by Roderick Conway Morris

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Italy Plans to Request Return of Artworks Taken by Nazis During the War

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 22 April 1995
Casa Museo Rodolfo Siviero, Florence
Rodolfo Siviero with Bronzino's Pygmalion and the Statue, 1529-30, recovered by Siviero in 1954



In June, after more than 20 years silence, Italy will publish a list of more than 1,500 art works looted by the Nazis and will begin to negotiate their return.

If the effort bears fruit, it could result in the largest-scale restitution of art works for half a century.

'There are some very important works on the list, by Michelangelo, Perugino, the entire ceiling of a Venetian palazzo by Marco Ricci, many first-class 'primitive' pieces, Greek and Roman sculptures,' Italy's minister for cultural heritage, Antonio Paolucci, said in an interview. The works are, he added 'the equivalent of a large museum of the highest quality.'

Paolucci should know. He was one of the Italian government researchers who helped draw up the catalogue in the early 1970s, with the intention of asking for their restitution.

But no sooner had the catalogue reached completion than it was locked away in the Foreign Ministry's archives.

Only now, with many of the logjams in Italy's postwar political establishment broken by the 'Tangentopoli' bribery scandals, will it see the light of day.

The list was the brainchild of Rodolfo Siviero, who did more than any other individual to rescue many of the thousands of Italian art objects stolen during the last war. Siviero died in 1983, his last mission incomplete, scuppered by Italy's political and diplomatic establishment, which consistently maintained a position of extraordinary pusillanimity over the entire affair, until the old system collapsed amid the massive Tangentopoli bribery scandals.

Siviero was assisted by two bright young art historians, Luciano Bellosi, now a professor at Siena University, and Paolucci, head of Florence's arts superintendency as well as the first professional art expert ever to hold the post of culture minister.

'Rodolfo Siviero was a very unusual, colorful figure,' Paolucci said. 'He joined the police in the 30s, but was in the Italian Resistance between 1943 and 1945, and collaborated very closely with those in the Allied forces given the task of protecting the country's artistic heritage. Siviero achieved an enormous amount - he managed to bring back works plundered by the Germans from the Uffizi, to take but one example.

'However, there remained many unrecovered works, the fate of which was absolutely unknown. So Siviero, while still officially reporting to the Foreign Ministry, had his own office and continued to operate in an almost independent, freelance fashion in the hope of hunting them down. In the 70s he was given permission to recruit two helpers, and that's how, working with Siviero's notes, correspondence and photographs, Bellosi and I came to put together this list of of some 1,500 'disappeared' works.'

The project was finished early in 1973, but the catalogue was promptly put in a Foreign Ministry safe, after which nothing more was heard of it. Siviero and his assistants were effectively sworn to secrecy, Paolucci said.

'We operated under strict rules and were forbidden to talk about the work we were engaged in. We were not allowed even to retain a photocopy, and having completed the work we were supposed to forget that we had ever done it,' the minister said.

'Last year the Foreign Ministry decided that it could be released, and this has coincided with my own appointment as minister. So, naturally, I'm very happy - indeed, moved - to have this work of my younger days in my hands again and to be able to see it through to publication.'

Why was the catalogue kept secret for so long?

'I think there were two main factors,' said Paolucci. 'One was Siviero's personality. He was a lone wolf, a kind of loose cannon, not at all the diplomatic type, and unfortunately he made a lot of enemies. The other was political expediency. The political establishment here clearly thought it important not to upset Germany, a fellow member of NATO and the European Community, or the Soviet Union, for that matter, since perhaps a fifth of the works are no longer in Germany, having been subsequently carried off by the Red Army to Russia,' said Paolucci.

The updated catalogue will be published in Italian, English and German. 'Once the list is available, we will be able to begin negotiations for the return of the works,' he said.

The German Foreign Ministry in Bonn declined to comment on the issue.

Paolucci, however, appears optimistic that the Germans will be cooperative: 'Germany, in its turn, has a great interest in recovering works taken to Russia after the war. So, if Germany wishes to argue its rights of recuperation, it will obviously have to show that it, too, is prepared to return works to other countries.'

Whether, in the face of Russian populist, nationalistic arguments that art works seized constitute compensation for the Soviet Union's wartime suffering, Russia will prove tractable to the demands of Italy (which lacks the economic clout that the Germans can bring to bear) remains to be seen.

'There is no doubt that some key works on the list are in Russia,' said Paolucci. 'Michelangelo's 'Mask of a Faun,' stolen by the Nazis from the Bargello Museum in Florence in 1944, is, I believe along with other scholars, now in Moscow. But we can only begin discussions when the list is published, after which, with all the relevant documentation in hand, we hope to be able to approach the subject in a calm and collected manner.'

Even with full cooperation it is hard to say when the works could be returned to Italy. 'There is no statute of limitation for works looted in war,' says Paolucci. And the right of recovery was a concept established at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when countries were authorized to reclaim the parts of their patrimonies carried off to Paris. So this is a principle that the European judicial authorities have recognized for nearly two centuries, and it's important that it should be reaffirmed now,' he said.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023