From the basement to the museum: the art of Italy that the Nazis could not take away

During World War II, Italy saved its heritage thanks to a group of civil servants who, with ingenuity and intuition, knew how to protect thousands of works of art from bombs and Nazi looting, some of them gathered in an exhibition in Rome dedicated to this decisive work.

“Arte Liberata 1937-1947” narrates the “heroic and intelligent action”, as defined by the curator of the exhibition, Luigi Gallo, carried out by these anonymous men to preserve, in fortifications, basements and homes, paintings by Piero della Francesca, Botticelli , Titian and Luca Signorelli, among other teachers.

“Their extraordinary coordination was what allowed the artistic heritage to be brought to the present,” Gallo assured EFE.

In 1937, Italy, which based its patriotism on art, glimpsed two threats: Nazi Germany’s interest in taking over the great European works and the progressive military escalation, with increasingly destructive weapons.

As proof of this, the exhibition open until April 10 at the Quirinal Palace Squires, the seat of the Presidency of the Italian Republic, shows in its first room the “Discobolo Lancellotti”, an appreciated replica of the homonymous sculpture by Mirón which was ceded to Adolf Hitler in 1938 and remained in Monaco until 1948.

Among the great obsessions of the “Fürer” stood out the inauguration of a great museum in Linz (Austria), which would bring together on Nazi soil the great works of art of humanity, acquired at ridiculous prices.

Thus, already before the war, Italy became an obvious destination for the realization of that dream, but Hitler, despite having the sympathy of Mussolini, met resistance within the fascist regime itself.

When they did not have the approval of the Italian authorities, the Nazis negotiated with Italian antique dealers such as Eugenio Ventura, a Florentine who gave up 16 works from the 15th century in exchange for a collection of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Cézanne, looted from families. Jewish.

Alarmed by these dubious exchanges, historians and museum directors began to call for a strategy to protect artistic heritage, an idea that became a necessity after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 showed that armed conflict was going to cause a unprecedented devastation.

“World War I was a conflict in trenches, far from the cities, but with the technological development of the bomb, they anticipate that the conflict will reach the cities,” says Gallo.

Among the key figures in this work, the exhibition highlights Pasquale Rotondi, an Italian civil servant who saved more than 10,000 works of art by taking advantage of the architecture of the Sassocorvaro fort (in the Marche region, center), where works from all corners of Italy.

The “Madonna di Senigallia” by Piero della Francesca, the “Immacolata Concezione” by Federico Barocci and “Crocefissione” by Luca Signorelli are some of the paintings protected by Rotondi, who left the details of his mission written in his diaries.

After the collapse of the Mussolini regime in 1943, the official removed the labels from all the boxes and, thus, when the Nazi military discovered the fort, they ordered one randomly containing letters to be opened and left the enclave convinced that it did not contain any worth. A combination of cunning and fortune saved the main repository of Italian art.

“The exhibition not only shows these works of art, it also tells their story,” Gallo details.

The curator has not avoided including failures such as that of Florence: under the direction of Giovanni Poggi, the city-museum par excellence decided to hide its works of art in shelters located around Tuscany and all of them were discovered by the Germans.

With the end of the war, the performance of agents such as Rodolfo Siviero, sent to Nazi Germany as an art historian and spy for Italy, was essential for the creations to return to their homeland, as was the case with the sensual “Danae ” by Titian, the last “liberated” painting that closes the exhibition.

From the basement to the museum: the art of Italy that the Nazis could not take away