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Italy’s parliament yesterday postponed an expected vote of no confidence against Vittorio Sgarbi, the junior culture minister and art critic who is being investigated for allegedly laundering a 17th-century painting, drawing a furious response from opposition politicians. The vote has been scheduled for 15 February, appearing to guarantee Sgarbi’s political survival for at least two weeks.

Sgarbi is being investigated by police for allegedly acquiring La Cattura di San Pietro (or The Capture of St Peter), a 1637-39 painting attributed to Rutilio Manetti, through illicit means before altering the canvas to disguise its provenance. A prominent TV personality famed for his foul-mouthed tirades, Sgarbi has vehemently denied the claims and vowed to clear his name.

An alliance of opposition parliamentarians filed a motion of no confidence against the culture ministry official on 19 January. Party heads of Italy’s lower house of deputies discussed the motion yesterday before Lorenzo Fontana, the house speaker and ally of prime minister Giorgia Meloni, announced the vote would take place on 15 February. Antitrust, Italy’s competition regulator, is due to publish the findings of a separate investigation centred on Sgarbi by the same date.

Opposition parties accused the government of cowardice. “The majority rejected our request to vote on the motion of revocation for Sgarbi,” said Francesco Silvestri, the leader of the Five Star Movement in the lower house. “They are hiding in the hope of a [favourable] Antitrust ruling to escape political judgement.” Italy’s right-wing coalition commands 237 of the 400 seats in the house of deputies.

Following a complaint filed by culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano, Antitrust began investigating Sgarbi in October for possible violations of conflict of interest laws after reportedly receiving payments for lectures, book presentations and cultural initiatives. Sgarbi has repeatedly challenged Sangiuliano and other ministers since being appointed 15 months ago, claiming in a public speech in Soncino, near Cremona, in November that “nine-tenths of those [currently] in government are incompetent”.

Asked in October to comment on the future of Sgarbi, Meloni told reporters: “We will wait to see how Antitrust responds and then evaluate the case”. Sangiuliano said last month: “The laws must be applied. However, you need a trial that is not conducted by [Meloni] but by magistrates”.

Judges ordered Sgarbi on Tuesday to pay Virginia Raggi, the former mayor of Rome, €2,000 for defamation after appearing to allude she had collaborated with mafiosi. Also on Tuesday, Sgarbi filed a request for Rai, the public broadcaster that recently aired televised investigations into the official’s purported art crimes, to pay him €5m in damages. The board of the Canova Foundation, which runs the Gypsotheca and Canova Museum in Possagno, has decided not to renew Sgabri’s contract as president, newspapers reported yesterday.

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