Update: This is post has been republished with corrections.
On July 9, at ARCA's International Art Crime Conference, Elena Franchi presented her latest research on the protection of art in Florence during the Second World War, "Under the protection of the Holy See": the Florentine works of art and their moving to Alto Adige in 1944."
Ms. Franchi is the author of two books on the protection Italian cultural heritage during the Second World War: I viaggi dell’Assunta: La protezione del patrimonio artistico veneziano durante i conflitti mondiali, and Arte in assetto di guerra: Protezione e distruzione del patrimonio artistico a Pisa durante la seconda guerra mondiale. She has also been involved in a project on the study of the “Kunstschutz” unit. In 2009 she was nominated for an Emmy Award – “Research” for the American documentary The Rape of Europa, 2006, on the spoils of works of art in Europe during the Second World War.
"In Italy, at the beginning of the war in 1940, the movable works of art were subdivided into three classes of importance and sent to castles and villas in the countryside to protect them from the only danger to be expected: the air raids," Ms. Franchi told the audience. "The most important Florentine works of art were gathered in three deposits: Villa reale in Poggio a Caiano sheltered masterpieces from the Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti; Villa reale della Petraia housed precious sculptures; and Palazzo Pretorio in Scarperia protected the main works of art coming from churches and private collections."
At the end of the first year of the war, Ms. Franchi said, Poggio a Caiano was filled up and other deposit sites needed to be set up to shelter the important works. By 1943, Florence's mobile patrimony resided protectively in more than 20 storage sites.
On July 10, 1943, the Allied Forces landed in Sicily in "Operation Husky", and launched the Italian Campaign. "A frenetic moving of works of art from one deposit to another suddenly started, under heavy bombardment, even though fuel and means of transportation were hard to find," Ms. Franchi said.
Fifteen days later, Benito Mussolini was dismissed and Marshal Pietro Badoglio was appointed to head the government in his place. After the Armistice declared on September 8th between Italy and the Allied armed forces, the situation of the deposits became increasingly risky, Ms. Franchi said. In those days two military units began to operate in Italy for the protection of cultural property: the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Sub-Commission (MFAA) by the Allied Commission for Italy and the German Kunstschutz. Frederick Hartt, responsible for the MFAA in Tuscany, declared at the end of the war: "Italian authorities had done almost everything possible to protect their country's treasure against bombardment."
According to Franchi, and contrary to what many believe, the Nazis did not always steal the art work around them. Franchi argued that in the case of Florence, the Kunstschutz unit, the German military unit created to protect cultural property, worked with Italians Carlo Anti, the General Arts Director in the Ministry of Education, and Carlo Alberti Biggini, the Minister of Education, to move as much as possible to the north of Italy (controlled by the Italian Social Republic with Mussolini and the German occupation).
In June 1944, Biggini ordered to move the main works of art of Florence and Siena to the north of Italy, far from the battle line. But the difficulties of his journey made it clear that it was impossible to carry such precious shipment to the north.
Despite this order, at the beginning of July, the German Army evacuated the precious works of art belonging to Florentine Galleries from the deposit of Montagnana, since the battle line was approaching. The German Army also evacuated the deposit of Oliveto, unbeknownst to the Kunstschutz, the Italian Ministry and the Superintendency.
Kunstschutz got on the trail of the missing works of art and removed the works of art from the deposit of Poggio a Caiano, that was under the protection of the Holy See.
At the end, the Florentine works of art removed by German Army and Kunstschutz were all moved to two deposits to Alto Adige, that were entrusted to the local Superintendent and to German Kunstschutz until the arrival of the Allies in 1945.