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Biography of Rodolfo Siviero

Rodolfo Siviero played a very important role in protecting Italy's cultural heritage. Thanks to his efforts, most of the works taken from Italy during the Second World War were returned. His great initiative to retrieve works of art, his personal charm as an educated and refined person, his sometimes rather unscrupulous way of doing things and his great success with the opposite sex earned him the reputation as the James Bond of the art world.

Rodolfo was born in Guardistallo, in the Province of Pisa on 24 December 1911. His father, a non-commissioned officer in the Carabineers, was transferred to Florence with the family in 1924. It was here that Rodolfo received his education, frequenting the city's artistic and literary circles and cultivating his ambition to become a poet and art critic. In the introduction to his 1936 published collection of poetry, "La selva oscura" (the dark forest), we experience one of his firmest held beliefs, that of a very close link between modern and ancient art and of the existence of an unbroken line between Michelangelo and De Chirico and Picasso.

In 1934 Siviero had begun working as a secret agent for Italian Army Intelligence to gather information on the Nazi's plans of invading Austria. In 1937 he moved to Germany, using the cover of a student scholarship in art history. Like many of his young contemporaries, Siviero's attraction to fascism was based on the belief that the regime could revolutionise the country for the better. The reasons for his later change of opinion were complex and little known. His aversion to Nazism, evident from the earliest pages of his diary, intensified after the introduction of the so-called 'Racial Laws', which he saw as an affront to Italian cultural tradition.
In the early years of the Second World War, Siviero's opposition to Nazi Fascism was further strengthened as the Nazi hierarchies, obliged by the fascist government, illegally exported vast quantities of Italian works of art to enrich their own collections. With the German occupation following the armistice on 8 September 1943, the traffic of works of art to Germany became plunder in every sense of the word. A special military corps, the 'Kunstschutz', which should have protected the cultural heritage, under the pretext of saving Italian works of art from the bombings, requisitioned them and transported them to Germany.

 After 8th September 1943, Rodolfo Siviero sided with the anti-fascist forces. His secret agent activities now continued in collaboration with Allied Command. Having become a point of reference for English intelligence in Florence, Siviero maintained ties and collaborated with the partisans. As an informer, Siviero also worked to prevent the Nazi plunder of works of art and notified the allied secret services of the transfer of masterpieces to Germany. During this time, the house on the banks of the river Arno, owned by the Jewish art historian, Giorgio Castelfranco, known today as Casa Siviero, acted as the operations centre for the partisans working against the action of the Kunstschutz. Suspected by fascist troops under Mario Carità, Siviero was imprisoned and tortured from April to June 1944 in the so-called Villa Triste (Sad House) in via Bolognese. He managed to resist interrogation and, thanks to intervention by Fascist officers collaborating with the Anglo-American forces, he was released and thus able to resume work.

 After the Liberation, thanks to his experience in the Resistance and the rapport of trust and mutual esteem he had established with the allies, Siviero was chosen by the Italian Government as the most suitable person to handle the problem of the return of the works of art stolen during the war.
In 1946 he was nominated as head of a special diplomatic mission to the Allied Military Government in Germany.
In 1947 he succeeded in obtaining the artworks taken away from Italian monuments after 8 September 1943. In 1948 he was able to bring back to Italy also those woks which had been bought by the Nazi hierarchy prior to that date and illegally exported to Germany. One such masterpiece, the "Discobolo Lancellotti", a Roman copy of the work by Mirone, which became the symbol of "Minister Plenipotentiary" Siviero's work and efforts.
In 1953 he succeeded in having the Italian and the Federal German government sign a political agreement which returned all the works of art found in Germany at the end of the war. During the 50s and 60s Siviero turned his attention to the hunt for missing masterpieces and works which continued to be stolen and illegally exported from Italy. His many and legendary successes gave rise to the nickname of James Bond of the art world. Siviero organised his recovery operations from his office in Palazzo Venezia in Rome, making use of an efficient network of informers and his great ability to negotiate and his equally great daring to manoeuvre within the diplomatic circles of post-war Europe.
Siviero continued his work until his death in 1983, but over the years the role of the Delegation for the return of works of art began to loose importance. The bitterness Siviero felt towards the scant attention paid by Italian governments to the problem of recovering the country's cultural heritage is clear from his diaries. He was similarly embittered by the failure of his project for a museum of the recovered works of art, which he had hoped would keep alive the memory of the values by which his action was inspired.
During the latter years of his life, Siviero was actively involved in cultural circles and was the president of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, the prestigious Florentine institute founded in the XVI century by Vasari and Cosimo I dei Medici.  Siviero brought about changes in the organisation of the institute, bringing new life and establishing a series of important events.

In his will, Siviero's last wishes were that the Region of Tuscany should inherit his house and collection and make a museum to treasure the values for which he had fought throughout his life. The belief that works of art should not become trophies to enrich the houses and museums of the winning side to a war and that they are the inalienable property of the cultural identity of a nation was the ideal by which Rodolfo Siviero lived his life. The contribution he made to this principle is the most important inheritance he left to us..

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