Lanfranco Cirillo, the designer of a mysterious 18,000 sq. m mansion on the Black Sea that many believe was built for the Russian President Vladimir Putin, is being investigated by the Italian authorities for allegedly failing to pay a €50m tax bill. Officials raided the 63-year-old Italian architect’s own sizeable villa in Roncadelle near Brescia in February, where they discovered and confiscated a treasure trove of works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Giorgio de Chirico and Lucio Fontana.
Around 100 agents of the Guardia di Finanza law enforcement agency searched the villa that is owned by Cirillo’s wife as part of an ongoing investigation for alleged money laundering and tax evasion from 2013 to 2019, Giornale di Brescia reports. Officers confiscated a dozen “highly valuable” paintings after it transpired that they had not been registered with the authorities as required by Italian law. Cirillo’s private helicopter was also seized.
Cultural heritage protection charge
Erica Battaglia, the Brescia public prosecutor who is leading the trial, did not immediately respond to The Art Newspaper’s request for a list of the confiscated works. It is currently unclear whether a statue of a black cat by Fernando Botero, which was photographed in Cirillo’s garden when he discussed the work in a La Repubblica interview published last year, has been seized. The architect now faces a third charge of failing to observe Italy’s cultural heritage protection code, Giornale di Brescia reports. Chantal Frigerio, a lawyer representing Cirillo, said that the investigation is in its “preliminary stages” and declined to comment further; no trial date has been set with the investigation pending.
The case has repositioned the spotlight on “Putin’s Palace”, which commentators believe Stroygazkomplekt, Cirillo’s former company, modelled on 18th-century Italianate estates including the Winter and Peterhof palaces in St Petersburg. Architectural plans obtained by the activist Alexei Navalny’s Anti Corruption Foundation (FBK) indicate that the sprawling $1bn complex contains a theatre, casino, underground ice-hockey rink, three helipads and a 74-hectare park.
Putin has denied any connection to the palace, with Alexander Ponomarenko and Arkady Rotenberg, two wealthy allies, claiming ownership from 2011 and 2021 respectively. Construction work on the mansion began in 2005, before the whistleblower Sergei Kolesnikov first brought it to public attention five years later and FBK published a two-hour investigative documentary that has clocked up 1.25 million views since being posted on YouTube last year.
Born in Treviso, Cirillo relocated to Russia via Kuwait in the 1990s, where he struck up relationships with powerful businessmen including the Jordanian-Russian entrepreneur Ziyad Manasir. Since then, the architect has claimed in recent interviews, he has realised projects for 43 Russian billionaires, as well as companies including Gazprom and Novatek. Cirillo was awarded honorary citizenship by Putin in 2014. His lawyers argue that the architect generated his income during the six-year period in Russia, and is not due to pay taxes in Italy, Giornale di Brescia reports.
“In Russia I am proud to have carried out important works, employing dozens of Italian companies and bringing the best of Italian skill to the homes of the most important people... however, I have already started to collaborate personally with the [trial] magistrate. And I will continue to do so until my position is fully clarified,” Cirillo told Giornale di Brescia. Cirillo was unavailable for comment.