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NEWS | Sunday, 04 November 2007

WE STAND BY OUR STORY

Karl Schembri

Going out of his way to rubbish MaltaToday’s story published last Sunday – The Great Caravaggio Swindle – Heritage Malta Chairman Mario Tabone has skewed comments made to third parties by celebrity art critic Vittorio Sgarbi.

According to Tabone’s version, Sgarbi would have told the state heritage agency in a telephone interview that MaltaToday’s report was “grotesque” and the story was “a storm in a teacup”.

Tabone made his claims in a widely reported press conference Friday, to which MaltaToday was not even invited. He even filed a judicial protest against this newspaper, claiming damages.

Yet a MaltaToday investigation revealed that Sgarbi was not even contacted by Heritage Malta, and that the art critic had not read the report, as he was “in the middle of the African desert”.

Sgarbi was in fact called by notorious Italian impresario Roberto Celli of RomArtificio, who just read him the headline and misled him to believing that he had been quoted out of context as having said the exhibition was a swindle.

RomArtificio is the company subcontracted by Heritage Malta through Renaissance Promotions, headed by Anton Tabone – a relative of Mario Tabone.

In fact, however, Sgarbi was only quoted in the context of the controversial attribution of a number of paintings to Caravaggio.

“It is clear there are only a few Caravaggios there,” Sgarbi said. “All the paintings are of course great and beautiful masterpieces, but they’re the works of other Caravaggio contemporaries.”

And in another interview with MaltaToday last Friday, Sgarbi reiterated his statements, even as Tabone was using his name during his press conference in an attempt to discredit the story.

Sgarbi said: “When they called me, Celli called me, I did nothing else but give a summary… (Therefore) that the exhibition is small, made by two important scholars, has a few paintings, maybe, but this is all I can say… You could ask me, why Marini and Denis Mahon (the two curators) want to call as Caravaggio a painting which for you is a Gentileschi. That is a debate that can be opened. I say it’s a Gentileschi, Marini says it’s a Caravaggio.

“Celli made a whole drama, telling me that my thoughts were changed into a serious criticism of the exhibition. And I told Celli that my thoughts were exactly those and I sent him the text that you have seen. Now the only difference between me and the two curators is that I wouldn’t have written Caravaggio’s name under at least three paintings, but then everyone is free to attribute them to anyone he wants. Since they read out the title over the phone, I said that I did not in any way participate in denigrating the exhibition as a swindle. I simply said what I thought… Now I do not even remember what I said but it was very technical, which is what you have just read to me as you attributed to me, so it’s fine for me.”

Meanwhile in last Wednesday’s edition of MaltaToday Midweek, culture minister Francis Zammit Dimech warned Heritage Malta that it needed to “carry out an objective evaluation” of its contacts after the Caravaggio fiasco.

The exhibition celebrating the 400 years since Caravaggio came to Malta has at least five out of eight paintings that are dismissed by the absolute majority of international art experts as not having been painter by the Italian artist.

Last Sunday, MaltaToday revealed how the exhibition has been aggressively marketed as “an exhibition of original masterpieces” despite the raging controversy about the majority of the paintings exhibited at the National Museum of Archaeology.

The exhibition’s website and catalogue also list other great Caravaggio masterpieces that were never sent for the event, deceiving the public into believing they are on display.

Until yesterday night, the website run by Italian agency RomArtificio was still accessible on www.caravaggiomalta.com although the minister said it was meant to be shut down.

“I prefer to err on the side of caution,” Zammit Dimech said. “I think Heritage Malta eventually needs to carry out its own analysis, with an open mind. It has to carry out an objective evaluation of the contacts it worked with. As to myself, I only accept as Caravaggio those paintings about which the critics are in agreement.”

The minister said he was not aware of how much Celli and Anton Tabone were paid but for their services.

And in a press conference yesterday to which Mario Tabone was also invited, MaltaToday editor Saviour Balzan announced this newspaper will be filing a counter-protest tomorrow and that no mudslinging from Tabone’s side would hold back the newspaper from following this story.


The facts and the fiction

Mario Tabone claims that MaltaToday’s statement that Heritage Malta promised 17 paintings “is false; not only false but knowingly false”.

