euphronios twenty-five hundred years ago that he’d find himself in the TG1 studio. It’s the most beautiful work of someone who is considered one of the best artists of Attica. But more than anything it’s a victory by Italy against the traffickers. Against those…”

“It was dug up clandestinely, in fact, illegally, it was found in Cerveteri, this vase,” the interviewer interjected, as Rutelli picked up on the point.

“It was robbed from our country. We waged a battle, over two governments, and today we brought something back to our country, something which isn’t the sort of bad news from Italy that the rest of the world talks about.”

“When will it be possible for everyone to admire this vase?”

“Starting tomorrow,” the minister said, giving a plug for the Nostoi exhibit at the presidential palace. “Free admission.”

Grazie, grazie for this opportunity to have this marvelous vase here in the studio.”

For the final goodnight and credits, Rutelli was off the set, and the camera pulled back to show both the newswoman and Sarpedon as if they were coanchors. But Sarpedon’s media tour of Rome had to wrap up. After spending the night again at the art squad’s Trastevere headquarters, it was time once again to go under glass.

The next morning, the deliverymen drove the krater up the Quirinale Hill and into the gates of the presidential palace, where curators prepared it for display among the other repatriated goodies in the Nostoi exhibit. The line of visitors in front of the palace snaked down the hill as people waited for the gates to open at 9:00 A.M. When they did, the crowd passed through metal detectors and made its way upstairs to the makeshift gallery, where visitors found the Sarpedon krater in its own, waist-high glass case. Some people, expecting a more prominent, trophylike display, even walked past the krater without noticing and had to return and look for it.

With Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater safely back in Italy, maybe the tomb robbers of Cerveteri would reveal what happened there thirty-six years ago.

All I had to go on was the legal documents from the 1970s that listed the names and addresses of the seven suspected members of the tombarolo gang that had unearthed the vase. The men had escaped indictment when Judge Lion in Civitavecchia ruled in 1978 that there wasn’t enough evidence to bring them to trial. Before that, only one of them, the lookout Armando Cenere, had spoken about the clandestine excavation; and his credibility had been put in doubt because the other six had claimed innocence. Since then none of them had admitted anything or granted any interviews.

I ran all the names through the telephone directory, and not a single one was listed in Cerveteri or anywhere around Rome. For each of their last names, however, a few people were listed, possibly spouses or siblings. Or perhaps descendants. The 1970s legal documents had birth dates, and if still alive, the oldest of the gang was eighty-two years old; the youngest was sixty-four. I feared I might be too late. Medici gave me little hope, saying the tomb robbers had all but died off, some within the past few years.

I mapped out the 1970s addresses of the suspected tombaroli and the addresses of the dozen or so current Cerveteri residents with the same surnames and set out. I rang a doorbell at a house that looked barely inhabited, stepped back, and rang again. Nobody answered. People passing by and sitting on street corners gave me funny looks. It wasn’t exactly a rough neighborhood, but it was clear that unfamiliar faces rarely came knocking. I moved on. I tried an address the court records had given for Cenere, the confessed lookout whose story had been taken as a sour grapes tale. The building didn’t even exist anymore.

Turning to the list of current inhabitants with family names that matched those of the suspected gang members, I headed for the address of a woman named Bartocci. Maybe she was related to Francesco Bartocci, the Roman-born farmer whom investigators placed at the dig. Bartocci had just turned thirty-two when the tomb robbers pulled the Sarpedon krater from the ground. If he were still alive, Bartocci was almost seventy years old.

I saw that her house was one of the nicest houses on the block, set back from the street with its driveway guarded by a mechanical, metal fence. I approached the intercom and saw two buzzers. One bore a woman’s name. The other said “Francesco Bartocci.” My heart jumped. Had I actually found him? Then it sank. Maybe this was his son’s house, a younger namesake. I pushed the button and heard a bell ring inside. An older woman emerged, looking as if she’d just stepped from the kitchen, and pushed a switch by her front door. The gate slid open as she shot me a look of “What do you want?” I explained that I was looking for Francesco Bartocci. I was investigating the origins of the Euphronios krater.

She smiled. I knew I was in the right place. “He’s the last one left from that bunch,” she said.

