Ojetti: L’arte si paghi con l’arte (1919)

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the Italian journalist and government counselor Ugo Ojetti published an emotional article on the issue of restitutions and compensations, which at that time was the subject of an intense international debate. Italy had entered the war in 1915 against the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the purpose of conquering Northern areas of the peninsula still in possession of the latter. In spring 1919, the Italian government was therefore sitting at the table of international negotiations on the side of the winners, together with France and the United Kingdom.

commented by Matilde Cartolari

Original text    Translation    Brief biography    Commentary    Sources and literature

L’arte si paghi con l’arte

From: Corriere della Sera, 18 May 1919, p. 2. Republished in: Ugo Ojetti, I nani tra le colonne, Milano 1920, pp. 47–53.

C’è ormai un solo italiano tanto benigno da credere che i nemici germanici, austriaci, ungheresi, ci paghino tondi tondi i danni di miliardi e miliardi fattici in guerra con atti contrarii, come dicono i libri dei giureconsulti, al diritto delle genti? Non c’è.

C’è un italiano, specie nelle province liberate, tanto notarile e meticoloso da non accettare, anzi da non preferire, se fosse possibile, all’ipotetico pagamento in moneta dei risarcimenti per quei danni, il pratico pagamento in natura: tanti buoi, attrezzi, macchine, mobili ecc., in cambio di quelli distrutti o rubati? Non c’è.

Ora da computi minuti e documentati risulta che l’arte italiana ha sofferto dalla guerra danni materiali per circa ottanta milioni di lire nella quale somma non è inclusa la distruzione degli affreschi del Tiepolo a Venezia e a Nervesa, degli affreschi del Veronese e dei suoi scolari a Romanziol, e non sono calcolati i guasti fatti dalle bombe austriache, ungheresi e germaniche a Sant’Apollinare di Ravenna e a tanti altri monumenti, perché è impossibile fissare in lire, marchi e corone questi scempii dato che bellezze equivalenti a quelle non sono, che si sappia, in commercio. Ora di questi danni materiali ed artistici si può avere, se veramente lo si vuole, il pagamento in altrettante opere d’arte — d’arte italiana, s’intende — altrettanto belle, altrettanto preziose, altrettanto ammirate; e tutte d’autentica e assoluta proprietà del nemico; quadri, sculture, stoffe, oreficerie, gemme, esposte nei pubblici musei di Berlino, Dresda, Monaco, Vienna, Budapest.

Ma chi se ne occupa? Nessuno, almeno per quanto riguarda l’Italia.

L’elenco di queste opere d’arte è pronto, da mesi. La Commissione d’inchiesta sugli atti del nemico contrarii al diritto delle genti, d’accordo con la Direzione delle Belle Arti, l’ha formulato, stampato, consegnato al Governo. Sarà incluso nel trattato di pace che si sta formulando perché lo firmi l’Austria tedesca? È stato incluso nel trattato presentato alla Germania dato che i danni più gravi con bombardamenti dal cielo sulle città e sui villaggi del Veneto sono stati fatti tra il dicembre 1917 e il marzo 1918, quando cioè tre squadriglie germaniche da bombardamento, la 19.a, la 20.a e la 21.a, restarono e operarono sul nostro fronte? Si è fatto qualche passo per sorvegliare le opere di quell’elenco proprietà dello Stato ungherese? Mistero. Solo si sussurra che, in assenza dei nostri rappresentanti, il signor Clemenceau abbia proposto al supremo Consiglio di non far pagare con opere d’arte i danni alle opere d’arte, per timore che, una volta o l’altra nei secoli, la Germania possa volgere questo principio a proprio vantaggio contro la Francia. Inglesi ed americani i cui monumenti erano assai lontani dai pericoli della guerra, hanno sùbito approvato questa bella idea.

Intanto è utile informare il pubblico in tempo, e mettere i punti sugl’i.

