After years of wrangling, an Italian city's prayer is answered

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The Independent Online

The Italian city of Benevento endured some of the most savage bombing of the Second World War as the advancing Allies sought to loosen the Nazi grip on Italy. The devastation wreaked by wave after wave of air raids in 1943 left the city's Romanesque cathedral in ruins and its historic Chapter Library badly damaged.

The Italian city of Benevento endured some of the most savage bombing of the Second World War as the advancing Allies sought to loosen the Nazi grip on Italy. The devastation wreaked by wave after wave of air raids in 1943 left the city's Romanesque cathedral in ruins and its historic Chapter Library badly damaged.

Yesterday, a distant echo of that bitter conflict reverberated through the sedate corridors of the British Library as it was ordered to return a priceless 12th-century manuscript looted during the height of the bombardment in southern Italy.

The library has been involved in a decades-long wrangle with the Metropolitan Chapter of the Archdiocese of Benevento over the ownership of the 275-page liturgical tome.

But a long-awaited and keenly contested finding by the independent Spoliation Advisory Panel found in favour of the former Papal city. The Beneventan Missal will now be transferred to the Chapter Library in its home city on loan until the law is changed to make the arrangement permanent.

Complete with elaborate decorations, motifs and foliage, the Missal - which contains details of the celebration of Mass during a complete liturgical year - is written in Beneventan script known as Benevento VI 29 or Egerton 3511. Of particular interest to scholars are the examples of musical notation contained in the document.

The decision has prompted the Government to announce plans to introduce legislation allowing for other such looted items to be returned to their rightful owners. The British Library is the first national collection to be required to repatriate a treasure stolen during the Nazi era. An appeal six years ago led to the Tate negotiating a £125,000 compensation deal with the descendants of a Jewish banker over a painting by Jan Griffier to keep the work in the UK.

Estelle Morris, the arts minister, welcomed the panel's findings. She said: "I know that the British public would be unhappy to know that a cultural institution in this country contained a work which had been identified as being wrongfully separated from its rightful owners during this period, and nothing had been done to right that wrong."

Jeremy Scott, of law firm Withers which represented Benevento, said it had been a "long and hard struggle". He warned that there were still obstacles to the successful completion of the deal. "While I understand that the Secretary of State accepts the panel's recommendations, Parliament now has to be persuaded to make a small amendment to the British Library Act," he said.

The manuscript was brought back to Britain by Captain Douglas Ash, then a young intelligence officer in the Royal Artillery. His daughter gave evidence to the panel, which heard that he claimed to have purchased it from a secondhand bookseller in Naples while posted to the city in April 1944.

In a letter he confessed to "knowing nothing about it except that it was very old". He wrote: "I am interested in anything old and have a collection of swords and armour, but the book is completely beyond me."

On his return home he approached the then British Museum Library which told him to establish its true provenance. It was eventually auctioned at Sotheby's in 1947 where it was bought by the London dealer Bernard Quaritch for £420. He sold it to the library where it went on display. The Italians only became aware of its whereabouts in the late 1960s - until then Church authorities believed it had been destroyed, either in the bombing or in the turbulence surrounding the fall of Mussolini. A formal claim was eventually made in in 1978 but was dismissed under British law because too much time had elapsed since the loss.

Lynne Brindley, the chief executive of the British Library, said she would begin negotiations over the details of the loan.

"The library will be seeking to ensure that the loan meets rigorous conditions which will guarantee that appropriate levels of stewardship and scholarly access will be maintained," she said.

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