Firm Tied to Vatican Museums Accused of ‘High-Tech Heist’

ROME—A publishing firm that specializes in high-dollar glossy coffee table books featuring the Vatican’s Renaissance art has been accused of brokering deals without permission from the Holy See. The company Scripta Maneant, Latin for “written words remain,” has been accused of selling rights to the artwork in “six-figure deals” without Vatican approval, according to the conservative media outlet Daily Wire.

The Daily Beast confirmed the allegation with Sarah Rose Speno, an attorney in New York who says she tried to license images of the Sistine Chapel and other Vatican masterpieces for a client who saw them in a book published by Scripta Maneant.

When she reached the company for licensing rights, they assured her they could license the images, but asked her for more than $82,000 to be wired to the firm’s Italian bank account. When Speno asked for proof the Vatican approved of the licensing, she says the company said “if and only if” she wired the funds they would later provide the proof. “This scheme is nothing less than a per-meditated, high tech heist of world-class treasured art from the Vatican Museums under the disguise of bogus licenses, as if sanctioned by the Vatican,” Speno said.

The news outlet then reached out to Monsignor Paolo Nicolini, the vice president of the Vatican Museums, who said he had sold Scripta Maneant rights to the images in the coffee table book—which sells for a whopping $22,000 a copy—back in 2015 for one-time non-world use. Scripta Maneant, however, claimed that they have every right to license images from the book, and, in fact, that they work directly with Nicolini on a case-by-case basis for future rights, which the prelate denied.

But in early November, when the Daily Wire first reached out to the Vatican for confirmation of Nicolini’s denial, Pope Francis called the monsignor in for a private audience, according to the pope’s public diary of meetings. The contents of these private audiences are rarely made public, and information about the pontiff’s meeting with Nicolini remains sealed.

When reached for comment, Scripta Maneant issued a statement signed by the CEO Giorgio Armaroli denying that his company has the ability to grant rights for any of the Vatican art, despite having tried to charge Speno more than $80,000 for such rights. “Scripta Maneant has never declared and will never declare that it can transfer any image or any image license to anyone, neither for this type of activity nor for purely editorial activities,” Armaroli says in the statement. They would not confirm or deny having charged Speno the vast sum.

But in 2022, Scripta Maneant did license the rights of several images that appeared in the expensive coffee table took to a company called Lighthouse Immersive, which produced an interactive virtual reality experience called Immersive Vatican that advertises the nearly $80 ticket as “in collaboration with the Vatican.” The exhibition ended on Nov. 7, the day the pope met Nicolini.

The Vatican did not respond to a request for clarification and Nicolini’s office told The Daily Beast that the monsignor could not speak on the matter. But Nicolini did tell the Daily Wire that he had never given Lighthouse Immersive or Scripta Maneant any rights to use images, which include the Sistine Chapel, which visitors to to the sacred space are prohibited from photographing.

While original artwork inside the Vatican may be in the public domain, photographs of the artwork are copyrighted by the Vatican as “unique work” and, as such, illegal to produce without permission. If Nicolini is in cahoots with Scripta Maneant that could see to his dismissal from the Vatican Museum hierarchy. If Scripta Maneant is, in fact, licensing images they do not have permission to do, they could owe the Vatican—a staunch collector of all debts—thousands in lost rights. The Vatican does regularly sell rights to its 70,000 pieces of art, but not through third parties.

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