Our Lady of Senigallia by Piero della Francesca
On Art

The man who saved Italy’s art

The man, the schemes and the burglar-alarmed fortress that kept Italy’s artistic legacy away from German acquisition

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the summer of 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily, a precursor to the campaign for the Italian mainland. Control of the newly conquered territories was given to a body known as the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories. One of the units within AMGOT was the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme (MFAA), whose 400 members were tasked with preserving cultural heritage in theatres of war.

The work of the “Monuments Men” in northern Europe was brought to wider attention with the 2014 film of that name but they were far from the only people safeguarding buildings, paintings, statues and art works at risk from damage, looting and German-organised theft. The exhibition currently running at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, “Liberated Art 1937-1947”, is not about the 27 members of the MFAA nicknamed the “Venus fixers”, but about the works endangered by fighting and acquisitiveness and about the Italians who saved them for the nation.

The exhibition currently running is about the works endangered by fighting and acquisitiveness and about the Italians who saved them for the nation

There are some 100 exhibits on display including the original version of Titian’s Danaë which was stolen in 1943 and spent the rest of the war hanging in Hermann Göring’s bedroom and the Discobolus Lancellotti, the Roman marble statue after the Greek bronze of a discus thrower by Myron: Hitler coveted it above all works as the perfect example of the Aryan physique and, courtesy of Mussolini breaking Italy’s export laws for him, bought it in 1938.

The work of those honoured in the exhibition was barely known at the time. Many of their stories could furnish enough material for alternative versions of The Monuments Men.

Chief among them is that of Pasquale Rotondi. He was 30 in 1939 when appointed Superintendent of the Galleries and Works of Art in Le Marche. His role was not scholarly but administrative. When Italy entered the war in the summer of 1940, Rotondi was one of those commissioned by the Minister for Education, Giuseppe Bottai, to safeguard the works under his care.

Pasquale Rotondi

Rotondi’s initial plan was to hide the region’s art in the basement of the ducal palace in Urbino but the city’s closeness to a major airfield and logistics base meant that it was a likely target for Allied raids. So he scoured the surrounding countryside and came across the fifteenth-century palace-fortress of Rocca di Sassocorvaro and decided to make it his depot.

Using government loans, he turned the rooms of this Renaissance building into a warehouse with rudimentary fire and burglar alarms. Then he borrowed trucks and began to fill it with artwork from LenMarche’s museums and churches — paintings by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Titian and Uccello among them. The Rocca, however, proved too small for the task and Rotondi had to look for another hiding place.

This time he chose the Palazzo dei Principi di Carpegna in Montefeltro, about 20 km away from Sassocorvaro, and works started arriving there in 1943, including the glittering Pala d’Oro from St Mark’s in Venice. Soon afterwards, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, turning Italy into a battleground. Rotondi knew the risk the Germans presented and had the foresight to remove the labels from the chests containing the hidden artworks. When an SS detachment broke into the Palazzo Carpegna and opened a case in search of weapons they found only “old music papers” — which were in fact Gioachino Rossini’s autograph opera scores — and didn’t bother to try the cases next to them which held the Venetian treasures.

Under the Rotondis’ bed, wrapped in blankets, were four Bellini Madonnas, Mantegna’s San Giorgio and, most precious of all, Giorgione’s La Tempesta

Then, using a rental car, and ahead of the arrival of the Germans at Rocca di Sassocorvaro, he transferred some of the most valuable paintings held there to Urbino. Not all, however; he spent several weeks at his country house, the Villa Tortorina, outside the city, while his wife was apparently ill. In fact, they were waiting for the Germans to leave the area and under the Rotondis’ bed, wrapped in blankets, were four Bellini Madonnas, Mantegna’s San Giorgio and, most precious of all, Giorgione’s La Tempesta. Husband and wife took turns to stay with the paintings day and night.

Giorgione, La tempesta, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venezia

As the germans made their fighting retreat north, Rotondi feared the art was still far from safe and negotiated with the Vatican to transfer his holdings there for safe keeping. In December 1943 lorries, with a safe passage from the German Embassy, arrived and transferred most of Rotondi’s works of art to the Holy See.

At the end of the war, as the last works were taken out of Sassocorvaro, he wrote in his diary that, “It was a somewhat sad ceremony. On the other hand, when a great love story ends, it can’t be otherwise.” Rotondi’s efforts to preserve Italy’s art continued after the war. Although he returned to the scholarly life, he played a key role in organising the effort to move many of Florence’s works of art out of the waters of the Arno flood of 1966 and he supervised the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

Nevertheless, when he died at 81 in 1991, almost no one knew that during the war he had been responsible for saving up to 10,000 of his country’s most precious works of art. Every piece that had been entrusted to his care was accounted for.

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