Italians veto British scheme to reunite fragmented masterpiece

Click to follow

Plans by the National Gallery to reassemble what is left of one of the greatest works of art of the early Renaissance were in pieces last night after the Italian government said it was withholding one of the key fragments.

The 11 surviving panels of the Pisa altarpiece by Masaccio were due to be reunited later this month at the London gallery as the focus of an exhibition and conference of art historians. The gallery itself holds one of the fragile pieces, and it was hoped that the remaining 10 would be flown in from museums in Berlin, Los Angeles, Naples and Pisa.

But now, the plan appears to have collapsed at the last minute after Italy's under-secretary for cultural assets, Vittorio Sgarbi, announced he was blocking the removal of its central panel, The Crucifixion, from the Capodimonte museum in Naples because of fears that it could be damaged in transit.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he said: "Italy cannot always be ready to give all and receive nothing."

One of those who has been campaigning against the exercise, Professor James Beck, president of ArtWatch International, said yesterday: "The National Gallery says that it has created a special environment to house the fragments, but a change of environment can be harmful for objects as old as these, so that doesn't mean it's totally safe. The other main danger is the bumping around. They may be protected pretty well in aeroplanes, but they also have to be shipped by land, and that's always bad."

He added: "When I heard about this a few weeks ago, I wrote to all of the museums that were possible lenders and said that I thought it was a mistake, and I also sent a copy of my letter to the Italian under-minister."

Completed in 1426, the altarpiece, an 8ft high polyptych, was originally painted for St Maria del Carmine, a Carmelite church in Pisa. It was last recorded intact in 1568, and several pieces are still missing.

A National Gallery spokeswoman said: "We have had no approach from the Italian Ministry of Culture to tell us that any of these pictures are not coming. As far as we are concerned, they will be coming over as planned."