Fact: One of the latest articles to be written prior to the exhibition (Sunday Circle October 2007) claims the exhibition showcases “12 of the master painter’s works”. This was never refuted by Tabone. Other paintings that are not even present at the exhibition are advertised all over Malta and in Republic Street.

Mario Tabone claims that on the eve of the publication of the article, “Karl Schembri was authoritatively informed that his information culled from a particular website had nothing to do with Heritage Malta. As a journalist, ethically responsible to the public… Mr Schembri should have looked up the web-site of Heritage Malta where the paintings are named and identified, and where it is stated clearly that this is the only official and authorised web-site.”

Fact: The website www.caravaggiomalta.com is set up by RomArtificio (www.romartificio.it), of Roberto Celli, the impresario contracted by Heritage Malta through Renaissance Malta to bring over the Caravaggio paintings to Malta. It lists 17 paintings on exhibition and is still online today. Tabone’s disowning of the website was also reported in the story.

Mario Tabone claims Vittorio Sgarbi rubbished the whole story as “grotesque” and that the journalist “abuses and manipulates Sgarbi’s comments … simply for the sake of being sensational and to damage Heritage Malta’s exhibition. It is right and proper for Mr Schembri and the public also to know what Sgarbi said about the article – he refers to it as “grotesque”; he considers the behaviour of Mr Schembri as “offensive and particularly incorrect”; he stated that “all the paintings are of the highest quality and that four of them are, without doubt, by Caravaggio”; and “… there is no deception, on the contrary this is a rich exhibition that evokes discussion, in the presence of as many masterpieces of Caravaggio that it was possible to bring together in spite of the enormous difficulties that nowadays one has to overcome to secure such important loans.”

Fact: Sgarbi never read the article, still less spoke to Heritage Malta. In a second interview given to Karl Schembri on Friday morning, Sgarbi said:

“I am in the middle of the desert and was called by Celli to tell me that the article was about a great swindle. Those are certainly not my words … When they called me, Celli called me, I did nothing else but give a summary of what I said in the home video and what I told your President… (Therefore) that the exhibition is small, made by two important scholars, has a few paintings, maybe, but this is all I can say... You could ask me, why Marini and Denis Mahon want to call as Caravaggio a painting which for you is a Gentileschi. That is a debate that can be opened. I say it’s a Gentileschi, Marini says it’s a Caravaggio.

“I could have said that had I exhibited the Johnson painting, the painting of which I am most acquainted with, I would have attributed it to Gentileschi instead of Caravaggio.

“Celli made a whole drama, telling me that my thoughts were changed into a serious criticism of the exhibition. And I told Celli that my thoughts were exactly those and I sent him the text that you have seen. Now the only difference between me and the two curators is that I wouldn’t have written Caravaggio’s name under at least three paintings, but then everyone is free to attribute them to anyone he wants. Since they read out the title over the phone, I said that I did not in any way participate in denigrating the exhibition as a swindle. I simply said what I thought…Now I do not even remember what I said but it was very technical, which is what you have just read to me as you attributed to me, so it’s fine for me.”

Mario Tabone claims “MaltaToday may not be very conversant with the mission of Heritage Malta”, adding that the story “studiously avoids any mention” of all the Heritage Malta activities and events related to the Caravaggio exhibition.

Fact: MaltaToday has consistently collaborated with Heritage Malta about its events, exhibitions and other matters of public interest through extensive features, interviews and investigative stories. Mario Tabone himself is quoted in the same story of last Sunday giving a list of other Heritage Malta events related to the Caravaggio exhibition.

Mario Tabone says “the public needs to be aware of the agenda of others”.

Fact: Mario Tabone studiously avoids any reference to his relative, Anton Tabone, of Renaissance Promotions – the man who established contact with Celli (who set up the deceitful Caravaggio website). He also fails to disclose how much Anton Tabone was paid for his services, how much Celli was paid, and whether any of the agreed sum was deducted following failure to get all the requested paintings.

kschembri@mediatoday.com.mt

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Letter from Heritage Malta

Full interview with Vittorio Sgarbi

 

 



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