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An ancient Roman statue prized by Adolf Hitler as the embodiment of the ideal Aryan man has emerged at the centre of an unlikely spat between Italy and Germany.
Decades after the “Discobolus” was returned to Italy by US troops after the second world war, tensions have erupted over the 18th century marble base upon which the masterpiece stood when it was sold to Hitler’s government by an aristocratic Italian family in 1938.
The controversy broke out when the culture minister in Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing government, Gennaro Sangiuliano, declared on state television that the marble statue of a muscular athlete poised to throw a discus would only return to Germany “over my dead body”.
In fact, Berlin has not requested the return of the statue. Rather, Munich’s Glyptothek museum had replied to a request from Italy’s National Roman Museum to return the 18th century base, noting that both the “Discobolus” — and its base — had been legally purchased by Germany during the Third Reich and thus technically remained state property.
Based on that exchange, the Corriere della Sera newspaper wrote an outraged feature article claiming the Glyptothek was demanding the return of the “Discobolus” — which prompted Sangiuliano’s comment.
Berlin has sought to quell the controversy, and in a meeting this week, the German ambassador to Rome assured Sangiuliano that the German government had not made any claim to the statue, nor would it.
Afterwards, Sangiuliano acknowledged that “the Berlin government is not asking for any restitution or claim on the discus thrower”, but blamed the Munich museum director for the controversy and demanded an apology.
Glyptothek director Florian Knauss told the Financial Times he was dismayed at the uproar, and that his letter — written in consultation with German authorities — had been misinterpreted in Italy.
“I tried to explain the problems with the so-called ‘restitution’ of an item which — to some point of view — belongs to our museum,” Knauss said in reference to the base. “At no point have I — or we — ever requested the return of the sculpture.”
“I was just not allowed to give away something which from a legal point of view belongs to our museum,” he added.
The controversy over the “Discobolus” and its base comes as several European countries are embroiled in tense discussions over art restitution — including the so-called Elgin Marbles roiling bilateral relations between the UK and Greece.
Yet the sculpture of the muscular athlete poised to throw a discus — a second century Roman copy of a much older, now lost, ancient Greek bronze — has long aroused strong passions.
It was discovered in 1781 in the grounds of a Roman aristocratic family’s villa, and put up for sale in 1937, when the family fell on hard times. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had tried to acquire the piece for decades, but Hitler also coveted it.
In 1938, the Lancellotti family sold “Discobolus” to the Nazi regime, encouraged by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who overrode his own culture minister’s objections and approved the statue’s export to Germany. It paid 5mn lira, plus an additional 1.4mn lira in export tax. The US government said at the time that the total acquisition price was the equivalent of $326,844 — which, when adjusted for inflation, would be more than $7mn today.
Even before the purchase, Hitler’s favourite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl had featured the “Discobolus” in her high-profile 1938 propaganda film, Olympia — commemorating the 1936 Berlin Olympics — with an evocative scene in which the marble statue morphs into the sculpted body of a real German athlete throwing a discus.
The sculpture was finally repatriated to Italy in 1948 by Allied authorities then trying to return European art treasures looted by the Nazis during the war. The decision to give it back to Italy was controversial — even among US officials, one of whom resigned over the matter — as the statue had been sold by its owners to the Nazis, not stolen.
Postwar German authorities wrote protest letters about the decision to US authorities, and even to President Harry Truman, but never laid any formal claim to the statue.
Stéphane Verger, director of Italy’s National Roman Museum, said he was stunned to learn from Knauss that some German authorities still believed the “Discobolus” was taken from the country wrongfully, though he said Glyptothek had made no pitch for its return.
“It was absolutely clear that he didn’t ask for the ‘Discobolus’ back,” Verger said. Verger forwarded the correspondence to the Italian culture ministry hoping it could help secure the return of the base.
Knauss, who said he was shocked when the issue erupted months after his original letter, added that he hoped the two nations would find a formula for the base to be sent back to Italy and end the fuss.
“Every nation has had big losses of works of art during history. At some point, we should just accept that things move. Otherwise, you will never find peace.”
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome
Source: Financial Times