On the afternoon of July 30, 1944, Major Eric Linklater, the Scottish novelist, was wandering around the shuttered rooms of the Tuscan castle of Montegufoni, 20 miles southwest of Florence. He was chronicling the advance of the British Army's Eighth Indian Division, and on that day he had decided to visit the Mahratta Light Infantry, a division that had distinguished itself with its valor on the battlefield and that was temporarily quartered at Montegufoni. Yet within the walls of the castle a surprise of a completely different nature awaited him. He noticed paintings stacked in some of the rooms: copies, presumably, of Tuscan masters... pretty good copies, he thought as he squatted on his heels to examine them more closely. As the notion dawned on him that he might be looking at Botticelli's Primavera, BBC war correspondent Vaughan Thomas, who was traveling with him that day, burst into the room, exclaiming: "The whole house is full of pictures! And some of the cases are labeled. They've come from the Uffizi and Pitti!"
The paintings were indeed from the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace in Florence—here were some 200 of them—and Major Linklater was right: among those unframed canvases were Giotto's majestic Madonna di Ognissanti, Botticelli's Primavera, and Uccello's Battle of San Romano. What all those masterpieces were doing in the midst of a furious war front is the story of one of the most spectacular art-rescue operations of World War II. Its main characters have long ago left this world, and as for the paintings, any visitor to the Uffizi these days would be hard put to detect a scratch or a scar, or indeed any trace of their wartime ordeal. But as I listened to the memories of surviving witnesses, I found my sense of Florence itself changing, shifting from early impressions of a city that had always seemed to me a little proud and inaccessible. A private but profound love of the place emerges from the wartime reminiscences of members of the ancient Guicciardini and Corsini families. The story of how Florence got its pictures back is a testament to the city's colossal effort to rise from the ruin of war and find its splendor once again.
As you travel along the Via Volterrana, the road that leads south from Florence to the ancient Etruscan town of Volterra, it is hard to imagine that in the summer of 1944 this land was ravaged by the passage of the front, its population terrorized by the atrocities of the retreating German SS. "I often ask myself, Why weren't we more scared?" Countess Giuliana Guicciardini reflects as she recalls her days at Poppiano, the castle that her family, one of the oldest in Florence, has owned since the 12th century and where a celebrated ancestor, Francesco Guicciardini (a contemporary of Machiavelli's), wrote part of his History of Italy. To this castle, Giuliana's father-in-law, Count Lorenzo, had taken his family to escape the air raids over Florence.
A 92-year-old woman today, in 1944 Countess Giuliana was a young widow, coping as best she could with the fear, the lack of food, and the presence of German soldiers quartered in the castle, as well as the responsibility of raising her three small and fatherless children. "I guess I was too occupied to be preoccupied," she says.
Sitting in the study of her apartment in the Palazzo Guicciardini, in Florence, the countess leafs through the pages of an album, pausing over an old black-and-white photograph of a man holding a huge oil painting on the castle terrace; in another, a truck full of more paintings is parked on the castle grounds. In addition to the family, the German soldiers, and, later on, a number of Allied officers, some 200 paintings were once special guests at Poppiano. The Superintendency for the Museums of Florence asked permission to store them in the castle as early as December 1942, and the Guicciardinis took care of the pictures while at the same time feeling "protected" by them. If the paintings were deemed to be safe—or safer—out there in the countryside, that must mean that the country was safe for people, or at least safer than Florence, right?
The castle of poppiano, picturesque at the end of an avenue of cypress trees, is now the home of Ferdinando, Countess Giuliana's oldest child and only son. Ferdinando is an aristocrat turned entrepreneur who with his wife, Annamaria, produces olive oil and Chianti on the estate. He was a young child during the war, and his mother had to remind him which rooms at Poppiano housed the paintings: the dining room, with its sweeping view of the Val di Pesa below; a living room whose walls, following the rounded shape of the castle, have an undulating look that may have disturbed more than one tipsy guest; and, finally, the wainscoted, high-ceilinged library, where some of the books documenting almost 1,000 years of family history wrap three sides of the room.
At walking distance from Poppiano, at least for good wartime legs, is another castle, Montegufoni, which springs into view from behind a curve on the Volterrana. With its slender tower, modeled after the one rising above the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, many-storied Montegufoni must have looked like the perfect castle to British polymath and former MP Sir George Sitwell, whose car broke down right in front of it one afternoon in 1909. Sir George bought the castle right there and then, and for more than 60 years it was his Italian home and later that of his children, Sir Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell. And then it got to be too big and too expensive for Sacheverell's son, Reresby, who sold it for a song to Florentine developer Sergio Posarelli in 1972.