I’d found the right guy, and this was his wife. Was her husband around? I told her I hoped he could tell his story now that the krater was back in Italy.

Yes, Bartocci’s wife said, they knew the vase had returned, and Francesco had even considered going to see it on display in Rome. But whether he would talk about it was another matter. Right now Francesco was at work in the nearby countryside, she said, and tried to give me directions. Did I know where the playing field was? Was I familiar with the road toward Lake Bracciano?

I was sure I would get lost. “Does he have a mobile phone?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said holding up her cell phone, “but I have the number, not you.” This wasn’t going to be easy.

“Is he coming home for lunch?” I asked. But of course, she said.

I suggested I should just come back then. She did not object and said her husband would be back by 1:00 P.M. I thanked her and left to continue checking out my list of addresses.

When I returned, I found Francesco Bartocci at home. He had parked his truck—loaded with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce he had just harvested—in the driveway and was changing from muddy work shoes into a clean pair of Velcro-topped sneakers for use in the house. Bartocci had a bushy head of white hair and was wearing a plaid shirt, blue jeans, and chrome-rimmed glasses. He had trouble walking, but he seemed strong, particularly in his big, calloused hands. Mostly he seemed shy.

I gave him my pitch about now being the time to finally tell his story. He didn’t buy it. What would he know about the Euphronios krater?, he asked, clearly not comfortable with the idea that I knew the truth. This was old news, he said, what could he add? The krater was back, forget about it, he said.

But people would surely be interested, I pleaded.

Bartocci didn’t say anything. He was itching to get to his lunch and I was keeping him in the driveway. “Can you just sit down with me for a moment?” I asked, gesturing to a chair at the bottom of his front stoop. He considered it. I made another offer “If you want to have your lunch, I can talk to you while you eat,” I said, adding that I had already eaten.

Bartocci was running out of options, and I had brought a bag of fresh, local sugar cookies, not wanting to show up at lunchtime empty-handed, and said I would munch on them for my dessert.

“Do you have something you want to record this with?” he asked. It turned out he was confused about what I wanted from him. “I have this pen,” I explained. “And I’ll write down what you say.”

Bartocci motioned me inside. At the back of the house, his wife had set a long kitchen table with place settings of knives, forks, glasses, and napkins. A couple bottles of mineral water sat in the middle of the table. Pasta was cooking on the stove. Bartocci took the head of the table, and I sat next to him. As other family members and friends took their places and plates of food arrived, Bartocci began to tell the story of Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater.

“Some friends and I went to dig,” he said, and the rest spilled forth: how they excavated all winter; how they probed the earth to find the front of the tomb complex; how they found a stone lion early in the dig; how he wore a military overcoat against the harsh cold; how he stood watch at the top of the ridge; how he saw the Euphronios krater emerge from the ground in two plastic bags. He wanted to illustrate the workings of the illicit operation so he took out a pad of paper and drew how they had dug a hole more than fifteen feet deep, and then tunneled sideways along the face of the stone mortuary monument. Along the tunnel he drew five openings that represented the tombs that they had pillaged in order to come up with a masterpiece. On a map I had brought, he pinpointed the location of the tombs.

I showed him a postcard of the krater that I had bought at the Nostoi exhibit in Rome. The picture depicted the front of the vase, with the death of Sarpedon—the scene that decades earlier Armando Cenere had said he remembered as “a man who was bleeding.” At the time, defenders of the Met’s purchase said the New York Times reporters had led Cenere on by showing him photos of the krater’s Sarpedon side. But now, at this lunch table, Bartocci the sixty-nine-year-old farmer made an offhand comment that provided a missing corroboration. Standing above the tomb just before Christmas 1971, he hadn’t seen the Sarpedon side that I was showing him now, but instead the back side. In particular, he remembered a warrior with a sword.

Bartocci’s memory appeared to be sharp, for the other side of the krater did depict warriors, one of whom carried a sword as he described. (Marshal Morando of the art squad later told me he believes the fragment that Bartocci described to me was probably from Shelby White’s fragmentary krater, which would place both works by Euphronios at the same illicit dig.) Bartocci added that he recalled from the talk among his fellow excavators that the vase had a total of eleven red figures. Again he had correctly described the pot the Met bought, not just about the terminology of “red-figure” but indeed there are exactly eleven figures on the krater, including Sarpedon, Sleep, Death, and the others.