Noi dobbiamo avere o riavere dal nemico opere d’arte per quattro ragioni. Uno, quelle da lui asportate o rubate nelle province invase di qua dal vecchio confine; e di queste se n’è riavute le poche che, come la Vergine del Tiepolo nella chiesa della Purità a Udine, il nemico aveva portato a Vienna, diremo, ufficialmente, con ricevute regolari; poco, anzi pochissimo al confronto di quel che è stato irreparabilmente disperso dai furti delle truppe occupanti. Due: dobbiamo riavere quelle che il nemico aveva portate via da Aquileja, da Gorizia, da Trieste, da Rovigno, da Pola, da Riva, da Rovereto, da Arco, ecc., insomma dalle terre italiane adesso redente di là dal vecchio confine: anche di queste molto s’è recuperato, ma pur troppo non s’è ancóra riusciti a recuperare i nuclei più preziosi dei quali basta indicare i duecento disegni del Tiepolo del museo civico di Trieste e i milleseicento pezzi del museo di Aquileja […]. Tre: le opere d’arte di proprietà demaniale che l’Austria ci tolse nel 1808 nel 1816 e nel 1838 e non volle restituire dopo il 1866: e queste si sono riavute tutte, o quasi, a cominciare dagli arazzi raffaelleschi di Mantova e sono già esposte a Mantova e a Venezia: merito del generale Segre, capo della nostra missione a Vienna, e di Gino Fogolari. Quattro finalmente, e questo è il vero tesoro: le opere d’arte italiana, proprietà del nemico, da scegliere tra le più belle delle sue pubbliche raccolte, atte a pagarci i danni riparabili e irriparabili da lui fatti all’arte nostra durante la guerra: e di queste non s’è avuto niente perché vi devono provvedere, come è logico, i trattati di pace che si firmeranno in questi giorni o in questi mesi.

La divisione è chiara. Ma è chiara pei nostri Ministeri e pei nostri Ministri? Il nemico tenta già d’intorbidarla.

Quando partirono le prime casse delle opere, diciamo, della terza mediocre categoria, il Governo viennese telegrafò le sue pene a Wilson, a Clemenceau, a Lloyd George; i giornali viennesi urlarono; gli alleati gentilmente ci chiesero se l’armistizio ci dava proprio il diritto di farci fare quelle doverose restituzioni. Adesso la campagna di stampa s’è a Vienna riaccesa, e un libretto del dottor Hans Tietze, stampato dall’editore Schroll, preceduto da una prefazione del Dvorak professore di storia dell’arte all’Università di Vienna, riassume appassionatamente le ragioni dell’Austria, sostiene noi aver violato i patti del 1866, avere agito illecitamente in tempo d’armistizio, essere stati obbediti solo perché minacciavamo la fame. Il Tietze (che del resto quando era capitano in Friuli, incaricato di tutelare le cose dell’arte nostra, si condusse con rettitudine e, verso i tanti rapinatori altolocati, con fermezza) afferma infine che le opere d’arte da noi prese potranno al più finire nei magazzini delle nostre gallerie.

Esagera perché sui centocinquanta dipinti dal Fogolari riportati a Venezia dieci o dodici sono degni, anche dentro quella illustre Galleria, d’ammirazione e d’attenzione. Gli altri torneranno quasi tutti d’onde sono usciti, cioè nei magazzini; ma nei magazzini nostri, invece che in quelli austriaci. E rispetto al diritto, se non rispetto all’arte, la differenza ha una certa importanza.

Questo giudizio che par severo, è bene darlo, nettamente, non solo perché è la verità ma anche perché ad esaltare oltre misura quei dipinti come generosamente molti fecero sulle prime, si convalida il giudizio, o superficiale o maligno, di neutrali e di alleati i quali ripetono che noi siamo stati, ahimè, abilissimi e rapidissimi a ripagarci dell’arte perduta con quest’arte recuperata; il che significherebbe a ripagarci con danari nostri. L’ingenuità angelicata. Non un ventesimo di quel che abbiamo perduto, questi pochi dipinti ci avrebbero pagato, se fossero stati reale proprietà del nemico. E invece erano proprietà nostra.

Ora è tempo che di queste offese e martirii un pieno risarcimento ci si dia, e non solo dall’Austria ma anche dalla Germania. Né si rimandino questi risarcimenti alle calende greche delle Commissioni e Sottocommissioni. Un articolo nei trattati che si faranno firmare dai nemici, e poi, sùbito la riscossione: ecco quanto occorre. I danni sono noti, visibili, tangibili, fotografati, dallo stesso nemico confessati. E non s’ha da cercare la moneta per pagarli. Essa è, come abbiamo detto, in vista di tutti: l’arte italiana esposta nei musei di Germania, d’Austria e d’Ungheria.

Non aiutiamo proprio noi, con nostri indugi e scrupoli, i nemici a tessere le reti per i gonzi. Quando germanici, austriaci, magiari bombardavano dall’ aria Venezia, miravano a San Marco e ai monumenti nostri più belli. Imitiamoli, non nella distruzione, ma nella speditezza e nella mira.

