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    Michelangelo letters up for grabs as Renaissance archive goes up for sale

    Date: 8 Mar 2010 | | Views: 2247

    Self-Portrait by Giorgio Vasari, 1566-1568.
    Photograph: Summerfield Press/Corbis
    Government in Rome fights to keep Giorgio Vasari archive leaving Tuscany after purchase by mystery Russian
    Source: The Guardian, by John Hooper

    An artistic and literary enigma involving a mysterious death and a ˆ150m deal reportedly struck in a Moscow hotel is expected to be resolved this week at an auction in the Tuscan city of Arezzo.

    On sale will be the archive of the man credited with being the father of Western art history: Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists chronicled the lives of the painters and sculptors of the Renaissance. The documents include 17 letters from Vasari's friend, Michelangelo, together with correspondence from five Renaissance popes and the 16th-century ruler of Florence, Cosimo I de' Medici.

    The archive is subject to an Italian government order that it should never be removed from Vasari's house in Arezzo. But last October, Giuseppe Fanfani, the mayor of the city, was told by an official it had been bought by a Russian gas magnate for ˆ150m. Agreement was said to have been reached on 23 September, just days before the death of Count Giovanni Festari, the archive's owner.

    The mayor noted that the government order could be lifted in the future, and that unless the Italian state outbid the tycoon within six months, ownership of an irreplaceable fragment of Italy's history would be lost abroad. The announcement of the sale prompted an outcry from scholars and questions from art experts who said the archive was worth, at most, ˆ10m.

    There was yet more confusion when a lawyer claiming to represent the unidentified buyer announced that his client too had died – in a car crash. But the date he gave for the accident was 14 days before the deal was said to have been struck at the Hotel Metropolitan in Moscow.

    Then, last November, government debt collectors claimed the archive to meet a bill for taxes allegedly unpaid by the noble family that has owned it for generations. The auction is to raise the money that the treasury says it is owed.

    The starting bids will be a modest ˆ2.6m. Last week, Sandro Bondi, the heritage minister in Silvio Berlusconi's government, said his department would be sending a representative with instructions to take an active part in the auction.

    Born in Arezzo in 1511, Vasari was an artist and architect of distinction. Among his works is the elevated passageway that he built for Cosimo I which runs for a kilometre through Florence and across the river Arno.

    The reported sale of the archive to Russia comes at a particularly embarrassing moment because Arezzo is preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the great chronicler's birth in July next year.

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