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The power of victory: Italy, Austria and the struggle for treasures of art and history after the First World War (1918-1923)

Coccolo, Francesca (2021) The power of victory: Italy, Austria and the struggle for treasures of art and history after the First World War (1918-1923). Advisor: Pellegrini, Prof. Emanuele. pp. 226. [IMT PhD Thesis]

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Stemming from the author’s previous years of research into how peace settlements have changed the destiny of so many artistic treasures and entire historical collections in Europe, this work appears to have been only a matter of time. Despite there being a striking amount of records and first-hand accounts on artistic disputes between Austria and Italy at the end of the First World War, recent contributions, albeit precious, have so far remained quite circumscribed, often focused on either Italian or Austrian sources and perspectives, but seldom taking both into account in equal measure. The fact that no broader analysis had been undertaken yet is partly attributable to the perhaps less appealing and less fictional features of post-1918 claims and restitutions. Exactly because no big-scale, thoroughly organised looting campaigns directed by incredibly power-thirsty individuals preceded those events, it may have seemed somehow intimidating comparing them to the sensational retrievals of the Napoleonic loots in Paris in 1815 and the equally unprecedented and gigantic effort of the Allies, and the Americans in particular, towards the recovery and restitution of artworks displaced by Nazi and Fascist authorities. Yet, what happened less than thirty years before that is in a sense the unintentionally neglected link in a chain that seems worth appreciating in its entirety. During the Congress of Vienna no official treaty ever acknowledged the restitutions extolled from France through the military intervention of Prussia and Austria and the mediation of the British in favour of Canova’s requests. For reasons of international tact, relations with the restored French monarchy were not to be publicly compromised from the very onset. Conversely, the authority of the peace agreements and official restitution policies was to constitute the linchpin of post-1945 restitutions as administered mainly by the United States and their Army officials, particularly keen on abidance by the protocol and well-defined, ideally universal procedures. In 1919 and the years that followed, one interestingly witnesses a sort of liminal situation that borrows from previous instances of forced retrievals at the expenses of the vanquished but at the same time paves the way for a more regulated implementation of restitution demands through peace treaties, official protocols and bilateral agreements. This type of legal primary sources just mentioned, along with official and personal correspondence kept in so many archives, Italian but in particular Austrian newspaper articles and the accounts penned and published by all those who had a direct role in the events, constitute not only the heart of this work, but its very reason to be. Acknowledging the potential of such a deep but partly untapped pool of information, this research has thus been intentionally and fundamentally archive-based. As it will become clear throughout the main text, the account has given a significant priority to primary sources over second-hand and late contributions. The main reason for that is the fact that many recent studies rely on and constitute an interpretation only of part of those records. A work built too much on recent literature would have not left enough room and silence for the original voices to be heard, appreciated and contextualised in the historical events that framed and influenced them. The choice of proceeding along the lines drawn by the available yet greatly unpublished material has furthermore highlighted the need for a comprehensive chronological account of events only partially known to scholars and the public alike. Against the backdrop of those five years that, after 1918, slowly and painfully dragged collapsed empires, vanquished and victorious nations out of the cruelties of the war, the work traces the steps of those in Italy and Austria who kept fighting for objects and collections of art and history with undiminished urge. In what can be seen as a backlash of the real hostilities that had just subsumed, the presence of the Italian military in Vienna ushered in a period of recriminations and threats that resulted in the forced seizure of dozens of paintings and manuscripts from the major institutions of the Austrian capital. The reaction of local intellectuals and the public opinion contributed to making it an international affair with serious repercussions on the peace negotiations in Paris. And in this sense the upcoming treaties, agreements and the official directives of international bodies like the Reparation Commission ended up playing a paramount role in the destiny of national collections like the Austrian ones, under the persisting threat of claimant countries for years after the war. What ensues is thus the analysis of how pressing Italian demands had to translate into more accommodating and diplomatic attitudes, despite a race against time to avoid the entanglements and caveats of post-war diplomacy and regulations. In the end, the ultimate destiny of major public collections and unique objects of art and history had, like in the past, to be subjected to exceptional and unprecedented political circumstances and power struggles that more often than not go unnoticed in the general art-historical discourse. After discovering how much had been left untold that was actually available through so many documents and writings on both sides of the Alps, the urgency to catch up and put together a comprehensive, transnational history of those years arose naturally. For this cannot be but a story told from the Austrian and the Italian side at the same time, especially after more than a century has passed. Such a multi-centred way of proceeding resorts to a wide, almost infinite range of connections between people, objects and places and thus automatically transcends political boundaries. In so doing, it also advocates an interpretation of the facts that wants to be as little biased as possible, an interpretation that won’t intrude too much throughout the narration so as to let the reader appreciate first and foremost the events as they followed and triggered one another, leaving some food for thought only at the very end. Consistently, the choice was also that of trying not to fall into mainstream discourses of art looting and restitution. Comparisons with earlier and later examples will inevitably be drawn, but this specific chapter of the past and its characters will still retain their own historical dignity and autonomy. This automatically entails leaving behind binary interpretations along the lines of good and wrong, of customary and unlawful, compensation and punishment, both on an individual and on a collective level. Paradoxically though, what is provided here is no real alternative to existing narratives except a fresh look at something that still remains hopelessly complex but, for this very reason, ever enriching.

Item Type: IMT PhD Thesis
Subjects: N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
PhD Course: Analysis and Management of Cultural Heritage
Identification Number: 10.13118/imtlucca/e-theses/343/
NBN Number: urn:nbn:it:imtlucca-27962
Date Deposited: 21 Dec 2021 09:15
URI: http://e-theses.imtlucca.it/id/eprint/343

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