Art must be paid with art

translated by Matilde Cartolari

Is there by now any Italian so gracious to believe that the German, Austrian and Hungarian enemies will pay us all the billions and billions of damages inflicted on us during the war with acts which are, according to the books of law, against the right of the peoples? There is not.

Is there by now any Italian, especially in the liberated provinces, so meticulous not to accept, or even prefer, if possible, instead of a hypothetical payment in currency of the compensation for those damages, a practical payment in kind: many oxen, tools, machines, furniture, etc. in return for those stolen or destroyed? There is not.

Now, detailed and attested calculations show that Italian art has suffered material damage from the war at a value of about eighty million lire. This sum does not include the destruction of the frescoes by Tiepolo in Venice and Nervesa, the frescoes by Veronese and his pupils at Romanziol, and the damage caused by the Austrian, Hungarian and German bombs at Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna – and to many other monuments, because it is impossible to equate such devastation in lire, marks and crowns, since comparable beauties are not, as far as we know, on the market. Now, these material and artistic damages can be paid back, if we really want, in just as many artworks – of Italian art, of course – equally beautiful, precious and admired, and all authentic and absolute property of the enemy. Paintings, sculptures, fabrics, jewellery, gems, exhibited in public museums in Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Vienna, Budapest.

But who takes care of that? Nobody, at least as far as Italy is concerned.

The list of these artworks has been ready for months. The Commission of Inquiry on the acts of the enemy contrary to the right of the peoples, in agreement with the Directorate of Fine Arts, has formulated it, printed it, delivered it to the Government. Will it be included in the peace treaty that is being prepared for German-Austria to sign it? Has it been included in the treaty presented to Germany, since the greatest damage by bombing the cities and villages of Veneto from the sky was done between December 1917 and March 1918, when three German bombing squadrons, the 19th, the 20th and the 21st, were operating on our frontline? Have any steps been taken to monitor the works on that list owned by the Hungarian State? It’s a mystery. Only it is murmured that, in the absence of our representatives, Mr. Clemenceau has proposed to the Supreme Council not to make damage to artworks payable with artworks, for fear that, one day or another, Germany may turn this principle to its own advantage against France. The British and Americans, whose monuments were far removed from the dangers of the war, immediately approved this wonderful idea.

In the meantime, it is worth informing the public in time, and dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s.

We must have or have back from the enemy artworks for four reasons. First, those removed or stolen from the provinces invaded on this side of the old border, of which we got back only the few that the enemy had taken to Vienna, shall we say, officially, with regular receipts, like the Virgin of Tiepolo in the church of the Purità in Udine. Little, indeed, very little compared to what was irreparably lost through the thefts of the occupying troops. Second, we must get back those artworks that the enemy had taken from Aquileja, Gorizia, Trieste, Rovigno, Pola, Riva, Rovereto, Arco, etc., in short, from the Italian lands now reconquered beyond the old border. Of those as well much has been recovered, but unfortunately, we have not managed yet to recover the most precious ones, of which it is sufficient to mention the two hundred drawings by Tiepolo of the civic museum of Trieste and the one thousand and six hundred pieces of the museum of Aquileja. Third, the state-owned works of art that Austria took from us in 1808, 1816 and 1838 and did not want to return after 1866. These have all been recovered, or nearly all, starting with the Raphael tapestries from Mantua, and are already exhibited in Mantua and Venice thanks to General Segre, head of our mission in Vienna, and to Gino Fogolari. Fourth, at last, the real treasure: the Italian artworks, property of the enemy, to be chosen among the most beautiful of their public collections, suitable to pay for the repairable and irreparable damages they caused to our artworks during the war. And we got nothing of those, because the issue must be defined, as is logical, by the peace treaties that will be signed in the next days or months.

The division is clear. But is it clear to our Ministries and Ministers? The enemy is already trying to blur it.

When the first crates of, so to speak, third-class artworks left, the Viennese government telegraphed its complaints to Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George; the Viennese newspapers cried out; the allies kindly asked us if the armistice gave us the right to have them make those rightful restitutions. Now the press campaign started again in Vienna, and a booklet by Dr. Hans Tietze, printed by Schroll, preceded by a preface by Dvorak, professor of art history at the University of Vienna, fondly summarizes the Austrian reasons, and claims that we violated the 1866 pacts by acting illegally in times of armistice, and forcing them to obey only because threatened with starvation. Tietze (who, after all, when he was a captain in Friuli, in charge of protecting our artworks, behaved with integrity and, towards the many high-ranking thieves, with firmness) finally affirms that the artworks we took can at best end up in the storage rooms of our galleries.

