Museum  January 23, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

Saving Italian Art from World War II Destruction

Christopher Siwicki

‘Madonna Enthroned’ by Andrea Briosco detto il Riccio (end of the fifteenth century), with picture of the terracotta statue following its recovery in May 1945.

In the late 1930s, the skies across Europe darkened as the world prepared for war. Beyond the efforts to save civilians in World War II, countries also took steps to protect art and architecture. In Italy, famous monuments such as the column of Trajan in Rome and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice were encased in protective walls of sandbags, bricks, and wooden scaffolding, while portable works of art were cataloged, boxed up, and stored underground in vaults and caves.

The challenge of safeguarding Italy’s enormous artistic heritage changed throughout the course of the war. Having declared war on France and Britain in June 1940, Italian cities such as Genoa were periodically bombarded by naval and air forces. Italy itself became a battleground following the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and the mainland Peninsular later that year, with battles on the ground and a sustained air campaign causing widespread damage. The Italian surrender in September 1943 caused their former allies the Germans, to occupy the country, posing a further risk that many works of art would be taken to Germany. Herman Göring, deputy Führer and rapacious art collector, had already arranged an exchange of Italian masterpieces for illegally acquired French impressionist paintings.

Christopher Siwicki

 Roman-era statue of Myron’s discobolos (discus thrower)

At the Quirinal Palace in Rome, the exhibition ‘Arte Liberata 1937-1947’ focuses on the Italian museum curators and civic officials who acted to save works of art across the country during the war. Giuseppe Bottai, minister of national education at the time, laid out plans a year before war broke out to identify and prepare for storage of the pieces most at risk and of the greatest artistic interest. Likewise, Luigi De Gregori was instrumental in organizing the protection of rare books and manuscripts from collections across Italy. More dramatic are the accounts of Francesco Arcangeli cycling between the shelters where works of art were stored, despite Allied bombing, and Italo Vannutelli’s rescuing paintings from the town of Viterbo while avoiding columns of German soldiers. 

On display in the exhibition are one hundred works of art connected to these stories. The eclectic assemblage includes paintings by Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo, and El Greco, Roman-era bronze statues from Herculaneum, musical scores by Rossini, and illustrated manuscripts.

The exhibition opens with an ancient marble statue of a discus thrower (discobolos). Discovered in Rome in the eighteenth century, the piece was exported to Germany before the war in 1938 and displayed at the Munich Glytothek Museum, having been acquired by Hitler and gifted to the German people. Perceived as representing the ideal man, the statue was meant to be placed in the never-realized ‘Führer Museum,’ in Hitler’s hometown of Linz in Austria.

Christopher Siwicki

Herman Göring’s catalogue of works of art, listing paintings by Titian, Botticelli, Rubens, Veronese, Ricci, and Romano (1940-45).

This sculpture was brought back to Italy in 1948 by a delegation led by the controversial figure Rodolfo Siviero. Although Siviero studied to become an art historian, as a committed fascist, he operated as a secret agent for the Italian government. He moved to Berlin in 1937 to observe developments in Nazi Germany. Following the overthrow of Mussolini’s regime in 1943, Siviero joined the anti-fascist partisan movement in Florence. After the war, Siviero, by fair means and foul (seizing items and conducting interrogations and investigations he did not have the authority to) was pivotal in securing the return of many pieces to Italy, his methods and career securing him the catchy, if misplaced nickname, ‘the 007 of art’.

In the exhibition, paintings are hung on exposed wooden panels, alluding to the crates that many were temporarily housed in. Several pieces are also placed next to enlarged archive photos showings the items entering or being removed from storage. Prominent among the people in the pictures are Allied soldiers, and although the Italian curators and officials are at the center of the narrative, the role of individuals in the British and American armies in the protection and recovery of works of art is also acknowledged – the so-called ‘Monuments Men.’

Christopher Siwicki

 ‘Crucifixion of Christ with Mary Magdalene and Episodes from the Life of Christ’ by Luca Signorelli (c. 1500-1505), with picture of the painting being transported in the Alto Adige region by German soldiers in August 1944. 

This international element is fitting, as many modern reflections on safeguarding cultural heritage were developed during and in the wake of the war, with Italy playing a vital role in the formation of codes and practices in use today. Images from March 2022 show volunteers piling sandbags and erecting scaffolding around the statues and monuments in Kyiv in an effort to protect them from bombing. The culturally destructive nature of modern warfare hasn’t changed, but nor has the willingness of people to protect their artistic heritage in the face of it.

‘ARTE LIBERATA 1937-1947. Capolavori salvati dalla Guerra’ is curated by Luigi Gallo and Raffaella Morselli at the Scuderie del Quirinale from December 16th 2022 to April 10th 2023

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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