A German hero in Florence during WWII

When I walk across the Ponte Vecchio, I often notice this marble plaque.

Who, I always wonder, was Gerhard Wolf?

 

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Knowing that Germany occupied Florence during the war, I’ve been puzzled to find a German commemorated on the one bridge in Florence that wasn’t destroyed by German forces when they departed the city as the Allied Forces moved ever northward during the war.

It turns out that Wolf was the Consul in Florence and was a reluctant member of the Nazi Party.  I read that he only joined the Party because it was necessary in order to be in the diplomatic corps.

Despite being German and a Nazi, Wolf risked his life while he rescued political prisoners and Jews during the barbarism of the War.  Apparently he assisted the famous American, Bernard Berenson, who was Jewish, making it possible for Berenson to successfully hide from the Nazis. The plaque also says that Wolf was instrumental in the saving of the Ponte Vecchio.

Interestingly enough, I’ve read quite a lot about Florence during the war and, outside of this plaque, I’ve never read anything about the fact that Gerhard Wolf helped  Berenson specifically or that he played a role in saving the Ponte Vecchio when the retreating Germans blew up all of the other Florentine bridges.  I have no reason to not believe Wolf’s role in these things, but I am surprised I’ve never found this information anywhere else.  Oh, well…live and learn.  I’ll keep my eyes pealed for future references.

So, here’s a translation of what the plaque says: “Gerhard Wolf (1886–1971). German consul, born at Dresden—subsequently twinned with the city of Florence—played a decisive role in saving the Ponte Vecchio (1944) from the barbarism of WWII and was instrumental in rescuing political prisoners and Jews from persecution at the height of the Nazi occupation. The commune places this plaque on 11 April 2007 in memory of the granting of honorary citizenship.”

Here’s what Wikipedia adds to the Wolf story:

Wolf was born in Dresden, the 7th child of an attorney of family law. After serving in the military, he studied philosophy, art history and literature, and completed a doctorate in philosophy. In 1927, he joined the foreign ministry and was posted to Rome at the time Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He was first invited to join the Nazi Party that year, but he declined and did not join until 1 March 1939, after it became clear that his diplomatic work would be impossible otherwise.

Between 1940 and 1944, Wolf was the German Consul in Florence. After the German occupation of Italy in 1943, he worked to save many Jews from the Holocaust, including the famous art historian Bernard Berenson, who testified to that in 1946. In his efforts, he was supported by Rudolf Rahn, the deputy ambassador at Rome. Wolf, along with Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, also saved many artworks from being spirited off to Germany. He also prevented the Ponte Vecchio from being destroyed.

In 1955, Wolf was made an honorary citizen of Florence. Ten years after his retirement, he died in Munich. In 2007, a marble plaque in his honour was unveiled on the Ponte Vecchio by the acting mayor of Dresden.

The history of the American consulate in Florence and #Insieme200

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The American Consulate in Florence is part of the United States Mission to Italy and is located at Lungarno Vespucci 38, in the former Palazzo Calcagnini (built 1876-77). This palazzo was purchased in 1949 by the American government, to serve as the site of the Consulate General.

Long before the United States acquired the palazzo however, its presence was already in Tuscany.  The first American consulate to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was established in Livorno (then known in English as Leghorn), with consular agent Phillip Felicchi being appointed on 29 May 1794.

For some reason, Tuscany would not recognize any consulates posted in Florence, so the first U.S. Consular Agent to serve Florence was Vice Consular Agent James Ombrosi, who was under mandate from the U.S. Consulate at Leghorn (Livorno). Ombrosi was accredited on May 15, 1819.

In the years after the U.S. Civil War and the transition of the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from Florence to Rome, the U.S. Consul General was James Lorimer Graham. Graham was a New York banker and art collector; he and his wife Josephine lived in a building that is now known the Palazzo dei Congressi.

In the early 1870s, Florence was suffering the grave economic consequences of the sudden transfer of the capital, a move that left the city deeply in debt and had bankrupted many investors when boom turned to bust in “Firenze Capitale.”

Resulting higher taxes and slower growth led to widespread poverty. Mrs. Graham was a committed philanthropist back in New York, and so responded to this situation in a way familiar to her. She rallied members of the “American Colony” and started selling mistletoe baskets and Christmas trees to raise funds for the poor.

Then there was the more fraught holiday season of December of 1944. Though Florence had been liberated by the Allied Forces in August of that year, there was little rejoicing along the Gothic Line—the German defensive line that stretched from Carrara to Pesaro—as fighting raged and civilian and combatant casualties mounted.

In the early morning hours of a bitterly cold December 26, Axis forces launched a counter-offensive in the Garfagnana region of Lucca province, focused on and around the town of Barga.

The first target was the hilltop village of Sommocolonia, garrisoned by several hundred African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” and a handful of local partigiani.

During the fighting, German forces drove the Allied troops back. To avoid a complete rout, Army Lieutenant John R. Fox remained in his position in the Sommocolonia bell tower, calling in artillery strikes on the town and finally on his own position in order to slow the Axis advance. For Fox’s bravery and self-sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the U.S.’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.

Today the American International League of Florence (AILO), organizes annual events to collect thousands of euro each year that are then donated to local charitable organizations.

Incidentally, the United States also has 5 other representations in Italy: American Consulate in Palermo; American Consulate in Naples; American Consulate in Milan;
American Consulate in Genoa; and the American Embassy in Rome.

The American Consulate in Florence represents one of 402 foreign consular and diplomatic representations from around the world in Italy.

