Last week, Italian authorities led a raid on a villa outside the northern Italian town of Brescia, about 50 miles from Milan. The Guardia di Finanza, a police force in the service of Italy’s Economy and Finance Ministry, has confiscated €141 million worth of property from the villa, owned by the Italian architect Lanfranco Cirillo. This is likely concerning a preexisting investigation into Cirillo. Earlier this year, the Italian treasury accused the architect of money laundering and failing to pay around €50 million in taxes between 2013 and 2019. His villa was already raided back in February. The Guardia di Finanza also confiscated Cirillo’s personal 150-piece art collection, including works by Modigliani, Picasso, De Chirico, and Cézanne. The architect also had jewelry, cash, and his private helicopter seized in the two raids.
Cirillo’s defense for failure to pay taxes is based on income earned outside Italy, specifically in Russia. And this opens up questions as to who Cirillo is and how he made his fortune. Cirillo is one of the top architects for Russia’s oligarchic elite. Cirillo first visited Russia in the 1990s, quickly forming relationships with many of the country’s billionaires. He openly stated that he had designed structures for around forty-three Russian oligarchs, on top of working with state-run energy companies like Gazprom and Novatek. Vladimir Putin gave him honorary Russian citizenship in 2014 when he started living primarily in Moscow. However, there are those who believe that Cirillo faked his move to Moscow for the sake of avoiding having to pay taxes in Italy.
Cirillo’s best-known work is an 18,000-square-foot mansion on the Black Sea believed to have been built for Vladimir Putin. Even though the property has a no-fly zone to ensure security, photos and videos taken on the grounds show that the gates are decorated with golden, double-headed eagles, similar to the gates outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg used by the czars. Inside the mansion, videos show a personal casino, video game arcade, and rooms with retractable stripper poles. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has previously referred to the Cirillo mansion as Putin’s “New Versailles”. But everyone else just calls it “Putin’s Palace”. Navalny continues, “This is certainly not just a building. It is a symbol of the 20 years of Putin’s rule”. Estimates claim that the structure was built for approximately $1.3 billion. Several videos with details of the mansion are available online, including one released by Alexy Navalny himself. However, Putin has denied that this mansion is for his use. The property is currently owned by Putin’s ally Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire who previously co-owned a construction company that builds pipelines for Russian oil companies.
If Cirillo is convicted of the charges against him, his art collection and other valuables will revert to the Italian state. Who knows if the paintings will ever be seen again? But it wouldn’t be surprising to see them in a state gallery shortly. It might be a good teaching moment to talk about the role art plays in the realization of power. Or for an exhibition about this moment in our history.