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December 3, 2023

Claiming Legacies: Italy, Germany, and the Post-WWII Ownership Battle for the Discobolus

Image Credit: Exhibition Arte Liberata 1937-1947: Masterpieces Saved from War.

This past week Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper stirred up a long-standing dispute between Italy's National Roman Museum and Germany's Antikensammlungen state antiquities collection regarding who is the rightful owner of the Discobolus Lancellotti, also known as the Discobolus Palombara.  Frozen in a moment of dynamic tension, much like the ownership debate, the marble depiction of an athlete stands as a remarkable example of the classical aesthetics that characterised the ancient world. 

Believed to be a 2nd Century CE marble copy modelled after the original bronze Greek masterpiece created by Myron of Eleutherae around 450 BCE, the Roman version has endured through the centuries and offers its viewers a fascinating glimpse into the Roman's appreciation for the athletes and artistry of the Greeks, as well as the contentious nature of provenance.  The statue depicts the sportsman frozen in a moment of athletic intensity, poised like a coiled spring wound in high tension, to intricately render the disk thrower's musculature and balance. 

The anatomy of the discobolus,
as drawn by the talented @PaulCarneyArts

Rediscovered on the Esquiline Hill in Rome on March 14, 1781 during an excavation carried out by workmen working for the Marquise Barbara Savelli Palombara (1750–1826) and her husband Papal postmaster Camillo Francesco Massimo (1730–1801), the statue was unearthed on the grounds of the 17th century Villa Palombara sull'Esquilino.  There, the accidental archaeology of the diggers unearthed what would turn out to be an extraordinary collection of ancient artistic masterpieces, only one of which was the life-size, 156 centimetre-tall Discobolus.  

The ancient Villa Palombara in a map engraved by
Giovanni Battista Falda (1676).

Initially cleaned in the 18th century by Giuseppe Angelini, it was Italian soon-to-be  archaeologists Giovanni Battista Visconti and Filippo Waquier De La Barthe who first published on the the marble sculpture as a Roma copy of Muron's bronze original in 1801, augmenting their research with an illustration by Carlo Fea. 

Depicting an athlete who competed in Greek agones (athletic competitions), the sculpture's popularity became uniquely recognisable, even to non art historians.  Its discovery also provided us with a fascinating glimpse into the artistic preferences and lavish lifestyles of ancient Rome's elites, and marked a seminal moment in what we now know and understand about artistic preferences in the classical period.   

Having reattached his right arm and left foot, the Discobolus sculpture was taken by the Massimo (later Lancellotti) family to Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, the site of the family's ancestral properties, located on Via Papalis (now Corso Vittorio Emanuele II).  There it was given its own private viewing room on the palazzo's piano nobile or main floor.  Later, it would it be installed by Prince Filippo Massimo Lancellotti and Princess Elisabetta Borghese Aldobrandini at the Palazzo Massimo Lancellotti.

By January 1937 the Lancellotti family was actively shopping the sculpture for a new owner.  Following the 25 January 1937 death of Princess Elisabetta Borghese Aldobrandini, we can document a 29 January 1937 letter written by Gisela Richter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art's director, Herbert E. Winlock, where the US museum director was alerted to the fact that the Discobolus had been shopped by “the very difficult old lady at the head of the house” to foreign museums. 

Yet despite the Met's rather healthy and hastily-gathered purchase budget, capped at $300,000 including export fees, and with Joseph Brummer acting as the museum's purchasing agent through Roman antiquities’ dealers, Ettore and Augusto Jandolo, the Met moved too slowly and the marble sculpture was sold to the German state.  As a consolation prize, the Met was still able to acquire a marquetry studiolo from Federico da Montefeltro’s palace in Gubbio which was sold by the Lancellotti family in 1937 to Adolph (Adolpho) Loewi, a German-Jewish art and antiquities dealer who flipped the piece to the Met before leaving Italy in 1939. 

Germany's fascination with the Discobolus 

Even before its purchase, the discobolus was firmly cemented in the hearts of Germans.  More so when held up as the ideal in the rhetoric, propaganda, art, and architecture of National Socialism.  This fascination can be seen in the evocative prologue of the 1936 film directed by Leni Riefenstahl Olympia – Festival of Nations which documented that summer's Olympics, held in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin during the Nazi period. 

Released in Germany on Hitler’s birthday on 20 April 1938, one month shy of the Nazis’ purchase of the statue, the film begins with a fanciful recreation of the ruins of the Acropolis of Athens, focusing in, with short clips, on a varying group of Greek statues before the montage concludes with a clearer image of the Discobolus as it gradually morphs into the ideal German athlete, Erwin Huber, who competed in the men's decathlon. His transformation was meant to illustrate the 'Vigour and beauty' of ancient Greece reborn in the athleticism and perfect physical form of modern Germany.

