The legacy of Rodolfo Siviero is especially connected to his lifelong efforts to protect, preserve and return the works of art belonging to Italy and stolen during or after World War II. Siviero believed that works of art were not a trophy meant to fill up the museums of winning countries, but they were an inalienable asset of a country’s own identity. His unconventional and adventurous methods to achieve his successes, as well as his cultivated yet unscrupulous personality earned him the nickname of “007 of art”.
Siviero was born in 1911 in Guardistallo, not far from Pisa, but in 1924 he moved to Florence, where he studied art and literature at the University of Florence. Although he wanted to become an art critic, while supporting the newly affirmed Fascist regime in the 1930s, he joined the State’s secret services and in 1937 he was sent to Germany to gather information on Nazi Germany.
Siviero’s hope that Fascism could improve the situation of his country was soon lost with the introduction of the Italian Racial Laws and the increased illegal exportation to Germany of some of the most important Italian works of art. Having gradually detached himself from the regime, after September 8, 1943 Siviero turned openly against it, continuing his secret services activities in collaboration with the Allied and Italian partisan armies. From April to June 1944 he was imprisoned and tortured by the Fascist militia of Mario Carità. Once released, he resumed his espionage activities, helping the Allies to find the location in Alto Adige where the Germans had hidden hundreds of artworks belonging to the Florentine galleries and museums.
With the end of the war, Siviero intensified his activities to recover works of art. In 1946, he was placed at the head of the ministerial office for the Recovery of Works of Art and went to Germany to negotiate restitutions of the works of art belonging to his country. In 1947 he was able to obtain the restitution of the works of art taken from the Abbey of Monte Cassino which belonged to museums and galleries in Naples. The next year, the Lancelotti Discobolus, one of Mussolini’s authorized illegal exportations, came home to Italy. By 1953, all of the works of art taken to Germany from Italy had been returned.
Siviero’s commitment to recovering works of art was absolute. He compiled a catalogue of the missing art, which was published after his death, which today provides a great research tool to identify what is still missing in Italy since World War II. One of the greatest recoveries carried out after the immediate postwar period took place in California in 1963, where Siviero found Pollaiuolo’s two missing panel paintings of The Labors of Hercules from the Uffizi Gallery. They had not been found in Alto Adige among the other artworks because a German soldier had taken them from the Florentine repository. He had hidden them for the remaining years of the war, and then had taken them with him to the United States.
Siviero’s efforts to find the missing works of art continued until his death in Florence in 1983, although he had become increasingly bitter towards the Italian government, which he thought was paying too little attention to recovering its expropriated artistic treasures. His body was buried within the convent of the Santissima Annunziata inside the chapel owned by the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, of which he was president in the 1970s. Part of his archive and diaries are preserved at the Academy.