Eccentric Philanthropists and Expatriate Collectors
From the Fascist period onwards, the war years created a crisis for Florentine art and architecture, not least because of the threat posed by Nazi bombing and looting. Paintings hand-picked by Hitler and Goering were stolen to order for their private collections. Hitler hankered after such mythological erotica as Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan, as well as the Greek Discus-thrower, which he saw as the perfect embodiment of the Aryan race.
The troubled era witnessed acts of heroism by curators. Curious anomalies included a German consul who did his utmost to save art treasures from wanton destruction and a Fascist sympathiser in charge of the British Institute. Yet beyond all the individual gestures was the unstinting contribution made by Rodolfo Siviero (1901-83), the Tuscan art investigator, who dedicated his life to recovering stolen Italian masterpieces. The Siviero museum bills him as the James Bond of the art world, and this is not far from the truth, with the one proviso that few people ever knew whether this 007 was a double agent doing a bit of business for himself on the side.
Siviero’s methods ranged from subtle diplomacy to secreting works of art, from armed ambushes to the halting of enemy trains. The Nazis planned to remove treasures from the Uffizi in convoys but Siviero stopped an art-laden train from crossing the border into Nazi-controlled Bolzano. After the war, Siviero was made a minister for enforcing the return of looted Italian art-works.
The Giorgio De Chirico painting in the Siviero Museum is a reminder that the art investigator saved the painter’s works from being spirited off to Nazi Germany or destroyed as subversive. In 1943 De Chirico, who had a Jewish wife, was reported by his maid, whose lover was an SS officer in Florence. De Chirico fled from his Fiesole home to safety with the parish priest, organised by the Resistance, leaving Siviero’s partisans to rescue the artworks. At De Chirico’s commandeered home, Siviero presented his anti-Fascist Carabinieri team as Fascist officers empowered to search out “anti-Fascist Jews” and confiscated the works, which were secretly stored in the Pitti Palace stables. All the works survived the war unscathed. Even so, Siviero’s real legacy is not his small museum but the myriad works in the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, masterpieces that would otherwise be in Berlin or Munich.