But back to the sale of the Discobolus

Bear in mind that in 1937 when Adolf Hitler first expressed interest in the Discobolus, Italy's cultural property was already protected by Law No. 364/1909, commonly referred to as the 'Rosadi-Rava Law.  This law, approved by the Italian parliament, stated that when a good owned by an individual or a private entity is classified as cultural property, the owner remained under an obligation to preserve its integrity (Article 20(1)(a) of the CHC). Furthermore, an authorisation by the Ministry of Education was required before such objects could be moved from their current location, for example, for a showing at an exhibition (Article 20(1)(b) of the CHC)3 or for restoration (Article 20(4) of the CHC).  

In the case of sale, a privately owned antiquity, classified as cultural property, might be sold, but the seller has an obligation to notify the contract to the Italian State within 30 days of the date of the sale.  In case of sale, the State has a pre-emption right, to be exercised within 60 days of the date of receipt of the sale notice (Article 59 of the CHC), all this to say that cultural property of a historic interest to the stated should not have been exported from the national territory on a permanent basis. 

Despite this, Benito Mussolini forced the hand of his then-Minister of Education, Giuseppe Bottai, by tacitly approving an export waiver to Adolf Hitler and not stepping in to deny the statue's export. On 18 May 1938 Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son in law and the Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy from 1936 to 1943, completed the sales transaction for the Discobolus.  The selling price was five million lire, ($252,000, as calculated later by the US Office of Military Government [OMGUS]), paid out over the protests of Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of Education, and the scholarly community. The German government then paid an additional 1,485,000 lire in export tax to complete the acquisition. 

On 29 June 1938 the Discobolus was shipped by train to Germany and was put on display at the Munich Glyptothek, with Hitler in attendance for its opening premiere on by 10 July 1938.  Some say Hitler opted for the Munich museum over the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin as a technique of oneupmanship.  One hundred years earlier, Ludwig I, the King of Bavaria, had sought to purchase the famous statue for his own collections. 

Adolf Hitler in the Munich Glyptothek with the Lancellotti Discobolus,
10 July 1938 - Image Credit US Library of Congress

The Lancellotti Discobolus then spent a decade in Germany, enduring the tumultuous period of World War II and escaping the heavy damage to the Glyptothek in the summer of 1944, when the museum was badly hit by Allied bombing raids. Thankfully, the bulk of the Glyptothek collection of sculptures and works of art had previously been brought to safety in monasteries. What had to be left behind, and not immediately destroyed by the bombing, suffered severe damage in the waning years before its restoration, as the cultural heritage institution was left without a roof. 

The remains of the Roman Hall of the Munich Glyptothek in 1945
After the war, the Discobolus was ordered to be returned to Italy, as part of a broader repatriation effort termed the “Exceptional Return of Works of Art” by Allied authorities.  Rodolfo Siviero, Italy's postwar representative dedicated to repatriating art taken from the country since 1937, was known to have played a pivotal role in advocating for the return of the marble statue and other contentious works of art. These pieces, all acquired by the National Socialist government, were contested on the grounds that the export permits were illegal, and in violation of the law of 1909. 

But the return of the Discobolus was not without its controversies. On Germany's side, letters of protest were sent to the U.S. Secretary of State, as well as to President Truman.  One of these was signed by thirty-six German staff members working at the Munich Central Collecting Point (CCP).  Another letter of protest, organised by a professor at the University of Munich, was signed by eighty-eight German officials.  

Calls for the decision's repeal were subsequently directed to the colonial authority known as the Office of Military Government, United States, (OMGUS) in Berlin and ultimately culminated in the resignation of Herbert S. Leonard, in November 1948, from his position as director of the Munich Central Collecting Point (CCP).  Leonard having resigned in opposition to OMGUS's fixed decision to return seventeen paintings and the sculpture to the Italian government.

The Italian authorities have always maintained that the collection was seized by Fascist leaders and gifted to the Nazis. While Leonard and others working on the provenance of objects held at the collecting point pointed to the fact that sculpture had been purchased by Nazi Germany in 1938 after Mussolini declared an "axis" between Germany and Italy on 1 November 1936 and prior to the start of World War II on 31 August 1939 and was therefore not an under duress sale.

Once back in Italy, in 1948, the Discobolus became part of the collection of the National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo.  More recently it has been part of an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale titled Arte Liberata 1937-1947: Capolavori Salvati dalla Guerra dedicated to the theme of cultural heritage at risk during World War II.  Afterwards, following a major reorganisation which is anticipated to take three years, the statue is expected to be moved permanently to Palazzo Altemps, close to Piazza Navona.   As for whose property the statue is, well I will leave that debate to the lawyers. 

By: Lynda Albertson