Liberated art, now in Rome
29 January 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
If history had taken another – horrible – course, the largest museum in the world (!) would today be in the Austrian town of Linz. So would have liked Adolf Hitler, who considered himself an art expert and, in his opinion (but only his) was a talented painter. He wrote about the museum in Mein Kampf, and went further: there are the plans and a model of the building to prove it. Indeed, the megalomaniac vision of the museum dedicated to the people of the Third Reich did not abandon him even when all was now lost. He wrote about it, and with profusion of details, in the autographed will left on the desk, shortly before committing suicide. It goes without saying, Italian art – from Ancient Rome to the Renaissance and beyond – would have had a place of honour. And we can bet that in the center of a room there would have been the splendid marble figure of the Discobolus Lancellotti (2nd century AD), which Hitler had wanted as a symbol of the 1938 Berlin Olympics because the perfect forms of the athlete were, always in his opinion, the quintessential representation of the superiority of the Aryan race.
Upon payment of a considerable sum, the statue had been part of that set of art treasures that his friend Mussolini had kindly allowed him to take to Germany, although a law was already in force forbidding it then. On that occasion, the official remonstrances of the Minister of Education Giuseppe Bottai, a moderate fascist who for this reason would have irretrievably fallen out of favor with the Duce, had come to no avail. And that, in the aftermath of the beginning of the Second World War, he would have elaborated a plan for securing the Italian cultural heritage.
Instead of Linz, history wanted Discobolus Lancellotti to return to Italy, to the Roman National Museum. And that sculptural masterpiece is on loan until 10 April, again in Rome, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, to introduce the exhibition Arte liberata (liberated art) 1937-1947 – Masterpieces saved from the war. Coming from dozens of Italian museums, the one hundred works on display – including the Madonna of Senigallia by Piero della Francesca, the Crucifixion by Luca Signorelli, Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, the Portrait of Manzoni by Francesco Hayez, paintings by Bellini, Lotto and El Greco (among others), and then statues, tapestries, archaeological finds and sacred Jewish texts – are perhaps the least “revealing” element of an intelligent, enthralling and at times moving exhibition itinerary.
Arte liberata is above all an exhibition of stories, narrated through exceptional photographic documentation and an equally extraordinary series of films and audio materials from the Istituto Luce. Wandering through the halls, the irony of the contrast between the images of destroyed monuments, churches protected by sandbags and men intent on digging through the rubble to the sound of arrogant proclamations of the regime or the chorus of “Vincerem” does not escape. Intertwining throughout the territory of our Peninsula, the stories are those of the men and women who, risking their lives, tried by any means – and with the scarce means available – to save an immense quantity of works of art from the lust for the Nazis. Among them, the figure of Pasquale Rotondi is particularly prominent, then a young superintendent of the Fine Arts of the Marches, who was commissioned by Bottai to prepare a national deposit and hid them in the basement of the fortresses of Sassocorvaro and Carpegna, both in the territory of Urbino, about 10 thousand from the palaces of Venice, Milan, Rome and Urbino. Rotondi then spent the years of the conflict sleeping not too peacefully with the large canvas of Giorgione’s Tempest hidden under the bed.
There are many anecdotes about Rotondi’s daring exploits and tell how he was often kissed by incredible lucky breaks. Like when, immediately after the Armistice, the Nazis arrived in Carpegna in search of treasures to plunder: they managed to find some boxes, but in a hurry they only opened one which contained the autographed scores of Gioacchino Rossini. They dismissed them as waste paper and walked away empty handed. The last room of the exhibition is dedicated to the war period following the landing of American troops in Sicily and to the operations recovery of finished works of art across the border. Here a dutiful homage is paid to the past Tuscan Rodolfo Siviero
to history – albeit under the radar – as the Italian 007 of art. He is portrayed in an armchair, in admiration of Titian’s Danae stolen from Cassino in 1943: after a thousand vicissitudes, he had managed to track it down in the home of Göring, who had used it as a bed headboard. Siviero – who at the end of the war had been appointed plenipotentiary minister for the recovery of assets
artistic – he had worked closely with the famous American Monument Men. We must be grateful to them too, because they took the mission in our country particularly to heart. To one of them, who admonished his own army to hold on account the value of our monuments during war operations, General Mark W. Clark replied, with a phrase that became famous: «Waging war in Italy is like fighting in a fxxxxng museum!».