Art historians don’t have it easy. When I’ve previously told people that I went to school for art history, I’ve gotten everything from eye rolls that imply “You pretentious snob!” to an unequivocal “Boring!” and finally, finishing with my favorite, “…But what do you do?” President Obama even got his digs in when he recently advised Wisconsin’s young people to pursue skilled manufacturing over an art history degree.
Really Mr. President? Kick us while you’re down, why don’t ya! We can’t exactly disagree with him (seeing as we both had to find jobs outside our chosen field), but we still feel strongly that studying art history is valuable and important. So lately, we’ve been dreaming of days when calling yourself an art historian demanded honor and respect.
Enter Rodolfo Siviero, an Italian secret agent and art historian celebrated for his work rescuing and returning Italian artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Known as the “007 of art,” he is our idea of a superhero when it comes to art history.
In honor of The Monuments Men opening today, we thought it was the perfect time to tour Siviero’s home, now a free art museum, on the Arno. A Hollywood blockbuster about one of our favorite subjects might be exciting, but it’s still no substitute for exploring the real thing.
Distance: 1.9 km / 1.1 miles from Piazza del Duomo
Born in 1911 in Guardistallo, Siviero was educated in and spent much of his life in Florence. He had growing dreams of becoming a poet and art critic when the rise of Fascism shifted his attention to politics. As early as 1934, Siviero started working for the Italian Army Intelligence, gathering information on Nazi intent to invade Austria. In 1937, he moved to Germany for a short time – under the guise of studying art history, of course – to continue to collect intel.
Yet by the German occupation of Italy in 1943, Siviero had become disillusioned with Fascism and strongly opposed the Nazis. So when the Germans began pillaging the cultural patrimony of Florence, Siviero became incensed and put his secret agent skills to good use. He made friends with the Allies and, working out of his Jewish friend and fellow art historian Giorgio Castelfranco’s house, constructed a network of art protectors that started to foil the enemy’s plans to steal priceless artwork.
One favorite Siviero story is his success in keeping Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in the Franciscan monastery of Montecarlo near San Giovanni Valdarno. Our 007 heard that Hermann Goering, a Nazi leader, wanted the work for his personal collection. He quickly coordinated with the Franciscan friars to remove and hide the artwork. The Germans arrived to take the piece the next day, and, much to Goering’s dismay, it was nowhere to be found.
When Siviero couldn’t stop the Nazis from plundering the likes of the Uffizi, Bargello or worse, his team of spies would mark where the Nazis took the pieces, information that then allowed the Allies to reach and reclaim them. The Museo site has a great list of Siviero’s successes during the Nazi occupation.
Siviero didn’t stop with the end of the war, however – he was just getting started. He dedicated the rest of his life to searching for stolen artwork across continents. When he found a work that belonged to Italy, he arranged for its transport home, restoring the piece to its place before the war.
Siviero also took over his friend Castelfranco’s home, which was left empty when his family fled during the occupation. There, he collected artwork spanning centuries. From Renaissance furniture to his friend Giorgio de Chirico‘s paintings, the house became a living museum dedicated to Italy’s rich cultural patrimony. For his final work and wish, he left his home and belongings to the Region of Tuscany upon his death in1983.
Today, you can tour the space, set on Lungarno Serristori between Ponte alle Grazie and Ponte San Niccolo, just as Siviero intended. You can wander his halls, linger in his kitchen, and admire the artistic wonders he collected over a lifetime. Between the priceless paintings and Roman busts, you can get a better sense of this man of mystery that much of the city owes for its rich collection of art.
Museo Casa Rodolfo Siviero is open Saturday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (from September to June), 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. (in July and August), and Sunday and Monday 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. (all year round). Entrance is always free.
UPDATE from one of our awesome readers, Barb: “You might be interested to know that Frederick Hartt, one of the Monuments Men who played a significant role in returning stolen art to Florence, is buried in the cemetery of San Miniato Al Monte. He was also one of the first Americans on the scene after the 1966 Flood and stayed to help with the restoration effort. Another Monuments Man, Deane Keller, is buried in the Camposanto in Pisa. He arrived on the scene shortly after a fire destroyed the ancient frescoes of the Camposanto and worked tirelessly to obtain materials to help save what was left. Both men received highest honors from the Italians. It’s nice to see all these men finally get some recognition.”