ROME — The Vatican has confirmed a report that it has received a ransom note for two letters written by the renaissance master Michelangelo that were stolen from the archives almost 20 years ago.
It was the first time the Vatican publicly acknowledged that the documents were missing.
News of the request for 100,000 Euros ($108,000), allegedly made by a former Vatican employee, was first reported by the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero. A Vatican spokesman confirmed the story on Sunday, but said no ransom will be paid.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi said that a cardinal in charge of St. Peter’s Basilica, which Michelangelo helped design, had been contacted by a person who offered to return the documents at “a certain price,” though Lombardi didn’t provide a specific amount.
“Naturally, [the cardinal] refused because these are stolen documents,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi also said that the documents went missing in 1997 and that the theft was reported at the time by a nun who was working at the Archives of the Fabric of St. Peter’s, which manages all aspects of the basilica, such as preservation and decoration of the building and control of the pilgrims who visit the church.
The authorities did not disclose the disappearance of the documents to the public.
The Vatican spokesman didn’t offers any details on the documents, other than that there are two. The Italian daily originally referred to only one: A letter signed by Michelangelo, who lived from 1475 to 1564.
If the documents did, in fact, vanish from the Fabric of St. Peter’s rather than the general Vatican archives, however, it would suggest they had something to do with the design or construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Lombardi said the Vatican gendarmerie is currently investigating the ransom request with its Italian counterparts.
Over the years, the Catholic Church commissioned many works by Michelangelo, who began his career doing sculptures such as the Pieta and the David.
By 1508 the artistic community of Rome, including painter Raphael and Donato Bramante, the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, felt threatened by the 33-year-old artist, so they convinced Pope Julius II to have Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, convinced that he’d fail.
Michelangelo at first refused, protesting that he was a sculptor and not a painter, but he eventually relented and finished the masterpiece in four years.
In recent years, the Vatican opened the archives of the Fabric of St. Peter’s to scholars. It has numerous invaluable documents, such as thousands of notes, projects, contracts, and receipts. The documents stolen could be one of the many letters Michelangelo sent to members of the Curia at the time.
Michelangelo worked for the Fabric for 18 years, from when he was commissioned as architect of the Basilica in 1546 until his death. The Fabric is currently headed by Italian Cardinal Angelo Comastri, appointed by Pope St. John Paul II.