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Florence’s Medieval Art

Jasper James Count Ferdinando Guicciardini standing in a doorway at Poppiano.

Photo: Jasper James

Montegufoni is now an understated, elegant rental property. A powerfully evocative atmosphere still fills this place, where, on an August afternoon in 1944, during a pause in combat, even General Alexander came to pay his respects to the paintings—as a cluster of children stood gaping at the hero of the Med­i­ter­ranean campaign. Today, in the glaring light of a Tuscan summer afternoon, the walls of the courtyard carry the echo of Major Linklater's steps as he approached the semi-darkness of the rooms piled high with paintings while the little crowd that had gathered around him—local villagers—kept nodding, "yes, yes... no, copy... real Botticelli."

Linklater wrote in his memoirs, The Art of Adventure, that he met a man whom everybody called the Professor, although he was in fact the Uffizi librarian. His name was Cesare Fasola, and he was a well-known anti-Fascist who, in those dangerous days between the German retreat and the Allies' liberation of Florence, when all communication to and from the city had become extremely difficult, had settled at Montegufoni and walked or bicycled between it, Poppiano, and other hiding places to check on the condition of the paintings.

With the roar of battle only a mile away, Fasola, who spoke no English, told Linklater, who knew not a word of Italian, the singular circumstances that had brought his trove of art into the middle of a war-torn countryside. Early in the war, he explained, all movable art had been taken out of Florence to be stored in two dozen castles and villas in the countryside, for fear of Allied air raids over the city. The city, however, or at least its monuments, had been mostly spared by Anglo-American bombings; meanwhile, the Allies' advance by land had been moving rapidly since the fall of Rome. As the ring of war closed around Florence, it had become almost impossible for the Italian and German Fine Arts authorities to bring those masterpieces back within the city walls. Suddenly, all those Botticellis and Giottos were, as Linklater would recount, "left behind in a perilous no-man's-land with only the Professor to guard them."

When a tall, bespectacled American art historian turned up at the busy grounds of Montegufoni, the Professor breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, as Fasola would later recall in his 1945 book The Florentine Galleries and the War, he was ecstatic to learn that the Allied Military Government included a small group of "monuments officers" whose job it was to bring first aid to war-damaged works of art. Months of being pummeled by Fascist and Nazi propaganda had prepared Fasola and his countrymen for an invasion of "barbarians" who had no use for art and who would loot, trample, and destroy Italy's most cherished cultural treasures. And yet here was young Lieutenant Frederick Hartt, who spoke Italian fluently and who couldn't wait to take over Fasola's former "parish" in his role as Monuments Officer for Tuscany.

Major Linklater, who drove Lieutenant Hartt to Montegufoni, thought him "wildly agitated," and though that may have been a function of his personality, at that particular juncture the young American officer had plenty of reason to fret. Not only had the Allies been in the dark for months as to the whereabouts of the Florentine pictures, but a first inspection of the other art repositories around Florence had brought troubling news. While the pictures at Poppiano had survived one hit by shellfire unscathed, the holdings at Montagnana, at the Villa Bocci, and at Poppi, in the Casentino region—a total of some 500 works of art that included Donatello's David and St. George, Michelangelo's Bacchus, and the Venus de'Medici—had been loaded onto trucks by the Nazis and taken to an undisclosed destination in the north. For months, the fate of these works also remained unknown.

Hartt spent one month at Montegufoni and later moved to Florence, where for a year he was a guest of the Corsini family in their palazzo on the Arno. "I can still remember the first day I saw him, standing in the courtyard by his jeep," Donna Anna Corsini says of the man who became a lifelong friend. Now 93, Donna Anna has lived in her country house in Renacci, in the Arno Valley, for years, but she insists that I visit Fred Hartt's wartime apartment: two corner rooms on the top floor of Palazzo Corsini that overlook the Arno, the Carraia bridge, and, beyond them, the dome of the church of San Frediano against a background of hills. Each morning, he "absorbed this view," as he was fond of saying, and then, with his colleagues, he would set out for a day's work of digging through the rubble of destroyed libraries in search of precious manuscripts, or buttressing ancient walls and towers, or covering church roofs that a bomb had shattered. At night, he would join Donna Anna and her mother, Donna Lucrezia, in their parlor and describe the adventures of his day. "I learned to recognize where he had been from the way he walked up the stairs," Donna Anna recalls. "If he bounced up three steps at a time, I'd say, 'I know you've been to Siena,' a town that the war had spared. But if his gait was weary and heavy, I knew he had visited war-ravaged Pisa."

All through the winter of 1944–45, Hartt and the monuments officers pursued still-missing Florentine works of art. Paintings had been sighted near the northern town of Modena, where at least one of them, a Titian, had graced the walls of the villa of a Nazi-sympathizing local family during a candlelit dinner and dance. There was increasing concern among the Allies that the Nazis might take paintings across the border and use them as leverage at the time of their surrender—or even destroy them. When the paintings were finally located, in the spring of 1945, at the castle Campo Tures and San Leonardo in Val Passiria in Bolzano, and the German Fine Arts authorities were interrogated, it appeared that in all likelihood the works had been headed for Linz, in Austria, where they would have joined the museum that Hitler was assembling in the town of his childhood. It took a couple of months for Hartt and his colleagues, Deane Keller, Ernest DeWald, and John Ward Perkins, to arrange for their return to Florence, as by then bridges had been blown up and roads mined by the retreating German army. When the paintings were finally and triumphantly transported back to Florence, on July 21, 1945, a huge crowd was waiting in the city's Piazza del Duomo.

The paintings have been hanging next door in the Uffizi Gallery, and elsewhere, ever since, looking none the worse for wear.

ILARIA DAGNINI BREY is writing a book on the monuments officers' work in Italy during World War II.

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