Claims of Phony Vatican Art Licensing "scheme" Draw Strong Denials

The Vatican Museums. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

An Italian publishing house involved in immersive art exhibitions has denied an American attorney’s claim that it is wrongly presenting itself as a broker for licensing the use of Vatican art.

Giorgio Armaroli, CEO and editor of Scripta Maneant, rejected the implications of a Dec. 14 article in the Daily Wire, which first reported the misconduct allegations.

“Nothing of what is communicated is true,” he said in a Dec. 14 Italian-language statement. The company, he said, negotiated its rights primarily for an exhibit about Italian Renaissance masters, only a small part of which concerned artwork in the Vatican museums.

“Scripta Maneant has never declared and will never declare that it can transfer any image or image license to anyone, neither for this type of activity or for activities of a purely editorial nature.”

The Daily Wire cited Sarah Rose Speno, a New York attorney, and other sources to suggest that Scripta Maneant wrongly claimed authority to negotiate rights for the images of the art of the Vatican Museums.


Speno, who had been involved on behalf of a U.S. client in negotiations for usage rights for Scripta Maneant’s photographs of artwork, said the publishing house had incorrectly claimed the ability to secure publishing rights through an alleged collaboration with Monsignor Paolo Nicolini, vice director of the Vatican Museums.

“This scheme is nothing less than a premeditated, 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 told the Daily Wire.

She said the publishing company’s actions misrepresented Vatican involvement and siphoned money that could otherwise have been another stream of income from the Vatican.

Scope of licensing rights in dispute

According to the Daily Wire, the company only had the rights to high-resolution photos of Vatican artwork for a limited edition book. Though Scripta Maneant had named Nicolini as its authorizing contact at the Vatican, Nicolini told the Daily Wire he had never given the company authority to broker rights to images of Vatican art.

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The Daily Wire said its review of communications suggests Scripta Maneant sold licensing rights of the “Immersive Rome and the Vatican” exhibition launched in the U.S. in October. The exhibit’s website states it takes place “in collaboration with Scripta Maneant under the grant of copyright Governatorato dello S.C.V. direzione dei musei.” The Italian phrase means “Governorate of Vatican City State, director of museums.”

The exhibition is presented by Lighthouse Immersive, founded in 2019 by Toronto-based producers Corey Ross and Svetlana Dvoretsky.

Dvoretsky told the Daily Wire that Lighthouse works “very carefully to obtain all the appropriate documents when producing our exhibits.” Francesco Iori, head of logistics at Scripta Maneant, said the company has done nothing wrong and all materials have the correct approval and documentation.

Armaroli said the article “reports facts that never happened.” He said Scripta Maneant has the right to sue if the “defamatory accusations” are not immediately withdrawn.

Another company involved in the controversy is Museum Masters International (MMI), which markets and licenses the work of many famous artists, including for art merchandise sold at prominent art museum gift shops.


Marilyn Goldberg, president and founder of Museum Masters International, said that her organization had worked through Speno to secure legal permission to use the photos of Vatican artworks from Scripta Maneant.

The organization waited for months for this permission, which never came. It then ended its working relationship with Speno.

“We do not agree with any language” of the Daily Wire article or have “anything to do with” the actions alleged in it, Goldberg said in a statement.

According to Goldberg, Speno recently advised MMI that she intended to send an international press release about Scripta Maneant, the Vatican Museum, and immersive exhibit operators she alleges are using Vatican images without permission.

When the company learned of this plan it wanted to clarify that it was not involved.

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Conflicting accounts

Speno responded in a Dec. 15 statement to CNA, saying “despite exhaustive due diligence on my part and by others, Scripta Maneant has at no time provided evidence of their documented authority to license images of artworks, including of the Sistine Chapel, owned by the Vatican.”

“As with any jurisdiction or country, there are always ‘bad actors’ to avoid, who pretend they own legal rights for exploitation commercially,” she added. “It is clear to me that Scripta and MMI/Marilyn Goldberg are acting collaboratively and have issued their respective statements in an attempt to exculpate Scripta Maneant from any exposure to the Vatican.”

Depicting the two companies’ statements as a collaboration, Speno added: “It is also clear that MMI/Marilyn Goldberg believes, today, that collaborating with Scripta Maneant, clearly a ‘bad actor,’ is in their best interests.”

Goldberg said that Speno had told MMI that in her work for them she had identified Scripta Maneant as the official party for rights negotiation and demanded MMI not speak directly with the publishing house while she completed negotiation for exclusive worldwide rights for an immersive exhibit.

“It appeared she tried to sell the rights we were guaranteed for our company alone, to someone else who we do not know,” said Goldberg, adding that her company had “never received any definition” of the other party.

“However she only got involved with us and demanded representation in order to secure our sole and exclusive rights and she never did,” Goldberg said.

Speno told CNA: “At no time did I extort nor did I seek to acquire a power of attorney from MMI/Marilyn Goldberg.” She characterized her work for MMI as an attorney “primarily in the capacity of performing due diligence in connection with a search for, and legal confirmation of, certain high-resolution digital images of artworks, paintings, and objects in particular the images collection of The Sistine Chapel — all as owned by the Vatican.”

Speno told the Daily Wire that Scripta Maneant had asked up to $550,000 for the rights, with part of this going to the Vatican through Nicolini. In remarks to the Daily Wire, Nicolini strongly denied handling any funds.

In his statement on behalf of Scripta Maneant, Armoli noted that the agreement concerned up to 40 new exhibitions in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. His numbers diverge somewhat from Speno’s report: He said the proposed agreement was for 550,000 euros, about $584,000.

If 40 exhibitions were produced, Armaroli noted, this cost would average only 13,750 euros per exhibit. He said the Italian publisher had sought an 82,500-euro deposit, to be returned to MMI if Vatican permission was not secured. This deposit was never paid, he said.

Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.