He exaggerates because, out of the one hundred and fifty paintings that Fogolari brought back to Venice, ten or twelve are worthy of admiration and attention, even in that renowned Gallery. The others will mostly go back to where they came from, i.e. to the storerooms; but our storerooms, instead of the Austrian ones. And with respect to the law, if not with respect to art, it does make a certain difference.

This assessment, which sounds harsh, must be stated clearly. Not only because it is the truth, but also because, by exalting those paintings as many initially did, we confirm the opinion (either superficial or malicious) of the allies or the neutral countries, who repeat that we were – alas – perfectly capable and very quick to compensate for lost artworks with recovered ones, that which would translate to repaying us with our own money. Such blessed naiveté. These few paintings would have paid us not even a twentieth of what we lost, if they had been real property of the enemy. Instead, they were our property.

Now is time for us to be fully compensated for these offenses and martyrdoms, not only by Austria but also by Germany. Nor should these compensations be postponed indefinitely to Commissions and Sub-Commissions. An article in the treaties that are going to be signed by the enemies and then, immediately, collection: this is what is required. The damages are known, visible, tangible, photographed, confessed by the enemy himself. And there is no need to look for the currency to pay them. It is, as we said, in front of everyone’s eyes: the Italian artworks exhibited in the museums of Germany, Austria and Hungary.

Let us not help our enemies, through our delays and concern, arrange their traps for the gullible. When Germans, Austrians, Magyars bombed Venice from the sky, they aimed at St. Mark’s and at our most beautiful monuments. Let us imitate them, not in destruction, but in haste and in taking aim.

Brief biography

Ugo Ojetti (1871–1946) was an Italian journalist, writer and art critic. Despite not being educated as an art historian, he became popular in the art field thanks to the brilliant and rhetorical style of his newspaper articles. His writings (mainly reviews, reports and editorials) focused on the promotion of Italian art in the service of the nation. This ideological purpose constantly fuelled his cultural interests which he always translated into activism. A steady contributor of many important national newspapers, among which the Corriere della Sera, he participated in the protection of Italian heritage during the First World War. He fully understood and exploited the potential of this activity for both internal and external propaganda, which he orchestrated thanks to numerous publications, reports and photographic campaigns. A nationalist and a conservative, Ojetti later converted to Fascism and became one of the most influential interpreters of its cultural program during the Fascist era (Nezzo 2017).

Commentary – A motto for the Italian claims

Starting with the destruction of Louvain’s library in Belgium and Reims’ cathedral in France, the documentation of war damages affecting the cultural heritage had become a significant matter of propaganda (Gaehtgens 2018). It was used by both sides to demonstrate the ruthlessness and barbarity of the enemy, whose actions also clashed with the international law established in the Hague Convention of 1907 (the »acts which are contrary to […] the right of the peoples« mentioned by Ojetti). This process went hand in hand with the creation of special corps designed to preserve, as far as possible, cultural heritage within and outside the national borders, in the territory defended, occupied or attacked by the military (Kott 2006).

Ojetti’s strong nationalism must be framed in this context. A patriot and a man of letters, he participated in the general expression of disdain following the German war actions and soon started a press campaign to encourage Italian intervention with the Entente. It is no surprise that he later volunteered to join the Italian army. Given his experience in the art field, he oversaw the contacts between the military and the Directorate of Fine Arts and organized the propaganda service (Nezzo 2003, p. 13–25). Thanks to the use of photography, he extensively documented the activity of evacuation and protection of artworks and monuments as well as the destructions following the bombings in Veneto and Friuli. He collected and published the materials already in 1917, in the volume I monumenti Italiani e la guerra (The Italian monuments and the war).

Ojetti knew perfectly that the worldwide celebrity of its artworks made Italian martyrdom a highly emotional subject and an effective instrument of diplomacy in the international arena (Nezzo 2016). Already in wartime, his propaganda activity was thus intended not only to fuel hatred against the enemy, but also to back up future Italian demands for compensation. Soon after the end of the war in November 1918, he became a member of the Commissione d’inchiesta sugli atti del nemico contrarii al diritto delle genti (Commission of Inquiry on the acts of the enemy contrary to the right of the peoples), which allowed him to maintain his influence on both governmental action and public opinion. In these respects, L’arte si paghi con l’arte mirrors Ojetti’s involvement in Italian propaganda long before 1919 (Nezzo 2003, p. 82–89).

