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Las Vegas man wants family ties to Italian artifact recognized

A major controversy in the art world is pitting Italian villagers and a New Jersey mayor against the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Las Vegan Tom Vannozzi.

My money’s on Tom and the Met.

The Met owns and has restored an Etruscan chariot, considered one of the great works of its entire collection. The Las Vegas connection: Tom Vannozzi’s great-great-grandfather discovered the 2,600-year old chariot buried in a tomb on his farm in Monteleone Di Spoleto in 1897.

There are many stories about exactly what the farmer received for the chariot. Tom said Isidoro Vannozzi traded the chariot for tiles to build a roof on his new home, and also might have received a few cows and sheep to sweeten the deal. The chariot was purchased by the Met in 1903 and restored.

Now this isn’t just any old chariot from the “Ben-Hur” movie. The Etruscan chariot, also known as the Monteleone chariot and even the Golden Chariot (although it’s bronze), is considered one of the best-preserved Etruscan artifacts in the world. The Met made the chariot the centerpiece of a new gallery for Etruscan art.

Naturally, Italy wants it back.

The 600 or so villagers of Monteleone have gained support from Mayor Glenn Gilmore of Hamilton, N.J., whose family is from the area. Many from Monteleone settled in New Jersey. Gilmore, after visiting the old country, threw his support behind returning the chariot to Italy.

Tom believes the Vannozzi chariot (as he would like to see it called) should stay at the Met.

“It’s a huge controversy,” he said, pointing to stories in The New York Times and on CNN about the chariot, which has been on display since April 20 as part of the Met’s $255 million new Greek and Roman galleries.

Tom remembered seeing the chariot back in the 1970s and 1980s when he would visit the Met, but didn’t realize the family connection at the time. After his father, also named Isidoro Vannozzi, died in 1996, Tom visited Monteleone and at the local museum saw a replica of the chariot and recognized it from the Met. That’s when he learned his great-great-grandfather had discovered the world-famous chariot, which is beautifully decorated with details from the life of Achilles.

Tom attended a private showing at the Met on April 17. The 56-year-old Emmy-winning television cameraman said seeing the chariot for the first time in decades (It wasn’t on view since the 1990s because of a second restoration and the new galleries project.) was exciting and stirring. In June, he’s taking his 83-year-old mother to New York to see it.

“She’s out of her mind with excitement,” he said.

Tom’s parents, Mary and Isidoro Vannozzi, moved to Las Vegas in the 1950s. His dad opened a deli on Fremont Street in the early 1960s and was a journeyman carpenter who worked on the Guardian Angel Shrine, the Dunes high-rise, the Golden Nugget reconstruction, the Four Queens and the Nevada Test Site.

To honor his father as well as his great-great-grandfather, Tom wants the name Isidoro Vannozzi to have a place in the chariot’s history. Instead of articles that say the chariot was discovered by “a farmer” he wants the Vannozzi name to get some recognition. “It’s important for a new generation to know we’re tied to such an important piece.”

Vannozzi has become impassioned about keeping the chariot at the Met because he doesn’t believe the Monteleone museum has the resources to preserve it, and he’s not sure if it goes to a museum in Rome that it would be a priority.

Met officials say they’ve owned the chariot since 1903 and it’s too late for claims it should be returned to Italy. They compare it to Italy asking for the return of the “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre.

Pictures of the chariot can be seen on Vannozzi’s web site at www.monteleonechariotfund.org or at the museum’s web site www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/04/eust/ho_03.23.1.htm

For the Met, the chariot is a valued treasure. For Tom, it’s personal. Having a family link to the Etruscan chariot creates a special feeling, a sense of belonging to something bigger, something lasting and beautiful.

For a history buff such as Tom Vannozzi, that’s as good as it gets.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0275.

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