Blog Post – Victor Claass February 2017
Leonardo Adrift. Propaganda as “Bilderfahrzeug”
In the harbor of Genoa in early December, 1929, under the intimidating gaze of “steel helmeted fascist militiamen”, a team of art handlers carefully loaded 350 masterpieces of Italian art into the aptly named steamer Leonardo-da-Vinci. Among them were the t
hree sculptures of David by Donatello, Michelangelo and Verrocchio, as well as major paintings by Duccio, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Pietro Lorenzetti, Raphael and many other celebrated old masters. Borrowed – thanks to the personal involvement of Benito Mussolini – from the Italian public and private collections, theses artifacts were meticulously placed in the ship’s cargo hold, “lashed firmly and wedged with mattresses
and lifebelts, preventing the slightest movement” (Sheffield Independent, 1929) . Escorted by several tugs, the Leonardo began its journey towards London, where its priceless freight was to be displayed at the much awaited Royal Academy’s exhibit, Italian Art 1200-1900.
Extremely severe weather conditions off the coast of Cap Finisterre and in the Bay of Biscay disrupted this unusual patrimonial cruise. Facing a tempestuous and raging sea – the “worst storm in history”, according to some press articles of the time – the much decorated captain Angelo Sturlese found himself unable to establish any wireless communication with port authorities. As shown by newspapers’ headlines around the 8th of December, the European art world was left in an intolerable state of panic for nearly 24 hours. “The sinking of the Leonardo-da-Vinci would be an irreparable disaster, comparable to the great Alexandria library fire”, stated the French daily Comœdia: “Who wouldn’t be anxious till the ship reaches London?” Meanwhile, on board and amidst the storm tossed cargo, the anxious director of the Brera Gallery Ettore Modigliani (1873-1947) kept “patrolling in the holds regularly, where the masterpieces were stocked”, with the help of an “assistant and a police officer”. The situation was made even more critical by the fact that the Leonardo had, by that point, lost its military escort, the Theseus, which, because of the ethical priorities of Maritime law, had to change its course and rescue a nearby merchant vessel in serious distress.
With its peculiar shipment (an ensemble worth between 14 and 200 million pounds according to various sources), the so-called “floating museum” finally made it safely to the mouth of the Thames River on the 12th of December, 1929. Upon learning this comforting news, the Hartlepool Norther Daily Mail attributed this happy ending to the symbolic protective cover of the Italian stellone that adorned the Leonardo’s impressive funnels:
“The success with which the Leonardo weathered the storms in the Bay of Biscay and came to port must be attributed largely, of course, to the skill of its navigators […]. But an ancillary cause may also have been the fact that its funnels bear the five-pointed white star of Italy, which is, as you are surely aware, a magical symbol of great and beneficent potency. Should this star be inverted, however, so that one of its apices points directly downward it at once becomes a highly-noxious device used only by the most daemonic and abandoned practitioners of black magic.”
Having survived this treacherous voyage, the welcoming ceremony of the steamer at the West India Docks was all the more glorious. Under British and Italian flags proudly hoisted for the occasion, press photographers captured the relieved handshake between Modigliani and the initiator of the Italian Art exhibit, Lady Chamberlain, under the eyes of the chairman of the Port of London Authority. Industrial cranes immediately started bringing to shore the fourteen “pantechnicons” filled with art objects. “The pictures will be unloaded by tried and trusted workmen, skilled at this sort of work”, related the Derby Daily Telegraph, before continuing its story:
“They will be conveyed at night in special vans, with an armed detective beside the driver on the front seat, to Burlington House, where the exhibition is to be held. Hermetically sealed before they leave the docks and lined with stout zinc plates, the vans will only be opened again under the personal supervision of the secretary of the Exhibition, before being deposited in the strong-rooms of the galleries.”
The strange procession could then continue among the British throng, in which Scotland Yard had the caution to scatter several “plainclothes” agents.
During the first months of year 1930, the most remarkable ensemble of Italian paintings ever seen in Great Britain drew more than half a million visitors to the Burlington House. In one of his last studies, Francis Haskell analyzed this extraordinary “blockbuster” event from its conception and narrative to its European impact. Organized at the invitation of the London Royal Academy and authoritatively supported by Mussolini himself, the impressive show was meant to demonstrate the hegemony of italianità worldwide. More focused on the propagandistic potential of the exhibit than the safety of his own nation’s artistic heritage, the Duce decided to load the Leonardo with a second shipment of paintings as soon as it anchored back in Genoa.
However, the Italian Art show of 1930 was just one in a series of many exhibitions that took place in the London Royal Academy between the two World Wars. It was preceded by exhibits on Spanish art (1922), Swedish contemporary art (1924), Flemish and Belgian art (1927), Dutch art (1929), and followed by Persian art (1931) and French art exhibits (1932) – all of which were organized in close collaboration with the concerned States and garnered international successes. Despite their often poor scholarly undertakings and their shamelessly chauvinistic narratives, they led to an unprecedented circulation of artifacts. Motivated by the needs of cultural propaganda, these events undoubtedly brought art transportation to its first golden age. The enlisting of art objects was a “cheap” way for nations to contribute to the expansion of their culture in foreign countries as well as in the colonies, at a moment in history when the Western world was facing the dramatic aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis. Jean Mistler, a member of the French Parliament at the time, declared in one of his 1933 speeches:
“Since the war is over, artistic exchanges have taken a new significance. Artworks travel now more than they have ever traveled, at a time when commodities seem to stay motionless.”
The London French Art show of 1932, orchestrated in response to the aforementioned Italian one by the ministerial services of Third Republic France, gave rise to highly similar “ritualized” parades and profound anxieties. Numerous press clippings show how much attention was drawn to the displacement of art itself, as well as its consequences – both physical and cultural. By examining these documents, one realizes how entities like national pride and political propaganda served as incredibly powerful engines for the continued circulation of art in the early 20th century.