In museums and private collections around the world, there are thousands and thousands of Italian paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other works of art that have left the shores of Italy over the centuries through means both legal and not so legal. There are many, many reasons for this emigration, and most are not happy ones for Italy. Has Italy been a target more than other countries? I don’t know.
But here are some of the themes—stories of aristocrats in ruin, stories of art dealers with a nose for art and profit, stories of passionate and grandiose foreign collectors. And above all there are the vicissitudes of history—trends, war, reparations—and of a country that, in too many instances, let its valuable heritage slip through its fingers.
Let’s start with Napoleon. Following his European military campaign, there was a triumphal celebration in Paris in 1797, a parade of all the trophies that Napoleon had looted. The parade exhibited two huge statues of the Nile and Tiber from the Vatican, the four bronze horses stolen from Venice, plus the Transfiguration by Raphael, the Madonna della Vittoria by Mantegna, the Crucifixion of St. Peter by Guido Reni, the Wedding at Cana by Veronese, and so on; from the Vatican also came the Laocoön, the Apollo Belvedere, and the Venus de’ Medici. Napoleon had taken advantage of peace treaties by inserting damage clauses that included the divestiture of art.
This history is documented in a show that opened in December 2016 in Rome at the Scuderie Papali del Quirinale called “The Universal Museum. From the Dream of Napoleon to Canova.” Canova was a sculptor who became the Vatican’s ambassador to Paris to negotiate the return of the art. While he was successful in bringing many works home 200 years ago, there are many of Napoleon’s stolen treasures in the Louvre today. (The Mona Lisa was not taken by Napoleon although many are still erroneously convinced of this today.)
During the Napoleonic campaigns, Edward Solly, an English lumber merchant who lived in Berlin, amassed an unbelievable collection of Italian 14th and 15th century paintings that were largely unappreciated at the time. They were taken from churches and convents of northern and central Italy between 1797 and 1805. Solly managed to put together a unique collection and then sold some pieces wisely. And he did it all without setting foot in Italy because he had the complicity of Italian dealers. Hence, the so-called Madonna Solly by Raphael is today preserved in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
There were also many great Italian art collectors. One of the most famous was Giovanni Pietro Campana, whose private collection included more than 300 paintings of the “Primitivi,” that is, those artists that preceded the full flowering of the Renaissance. His enormous treasure of paintings, sculptures, and other precious objects were confiscated by the Pontifical State following the owner’s disgrace and exile. His collection was sold off—to the Czar of Russia, France, and others. You see parts of his collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and as of 40 years ago, a new Petit Palais Museum in Avignon, which houses many of the works of the Primitivi. And so it goes with some of the richest collections in the world—such as la Colonna, la Aldobrandini, and la Chigi—which today are dispersed around the planet.
Italy was also full of antique and art dealers who “advised” rich foreign investors. A notable case was that of Stefano Bardini (1836-1922), the most authoritative Italian antique dealer of the time. He bought and sold something like 30,000 paintings of great value and 200,000 items of furniture and decorative art. Thanks to the Alinari Foundation, photos show the precise moments in which a Donatello or a Botticelli was taken from this villa or that castle or that church, and was then crated and sold to museums like the Metropolitan in New York. After years of intense commercial activity, Bardini donated part of his private collection to the city of Florence.
The failure to understand the value of the art and of its heritage played a central role in many of these dealings, and was no less a factor in times of political fragility. It was not a coincidence that just after the Unification of Italy (1861), thanks to the confusion and the disappearance of “the world of yesterday,” constraints loosened that prevented the dispersion and sale of precious works. It was around this time that Great Britain managed to acquire the collection of Lombardi-Baldi of Florence, of which many items are in the National Gallery in London today. The new laws during Risorgimento that treated sacred buildings and church assets as state property was the final straw: half of Europe was decorated with Italian works of art.
No less oppressive was the responsibility of Fascism. Thanks to the complicity of almost all of the Italian Fascist leaders, the Germans managed to put their hands on Italian treasures, helped also by unscrupulous art and antique dealers. And by Mussolini himself: a prime case is that of the Discus Thrower Lancellotti, which today is in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Discovered in 1871, the sculpture from the 2nd century a.c. was a Roman copy of the celebrated Greek statue by Myron. It was given to Hitler with compliments of Il Duce, despite the protests of many intellectuals. And not to mention the perpetual looting by Hermann Goering: In 1943 he sent crates with works stolen from Montecassino and Capodimonte (Naples) to the salt mines of Altaussee in Austria, as if they had always been his own property.
But before World War II there was the striking case of the Madonna of Sivignano, a 12th century painting on wood in the church of San Silvestro in the province of Aquila. The parish priest had his eye on this painting. He decided to sell it and to put a false copy in its place, but the war interrupted his plan. The people of Sivignano, who realized “the traffic” of the priest, decided to save the painting, changing hiding places every week in private houses. The painting was saved; it is not so important for its cultural value, but because of the actions of a handful of decent people. Today it is in the Museum of Aquila.
Today, of course, Italy is vigilant in protecting its heritage. In fact, as I reported in a previous post, there is a branch of the Carabinieri charged with protecting Italy’s patrimony and recovering stolen art. It is well respected around the world. But even as far back as the 1800s, the Brera Art Gallery in Milan was founded to host the most important works of art taken by the Napoleonic armies. So unlike other important museums in Italy, such as the Uffizi, the Brera did not start out life as the private collection of a prince or nobleman but as the product of a deliberate policy decision.