Police later revealed the painting in the thieves' possession was not "The Crucifixion" by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Younger, but a fake they had replaced it with as part of a sting operation.
'We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri (Italy's paramilitary police force) brought in the fake and installed security cameras'.
Police had caught wind of the planned robbery a month before it took place, so swapped the painting with a replica and installed CCTV cameras within the church.
Santa Maria Maddalena the church in Castelnuovo Magra where the painting is kept
Police are now investigating the surveillance footage.
Santa Maria Maddalena, the church in Castelnuovo Magra where the painting is (usually) kept.
They are now studying the footage after robbers broke in to the church with a crowbar and smashed the artwork's display case with a hammer.More news: Bangladesh cricket team escape shooting at Christchurch mosque
Earlier, before the switch was revealed, Mayor Daniele Montebello told Italy's Ansa news agency that the painting was "a work of inestimable value, a hard blow for our community".
"Rumours were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police chose to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras", Montebello told The Guardian. "I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn't the original but kept up the secret". They are believed to have stolen it on commission.
The popular painting was donated to the church by a wealthy family and was hidden during World War II to prevent it from being stolen by German soldiers.More news: Strip club visit listed among alleged Georgia Tech recruiting violations
The Crucifixion is a well-known piece of which several copies exist, with small differences between them - including one in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary.
The 26in by 17in canvas is a copy of a work by his father.More news: 'The Sopranos' Prequel Movie Gets a New Title, Release Date in 2020
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