Along with a detailed report of the human and material losses, the Commission of Inquiry prepared a list of cultural assets (artworks, books and archival materials) that the Italian government was supposed to request from Austria-Hungary and Germany during the negotiations. Differentiated in categories according to provenance and purpose, the list was meant to provide both a moral and a legal basis for the Italian cause. Therefore, when Ojetti wrote his article on the Corriere della Sera, he had numerous recipients in mind.

The first is public opinion, which the author wants to inform and solicit in order to reach the second indirect recipient, namely the Italian government. His goal, in fact, is to generate public support in order to influence on-going international negotiations. The terms of the peace treaty with Germany presented by the Allied in Paris a few days earlier did not envisage the reparation of war damages in artworks. Persuaded of the rightfulness of his claims and aware of the Italian diplomatic weakness, Ojetti wants to prevent the Italian government from abandoning its nationalistic demands in favour of international pacification.

In the Commission’s list as well as in Ojetti’s article, the issue of restitution appears extended and merged with that of reparation. The first two of the four categories mentioned are restitutions in the strict sense, since they refer to assets originally belonging to territories either occupied by the enemies during the war or conquered by the Italians afterwards. The return of these assets was crucial to re-appropriate and consolidate the cultural identities of these contentious areas.

The third category is more problematic, because it consists of assets taken by the Austrian government when it still ruled the Venetian territory in the 19th century, whose restitution had already been partially envisaged in the peace treaty of 1866 (Narcisi 2005). Ojetti and the Italian government considered World War I as the final step of a long-lasting process to liberate the Northern regions from the Austrian domination, a quest for independence which began with the Risorgimento. From their perspective, the completion of outstanding restitutions was just a natural consequence of this historical process. It is no coincidence that these restitutions were immediately accomplished by a commission headed by General Roberto Segre as early as in March 1919.

To the Austrian eyes however, the restitution of artworks from their royal collections appeared an outrage which prompted immediate reactions by the art historians Hans Tietze and Max Dvořák (Frank 2016). Accordingly, Ojetti’s article also represents a response to the Austrian arguments illustrated in Tietze’s booklet Die Entführung von Wiener Kunstwerken nach Italien. Eine Darlegung unseres Rechtsstandpunktes. Compared to the art historical and legal perspective assumed by the latter, Ojetti’s rhetoric is more straightforward and emotional. The title itself (»Art must be paid with art«) is a motto for national claims rather than a call to action for international learned circles. Despite giving credit to the Austrian Kunstschützer, the author claims returned assets as Italian cultural property and uses it as a basis to push his arguments further on the issue of reparations.

Ojetti suggests that the costs and damages incurred during the war should be repaid with a fourth category of assets, namely artworks belonging to Austro-Hungarian and German collections. These artworks, already listed by the Commission of Inquiry, included high-profile masterpieces long exhibited in public museums, like the Sistine Madonna by Raphael in Dresden (purchased in the 18th century), the Three philosophers by Giorgione in Vienna (purchased in the 17th century) and even the Portrait of Charles V that Titian himself had painted for the House of Habsburg in the 16th century (Godhahn 2017, p. 81).

In this case, the concept of restitution not only involves the artworks’ provenance, i.e. their territoriality and original contexts, but also their authorship, in relation to a timeless idea of inherent national belonging applied backwards to the historical canon of Italian art. This apparently unrealistic idea was in fact shared by many people, not only in Italy but also internationally, with equivalent proposals from Belgium and France respectively for Flemish and French art (Nezzo 2010; Kott 2012).

The »haste« and the »aim« cynically evoked by the author in his final statement show that by spring 1919 the war was not over yet but continued in cultural and diplomatic domains. Despite Ojetti’s attempt, such vengeful, anti-historical and punitive measures were fortunately rejected by international diplomacy with the signature of the peace treaty a few months later. When the article was republished in the anthology I nani tra le colonne (The dwarfs between the columns) in 1920, it acquired a wholly different meaning. It was no longer live coverage of wartime and its aspiration, but rather a literary, melancholic portrait of a nation whose political immobility was bitterly presented as the cause of its cultural and moral decline.

Matilde Cartolari is a PhD student at Technische Universität Berlin co-tutored with the University of Udine. She is currently working on the Italian Old Master exhibitions organized for propaganda purposes by the Fascist régime in the 1930s.

Bibliography

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Cite this article as:
Ojetti: L’arte si paghi con l’arte (1919), commented by Matilde Cartolari, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/ojetti-arte-si-paghi-con-l-arte, published 25.07.2019.

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