The Vitruvian Man highlights puzzling elements of Italian cultural heritage laws

Posted on: April 24, 2023 by

The ‘Art Collection’ series of jigsaw puzzles by Ravensburger is an ever popular pastime and features many of the world’s most renowned masterpieces, from the likes of Haring and Klimt to Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. In fact, Ravensburger’s recent reproduction of Da Vinci’s Uomo Vitruviano as one of its jigsaws has sparked a legal dispute.

The present case is quite similar to another dispute involving Botticelli’s Venus and its alleged ‘exploitation’ for commercial purposes by the French fashion house of Jean-Paul Gaultier in late 2022, previously covered here. Both cases rest on the fact that these artworks are considered cultural heritage objects under Italian law, thus attracting very strict restrictions to their reproduction.

In the present jigsaw controversy, the plaintiffs, Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Ministry of Culture, claimed that the unauthorised commercial reproduction of Da Vinci’s artwork by Ravensburger was detrimental to the cultural object and it infringed on the notion of open access to cultural heritage.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490

The Vitruvian Man as a cultural object

As exemplified by its reproduction on the €1 coins, first released in Italy in 2002, the Uomo Vitruviano is widely regarded as an object of Italian cultural heritage. Drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci around 1490, at present, it is located, but not exhibited, due to its fragile conditions, at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. Its special status under Italian law stems from Articles 2(2) and 10 of the Italian Cultural Heritage Code (CHC), which set out the following requirements for qualifying as a cultural object:  (1) that it is currently held in a public collection, (2) that it was created at least 70 years ago, (3) by an artist who is already deceased.

This special status of the Vitruvian Man was recently highlighted in a 2019 ruling by the Regional Administrative Tribunal (Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale) of the Veneto region, which concerned the loan of the artwork to the Louvre. In that ruling, the artwork was held to bear cultural, artistic and historical interest, as well as to constitute an integral part of Italian tradition, art, history and scientific research. The consequence of being attributed such special status under the Cultural Heritage Code is the resulting application of the protection afforded under its Articles 107 and 108, which strongly regulate any reproductions of the cultural object in question.

The infringement

In the present case, the same Italian Court that issued the aforementioned ruling on the Vitruvian Man’s special designation has decided in favour of the plaintiffs. It held there was an infringement of Articles 107 and 108 CHC. A relevant aspect to note is that the defendant Ravensburger acknowledged it never put forward any requests for a reproduction licence, nor did it pay any of the concession fees that would have ordinarily been due.

The toy maker’s defence was centred on three elements: (1) the artwork in question has been in the public domain for centuries; (2) the requirements set out in Articles 107 and 108 of said Code regarding reproduction licences and concessionary fee payments are in direct conflict with Article 14 of the EU Directive 2019/790 and (3) the reproduction took place outside of Italy, thus beyond the jurisdiction and application of the Italian Cultural Heritage Code.

As far as arguments (1) and (2) are concerned, the Court held that the transposition of this particular EU Directive into domestic Italian law under the Decreto Legislativo 8 Novembre 2021, n.177 brought about the inclusion of an additional clause on cultural heritage, which is set out in Article 32. This clause applies specifically to the reproduction of cultural heritage objects for commercial purposes. It essentially strips the benefits that would accrue from being in the public domain, primarily those concerning freedom of reproduction, from any artworks that qualify as cultural heritage objects under the Cultural Heritage Code rules. Thus, the Court found that the CHC’s requirements for reproduction licences subject to the payment of concessionary fees apply to the present case, notwithstanding the work being in the public domain, and there is no conflict between the Articles of the CHC and the EU Directive, given the additional clause on cultural heritage in Article 32.

With regards to the territorial element of argument (3), there was a point of contention in the case as to whether this Court was the most appropriate forum, given that the infringement originated in Germany and in Czech Republic, where the goods were manufactured by reproducing the artwork, whilst the damage was suffered by the artwork and, consequently, by the museum in Venice, which according to Italian law is the guardian of the work in relation to its values, its administration and its reproduction. Based on Articles 7, 8 and 35 of the EU Regulation 1215/2012 (on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters), the Court held that it was the competent forum to rule on this dispute and that this judgement applies to every jurisdiction in which the defendant operates, instead of being limited to its Italian subsidiary, Ravensburger Italia S.r.l..


It is interesting to note how in the present case the notion of detriment to the cultural object stems merely from its reproduction for commercial purposes. The notion of degrading the work in this regard is believed to be the profit-seeking element in itself, as it infringes on the open access that is specially reserved for personal use, private study and the non-commercial promotion of Italian cultural heritage.

Moreover, this ruling confirmed that the power to authorise and control the reproduction of the work rests with the museum or cultural body which holds the work in trust for the Ministry of Culture. The terms in which any reproductions are to be authorised also fall under this holder’s discretion. As an example, the Gallerie dell’Accademia has issued its own set of standards called “Regolamento per la riproduzione die beni culturali in consegna alle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia” (Regulation for the reproduction of cultural heritage objects consigned to the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice).

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the subject of a previous dispute between the Uffizi Gallery and Jean Paul Gaultier

Given that the Vitruvian Man is not the only Italian cultural heritage object reproduced as a Ravensburger jigsaw, other examples being Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the present case raises the question as to whether the other puzzles will also be taken to court in a similar fashion, especially given the resounding victory the Italian plaintiffs had in this dispute.


Image Credits:

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man: Gallerie dell’Academia, Venice via Wikimedia Commons – public domain;

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus: Uffizi Gallery, Florence via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0.