TAMPA, Fla. – A 15th-century Italian manuscript illustrated with gold leaf that was stolen from Italy 25 years ago will be returned to that country after it was found in Florida.
The manuscript is a framed, single page taken from a prayer book in Turin, Italy. The calligraphic script is in Latin, and there's a small, colorful portrait of Saint Lawrence, offset with gold highlights. Officials said the text and portrait were done by hand by what was likely a monk in the Middle Ages.
"It is with great joy that I receive this on behalf of my government," Adolfo Barattolo, the Italian consul general, said at a news conference Monday in Tampa with officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney's office.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Palermo, who worked on the case, said the Catholic text describes the plight of Saint Lawrence, who was roasted slowly roasted to death on a grill by the Romans after he didn't bring them riches.
Officials said the page's journey from Italy to Florida began in 1990, when a husband-and-wife team of professors stole several items from the Archdiocese in Turin and sold them to a bookseller.
Italian cultural authorities recovered some of the stolen items in London, but for decades, other items disappeared.
In 2011, an Italian officer saw a 2006 newspaper article about a Bible exhibit at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg; the article mentioned an illuminated manuscript — the term for a text that is embellished with a drawing or decoration, usually with gold leaf — from Italy.
The officer contacted experts, who flew to Florida to confirm it was part of the stolen cache.
Shane Folden, the deputy special agent in charge of the Tampa office of the Department of Homeland Security, said a St. Petersburg couple had bought the manuscript from a bookseller in Islamorada, Fla.; the bookseller had bought it at an auction in England.
Neither the couple nor the bookseller were charged; the couple voluntarily handed the manuscript over to authorities in 2011.
The manuscript will now be sent back to Turin, Barattolo said.
Folden said that a repatriation of this kind of cultural artifact is uncommon in the Tampa area but more common in larger cities.
According to Homeland Security statistics, more than 7,150 artifacts have been returned to 27 countries since 2007.
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