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Stolen 15th century Italian manuscript returned

TAMPA — The St. Petersburg couple had no idea the delicate, hand-painted 15th century Italian manuscript hanging in their home was stolen.

But in 1990, professors tasked with doing inventory of a church in Turin, Italy, stole 263 pages from a historic Catholic missal. One of those pages made its way to an art show in Florida, then an antique store, then to the walls of the St. Petersburg couple's house — where it greeted visitors as they entered.

When authorities told the couple their treasure had been smuggled, they handed it over.

On Monday, U.S. officials handed page No. 212 of the Missal of Ludovico da Romagano to the Italian government in a repatriation ceremony in the Tampa offices of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

It's the first stolen piece of international cultural property to be returned from the Tampa Bay area, officials say.

"We are very grateful to our American colleagues and to the American authorities," said Adolpho Barattolo, the consul general for the Italian Consulate in Miami, who was in attendance.

He looked at the framed, one-page manuscript, known as the San Lorenzo, and said, "It's beautiful."

The page's Latin was written in the 1400s by a monk. Its neat calligraphy contains the prayer for the Feast of Saint Lawrence and the saint's story.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Palermo — a Jesuit High graduate who took a break from prosecuting white-collar crime to help send the document home — pointed to the painting of St. Lawrence on the page. The saint is surrounded by pieces of real gold and is holding a metal grate.

That's part of the story, Palermo explained. The Romans asked St. Lawrence to bring them great riches and instead he brought them the poor and needy. For that, he was slowly roasted to death on a grill, Palermo said.

"I've never seen anything like it," Palermo said of the manuscript. "It's certainly spectacular."

Federal authorities won't name the St. Petersburg couple unwittingly caught up in the international smuggling. They didn't commit any crime, officials say, and were not charged. They won't be reimbursed for the document, for which they paid about $5,000.

Its return to Italy has been long in the works.

In April 2011, an Italian officer noticed a 2006 newspaper article about an exhibition at the Florida International Museum called "Ink and Blood." The article mentioned this page from the San Lorenzo, stating it had been promised to the University of South Florida's special collections.

A professor confirmed that page was from the San Lorenzo. The following year, Tampa's Homeland Security Investigations division was called in to help recover the document. With USF's help, investigators found themselves at the St. Petersburg couple's home.

It's a common problem for Italy, which has many historic documents — some of which are kept unguarded in churches, Barattolo said. When historic items are found in other countries, Italy depends on the cooperation of those countries' authorities, he said.

And with a handshake and a smile, the consul general turned to the U.S. officials.

"Grazie," he said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Stolen 15th century Italian manuscript returned 01/27/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 27, 2014 11:20pm]
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