Anthony van Dyck (school of)  

Madonna and Child with Saint (17th century)

oil on copper, 8.58 x 6.46 in. (21.80 x 16.40 cm)

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With the outbreak of war in 1940, the art collections of museums in Italy were transferred out of the city centers for protection. The works of art from Florentine museums were mostly moved to privately-owned villas in the Tuscan countryside. Virgin with Child and Saint by the school of Anthony van Dyck (G. Pal. Inv. No. 282) from the collections of the Palatine Gallery was evacuated for safe-keeping to the Villa Bossi-Pucci in Montagnana, fifteen miles west of Florence.

 

Florentine and German authorities had come to an agreement that all of the evacuated collections would be returned to the city once the danger had passed. However, with Italy’s armistice on September 3, 1943 and its subsequent declaration of war on its former Axis partner, only the contents of a few of the deposits were, in fact, returned, and some only in part. As Rome fell in June 1944 and the front neared Florence, representatives of the Deutsche Militärische Kunstschutz, Germany’s “art protection” unit, and Florentine art officials held emergency meetings regarding the repositories in the Tuscan countryside. It was decided that due to the danger of Allied bombers, no further removals were to be made from rural areas back into urban ones.

 

On July 3, 1944, German soldiers entered the Villa Bossi-Pucci while keeping the local civilians away from the building. Many trucks were used to block the view of what the German soldiers were doing. The 362nd Infantry Division, commanded by General Greiner, loaded the contents of the villa, 291 paintings in total, onto trucks and drove them to Marano sul Panaro, near Bologna. He was told to offer the paintings for further safe-keeping to the Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna and the Bishop of Modena, both of whom refused the incoming request, afraid that they were being tricked by the German authorities.

 

On July 4, Col. Metzner, the City Commander of Florence, informed the Superintendent of Florence, Prof. Giovanni Poggi, that the collection would have to be relocated for safety reasons. It was not until after Poggi had protested this action with Metzner’s superiors that he found out that the paintings had already been removed.

 

When the Monuments Men reached the Villa in August 1944, they found the interior in a state of total devastation. Only one small room still contained any art, and one piece had been slashed with a blade. The list of artworks taken included some by the greatest artists in the European tradition, including Botticelli, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Rembrandt.

 

The majority of the works of art were discovered in May 1945 by the American Fifth Army in repositories near Bolzano, in Northern Italy. It is thought that before reaching Bolzano, in August 1944 the trucks had stopped at a Villa Tavoni. Supposedly, the pictures taken from Montagnana were hung to decorate the walls during a party that was thrown one evening, prior to being loaded on the trucks once again and taken to their final destination in North Italy. 

 

In those chaotic days, ten paintings went missing. Nine of them have been found between 1963 and 2019 in the possession of German soldiers or their relatives. One of them, this Virgin with Child and Saint, is still missing.

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Courtesy of the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

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