ROME — The thieves who took “The Crucifixion,” a painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger, from a church in a Northern Italian town on Wednesday, knew what they were doing.
They planned the heist at the church, Santa Maria Maddalena for lunchtime, when the parish priest was sure to be out. They worked quickly, smashing the showcase protecting the 17th-century work with a hammer, before jumping into a getaway car (a white Peugeot, according to Italian news media reports) that screeched out of town. The speeding car attracted the attention of a resident, who saw that the church door was wide open (unusually so), and raised the alarm.
What the thieves didn’t know was that the painting was a copy that had been substituted for the original artwork a few weeks earlier, after the carabinieri, Italy’s military police, were tipped off that burglars had their sights set on the Brueghel.
The only people besides the carabinieri who knew about the substitution were the priest of the church and the local mayor, and in the hours after the theft, they pretended to be distraught.
“We had sworn to the carabinieri to keep mum, so at first I had to act like I was desperate and fake grief over the loss,” said Daniele Montebello, the mayor of Castelnuovo Magra, the town in Liguria where this all took place.
The carabinieri pulled off a “brilliant operation,” Mr. Montebello said, adding, in an interview Thursday, “I don’t want to even think about the consequences had they not switched the paintings.”
News that the painting was a copy was leaked to the news media Wednesday night.
The Rev. Alessandro Chiantaretto, the priest of Santa Maria Maddalena, said he believed the thieves “must have studied my habits,” so they knew when to strike. At lunchtime, he often brought communion to housebound parishioners he explained in a telephone interview.
Officials for the carabinieri declined to comment on the case because the investigation is continuing.
The work is very similar to another by Brueghel the Younger, which bears the same name and is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
According to the municipal website, “The Crucifixion” — painted in oil on five oak panels — was itself a copy of sorts of a now lost work by the same name painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the artist’s father. A wealthy local family donated it to the church.
Thieves had successfully stolen the painting from the church in 1981, but the police recovered it a few months later.
The church has a closed-circuit camera system as well as an alarm system. It was not clear whether the alarm went off.
Father Chiantaretto said the church usually remained open all day, so visitors could pray or appreciate its artworks, including another depiction of Christ’s crucifixion once attributed to Anthony van Dyck (it was later revealed to be the work of a follower). The theft, he feared, would force him to limit access. “When churches are like museums, you either have staff or volunteers, or you close them, ” he said.
Mr. Montebello said he didn’t know whether the thieves had been identified, but said the carabinieri told him that it was “only a matter of time.”