Not long ago, Italian authorities raided a sumptuous villa in the northern Italian town of Roncadelle. Inside, the Guardia di Finanza seized a world-class art collection: paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Miro, and Chagall. Some 143 works in all. Outside, there was a large Botero cat statue. In the nearby town of Montichairi, authorities also seized a Eurocopter EC130, worth an estimated 2 million Euros.
The artworks, the helicopter, and the Roncadelle villa all belong to Lanfranco Cirillo, the 63-year-old architect who has designed homes for Russian President Vladimir Putin and 44 other Russian oligarchs. Cirillo is perhaps best known as the architect of Putin’s $1.4 billion palace on the Black Sea—which earned him the nickname of “Putin’s architect.” (Cirillo didn’t deny his work on the project, but would not confirm the palace’s links to the Russian president.)
A lifetime of living large off the oligarchs has caught up with Cirillo. He faces charges in Italy of income tax evasion, money laundering, and violating laws for the protection of cultural assets. According to investigators, Cirillo failed to pay some 50 million euros in taxes from 2013 to 2019 and is said to have laundered the proceeds. But he’s unlikely to ever be held to account. Cirillo lives in Russia, where he was granted citizenship under a 2014 decree granted by President Putin.
For years, Cirillo accumulated a fortune in obscurity. In 2014, he told La Repubblica that he had thousands of employees and invoiced in the hundreds of millions of dollars. “I arrived from Italy 20 years ago with a suitcase as a representative of furniture from Mascagni of Bologna. Today 42 of the 116 Russian billionaires in the Forbes list are my clients,” Cirillo said. He had done dachas and banks, plane interiors and 20,000-square-foot mansions. Once, he said, he saw an oligarch’s wife slap her husband at a dinner. But Cirillo couldn’t name names. His wealth was built on discretion.
Not surprisingly, Cirillo was a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. “Like 92–93 percent of Russia’s population, I love our president and I think he is the right man in the right place in the current world situation,” Lanfranco said in a 2016 interview. A picture of Putin hung on the wall of his office and could be found on his now-defunct website, abitalia.com. Does he still sing the praises of his hero? Sitting in his luxurious home on the Black Sea, does Cirillo cheer as Russian soldiers lay waste to Ukraine? Or does he worry that Russia’s president has brought his new home to the brink of ruin?
Cirillo was a bridge, one of many that existed between the Russia’s ultrawealthy elite and the West. He allowed Russia’s oligarchs to live in an illusion. Yes, they were in Russia, but they were surrounded by the luxuries of the West. He stuffed the oligarch’s homes and planes with the finest furniture and kitchen cabinets from Europe and the United Kingdom. The tentacles of this operation even reached into America. One of the main suppliers of materials for Putin’s Palace was a company Cirillo controlled called Medea Investment LLC, registered in Washington DC., according to a Russian whistleblower, Sergey Kolesnikov.
Compared to the obscene wealth that surrounded and enriched him, Cirillo saw himself as a bit player. His job was to help the obscenely rich live in the baronial splendor to which they felt their corruption had entitled them. He was just a simple, poor architect, as he famously recounted in a 2009 conversation with oligarchs that was obtained by the Russian publication New Times. “I’m an architect, a simple person, I’m poor, very poor, I spent 50 million today, getting 25 (illegible), I have minus 25 million 800 (thousand) euros, for me it’s a lot of money, almost everything earned,” Cirillo said. No doubt these were trivial sums for his clients.
The bridges that people like Cirillo built between Russia’s ultrawealthy and the West now lie in ashes. The flow of luxury goods has ended. There are no more artisans carving rococo ornaments. No more consultants installing dream kitchens with Viking ranges and Subzero fridges. The meticulously-designed megayachts are being seized. The Versailles-style ballrooms he designed now stand empty. The glittering illusion Cirillo once sold to the oligarchs has been swiftly replaced by the darkness of the Soviet days from which they had all sought to escape.