As we talked, a neatly dressed blind woman with a perfect hairdo and a pressed, orange tennis shirt took her place at the table. When someone alerted her to my presence—and my mission—she interrupted.

“I touched the Euphronios krater,” she said.

This was Pina Bartocci, who had managed to get her hands on the masterpiece as a twenty-two-year-old hanger-on to the tombaroli scene and was the sister-in-law of Adriano Presciutti, one of the other suspected diggers named in the 1970s legal documents. The whole story and all its characters came together. All the men whom the prosecutors had suspected of looting the krater? Yes, they had done it, Francesco Bartocci said as he tucked into some marinated sardines. And yes, Giacomo Medici—or “Giacomino,” as the older folks at lunch referred to him—had acquired it from them. “Giacomo Medici bought it and then he trafficked it to America to the Metropolitan,” Bartocci said.

His blind, yet ever observant, sister, Pina, said it was unfortunate what had happened to Medici’s brother, Roberto. I said it wasn’t clear what had happened, and she just laughed. Of course he had been killed, Pina said. At this one table in Cerveteri, none of the great mysteries surrounding the Euphronios krater were mysterious at all.

Then I took out photos of the krater’s smaller twin, the chalice depicting Sarpedon. Francesco Bartocci took a close look. At first he quickly said he had never seen the cup, or any like it. Then, a few minutes later when I asked if he was sure, Bartocci said he had seen it—but then quickly added that he meant he had seen cups like it. They had pulled out lots of other vases from the tombs of Greppe Sant’Angelo, and he couldn’t remember the specifics of any of them except the famous krater. They had known from the moment they discovered the krater that it was an exceptional piece.

“Signed by Euphronios as its painter,” Pina chimed in again. “We knew it was of great value.”

When the Met paid $1 million for the krater in 1972, Francesco Bartocci had already been married for eight years. He had three children to support. His share had been just 5 million lire, barely $8,500. “They gave me the crumbs,” he said.

To further check out the story, I wanted to see if Bartocci’s dig spot matched the one I had been researching, the site that Medici had been part owner of and that the Culture Ministry’s Giuseppe Proietti had excavated at the start of his career. As lunch finished, I asked Bartocci if he could take me to the tomb. At first he indicated that maybe his son could take me, but Bartocci’s wife sensed my excitement and urged her husband to do it himself. We walked out to the street and got into his blue Renault utility vehicle, which was covered inside with a layer of soil.

It was just a few blocks to Via Sant’Antonio, which we followed until it turned into a dirt road carved into the side of the stone shelf that runs through Cerveteri. Just past the Sant’Angelo shrine, he pulled up to the gate of the very same tomb complex that Medici had owned. The sign outside the iron fence announced that we were at Greppe Sant’Angelo, and it bore a reproduction of the schematic drawings of the tomb complex Proietti had published decades before. It all matched up. The stories had checked out.

On the way back to his house, I asked Bartocci how big a deal, in the scope of his long life, finding the Euphronios krater had been.

“It was very important,” he said. “And it doesn’t bother me that we didn’t make a lot of money.

“We made a great discovery.”

The krater had a twin, of course, a dainty chalice, shattered to bits.

As it turns out, the damage done by the Swiss police inspector wasn’t fatal. The chalice’s custodian, Daniela Rizzo at the Villa Giulia museum, examined the hundred or so fragments of the Sarpedon cup. She found that most of the breaks were along the old fissures that had already been glued. There was no crack crossing Sarpedon’s face.

“I don’t think it will be a big problem to fix this kylix,” Rizzo said when I asked for a prognosis. A few missing chips of paint and grains of clay will never rejoin the cup, but it will mostly be the same.

Any repairs will have to wait until the Italian courts resolve the legal status of the kylix. In all likelihood the chalice will become property of the Republic of Italy, won either through a final guilty verdict or a plea bargain with Medici.

Then the two matching vases will be together again, as Sarpedon and Euphronios continue their epic travels.

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