In the medieval castles of the countryside outside Florence, Ilaria Dagnini Brey explores one of art history's thrilling wartime chapters.
Jasper James Count Ferdinando Guicciardini standing in a doorway at Poppiano.
| Credit: Jasper James

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.

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 meta 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.

Montegufoni is open for tours. Poppiano is not, but the castle's shop sells its wines and olive oil. The art both castles once held can be seen in Florence museums.

18 Via Montegufoni, Montagnana; 39-0571/671-131;; apartment for $798, double, per week.

Montespertoli; 39-055/82315;

Uffizi Gallery
6 Piazzale degli Uffizi, Florence; 39-055/ 265-4321;

Pitti Palace
Piazza Pitti, Via Romana, Florence; 39-055/265-4321;

Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens

Recent renovations at this sprawling Renaissance-Mannerist palazzo have opened up archives, grottoes, and sights that had been closed years. Among the vast complex of museums and galleries, art lovers should head straight to the Palatine Gallery, housing works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, and Caravaggio, then wander the opulent Royal Apartments, once home, in succession, to the Medici, the Lorraine Grand-Dukes, and the 19th century Italian Royal Family. The Gallery of Modern Art provides a dose of Italian impressionists like Giovanni Fattori. The Costume Museum is Italy’s largest fashion collection, an archive of 6,000 historic pieces, including troves donated by Emilio Pucci and Gianfranco Ferré, with frequent exhibitions of current fashions. In the Boboli Gardens, visit the restored Grotta Buontalenti, a fake cavern network containing artworks, frescoes, and water displays (entrance at 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 4pm), then climb to the rococo Kaffeehaus to admire one of Florence’s best views.

Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi contains the world's most magnificent collection of Renaissance art from the greatest of Old Masters. This relatively small gallery, occupying the sumptuously decorated halls of the ruling Medici dynasty's one-time office complex, can easily take up a full day. Its rooms are positively stuffed with masterpieces, from the Gothic great Giotto's Maestà to Boticelli's iconic Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring to Leonardo Da Vinci's Annunciation. The hits march on with works by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Dürer, Caravaggio, Titian, and just about any other great you can think of. Reserve ahead for a timed entry; in summer especially, the general entry line can last hours. For something truly special, book a (free) tour of the Contini Bonacossi collection in a wing of the museum normally closed to the public but open by appointment.

Castello di Poppiano