His name is not a household word, not even in Italy, but it should be. Nor was his extraordinary story told until fairly recently. But, starting in 1940, for a period of five years, three months and eight days, a young, public servant, Pasquale Rotondi, a superintendent of the Artistic and Historic Heritage in the Marche, saved about 10,000 masterpieces from bombardments, mainly by the Allies. Not only did he protect them from physical destruction, but he later prevented their transportation to Germany at the hands of the so-called Offices for Artistic Protection set up by the Nazi SS in Italy.
To be more exact: he saved approximately 6,000 paintings, sculptures, pieces of ecclesiastical furnishings, ceramics, glassware, medals, tapestries and carpets as well as 4,000 books, manuscripts, archives and music scores. These masterpieces, which came not only from the principal museums in the Marche but also from Venice, Milan and Rome, included important works by Giorgione, Lotto, Titian, Piero della Francesca, as well as paintings by Rubens, Veronese, Raphael, Mantegna, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Guardi and Canaletto.
Initially, under instructions from the government in Rome, the works were hidden in the Rocca di Sassocorvaro in Montefeltro, a fortress built in the fifteenth century and a masterpiece of military engineering in its own right. They were also stored in the Palace of the Princes of Carpegna and in the cellars of the Ducal Palace of Urbino.
When, however, Rotondi was ordered by the Republic of Salò to turn all the works over to the Germans, at great personal risk, he disobeyed the order. He contacted the Superintendent of Rome, and, with his agreement, managed to get the Vatican to house not only works belonging to its own heritage but everything else. In this way, began his James Bond-like adventure of transporting these masterpieces from Urbino to Rome, under the noses of the Germans.
The process is vividly described by Giovanna Rotondi Terminiello, one of Rotondi’s daughters, in an interview given to La Repubblica newspaper on July 1, 2005. She explains how her parents slept with Giorgione’s painting The Tempest under their bed:
In Carpegna, my father saved the paintings by taking the labels off the crates and only showing the Nazis a crate full of Rossini’s scores. Then he rushed to Sassocorvaro and took the smallest paintings so he could transfer them to the Ducal Palace of Urbino. My mother, that night, waited for his car outside Urbino to warn him that the Germans were carrying out searches. We were on holiday, not far away, at Villa Tortorina, so father decided to put everything in our house for the two or three days required until the Germans left. He hid the Giorgione under the bed. We children didn’t know anything about this, we were only surprised that mother should have so suddenly taken ill and never left their bedroom. For her and father it was also a time of great joy to be able to look at and to hold that masterpiece in their hands.
Rotondi was born in Arpino (Frosinone) in 1909. After taking his degree in the history of art, he became, in 1939, the superintendent of the Artistic and Historic Heritage of Urbino. At the end of the war, Rotondi moved to Genoa, where he became superintendent there and, then, from 1961 to 1973, director of the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome. In 1973, he was nominated a consultant to the Vatican for the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. He died at after being hit by a motorbike on his way to work in 1991. He was 81 years old.
A documentary called La lista di Pasquale Rotondi (‘Pasquale Rotondi’s List’), with an obvious allusion to another famous list, Schindler’s, was made about his heroic undertaking. Rai Educational and the Mountain Community of Montefeltro made it as part of the television series La storia siamo noi (‘History Is Us’). Through this documentary, films about his life, such as Operazione Salvataggio (‘Operation Rescue’), and publication of his diary, Opere d’arte nella tempesta della guerra (‘Works of Art in the Tempest of War’), Rotondi’s story has, at last, been told. Each year, a prize bearing his name is presented to ‘Saviors of Art’ at Sassocorvaro.
This international award, made in four categories (the Marche, Italy, Europe and the world) is specifically given to those who, through their actions, have saved important artistic works. Winners of this prestigious prize include Nidal Amin, director of the Museum of Baghdad, and Caterina Bon Valsassina, director of the Central Institute of Restoration, who is responsible for the restoration of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing.
On 10 November 2005, the president of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, on an official visit to Pesaro, presented Rotondi’s two daughters with a gold medal in recognition of their father’s contribution to protecting and safeguarding Italy’s artistic heritage. That medal should bear all our names in gratitude to him.