 

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2019 marks 200 years of American presence in Florence

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Do you have personal experiences or stories that were passed on to you about historic events that occurred in Tuscany, Emilia Romagna or the Republic of San Marino? Were you a Mud Angel? Did you have relatives who worked with the American Red Cross during World War I or witnessed the 5th Army’s fight along the Gothic Line in World War II? Are you doing something now that is strengthening the U.S.-Italy partnership? If so, the U.S. Consulate General in Florence would love to hear from you!

The Florence American consulate is collecting stories in anticipation of the bicentennial of its diplomatic presence in Florence in 2019.

Throughout that year, we hope to see a series of events across Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and the Republic of San Marino exploring all facets of our past, present, and future together.

These commemorative events and related information will be highlighted on the Consulate’s social media platforms with the #Insieme200 (#Together200) hashtag.

Our 200 years here are built on a foundation of millions of personal and organizational ties, so we need your help to properly celebrate our bicentennial!

If your organization has an idea for a 200th anniversary commemorative event—large or small—or wants to get involved with the events being organized by the Consulate, please let us know:CGFIProtocol@state.gov.

To receive updates on the Consulate’s 200th anniversary and more, join the Consulate’s community by liking its Facebook page @USCGFlorence or following on Twitter!

Germany has the moral duty to return a painting to Florence, according to the Uffizi’s (German) director

Director of the Uffizi Galleries, Eike Schmidt, has kicked off the new year with an appeal: return a painting stolen from the Palazzo Pitti’s collections by Nazi soldiers, healing a 75-year-old wound that is not uncommon in the post-war art world.

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During their retreat in 1944, Wehrmacht soldiers removed Vase of Flowers by Jan van Huysum, along with several other still-life masterpieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, from the Villa Bossi-Pucci, where it was transferred in 1943, having previously been on display in the Palatine Gallery since 1824.

The artwork was eventually brought to Germany, where it ended up in the hands of an unidentified family.

Though its whereabouts were unknown for decades, following reunification in 1991, several intermediaries came forward on behalf of the family to demand the Italian authorities pay to have the painting returned.

These attempts were unsuccessful and Florence’s district attorney’s office eventually concluded that the painting belongs to the Italian State, and so it cannot be bought.

“Germany must abolish its law regarding paintings stolen during the war,” says Schmidt, referring to the statute of limitations preventing prosecution for crimes committed more than 30 years ago, “and ensure that these works be returned to their rightful owners. Germany has a moral duty to return this work to our museum, and I hope that the German state will do so as soon as possible, along with every other work of art stolen by the Nazis.”

Underlining Schmidt’s plea is a black and white reproduction of the painting newly on display in the Sala dei Putti in Palazzo Pitti, alongside an Italian, English and German-language panel explaining that the work was stolen in 1944.

The article above is taken from http://www.theflorentine.net/news/2019/01/return-stolen-artwork-uffizi/?mc_cid=d17a9ccafa&mc_eid=2a398b6f2f

The 4 Seasons sculptures on Ponte Santa Trinita, Firenze, will get a cleaning

The iconic statues of the 4 seasons on the Ponte Santa Trinita are going to get cleaned up soon.  Florence has announced (http://www.theflorentine.net/news/2018/07/ponte-santa-trinita-statues-cleaning/) that the sculptures need some TLC.

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Interestingly, these 4 statues (only 2 of the 4 are in my pictures above) were sculpted to celebrate the marriage between Cosimo II de’ Medici and Maria Maddalena of Austria in 1608.

Even more interestingly, they were originally intended to be placed in niches or against a wall in the giardino of Villa Corsini al Prato in Florence.  They were not designed to be seen in the round, but in the round they have always been on the bridge.

The following artists were commissioned to create: Primavera by Pietro Francavilla; L’estate e L’autunno by Giovanni Caccini; and L’inverno by Taddeo Landini.

On the night between 3 and 4 of August 1944, the bridge was destroyed by retreating German troops on the advance of the British 8th Army. A Bailey bridge was built for temporary use by the Royal engineers.

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The Renaissance replica bridge was constructed in 1958 with original stones raised from the Arno or taken from the same quarry, under the direction of architect Riccardo Gizdulich and engineer Emilio Brizzi.

Miraculously, the statues were more or less intact and returned to the replacement bridge upon its completion.  Only the head of Primavera was missing. The missing head  was recovered from the bed of the Arno in October 1961 and added to the sculpture we see today.

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The cleaning, which will involve the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, will include ridding the statues of the layers of soot that has settled on them over the years and treating the works with a waterproof layer to protect them from further damage by atmospheric agents.

 

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Villa Peyron, Fiesole

Oh, Villa Peyron!  How lovely you are, sitting in your pretty setting high above Florence!

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Situated in a beautiful position up in the hills around Fiesole, one can view both Florence and Castel di Poggio from the Villa.

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The Villa Peyron is a large complex, with buildings, formal gardens, and the surrounding olive groves. The villa is located in the woods named Il Bosco di Fonte Lucente, named after a spring above the villa

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The spring is said to supply the water necessary to work the many fountains in the garden and park, although I will say that the fountains weren’t working when I was there recently. Even without the fountains, the gardens are beautiful.

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It is likely that the villa itself was built on top of Etruscan ruins, traces of which can be seen in the underground chambers and in the immediate surroundings; there are, for example, antique stones in the walls found in the forests around the villa.

The garden is built on three terraces that slope southwards and has a wooded parterre parallel to the villa.

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What we see today bears nothing harking back to the Etruscans, but of course the villa has been subjected to a series of renovations and transformations over many centuries.

In the late 19th century, the Florentine architect, Ugo Giovannozzi (1876-1957), gave the villa its current appearance, working for Peyron family members who envisioned a very grand villa.

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There’s a lot of statuary placed throughout the villa grounds; these sculptures come from the Venetian villas of the Brenta. These prestigious works were installed to take the place of those which were destroyed during World War II.

 

 

In fact, a plaque is installed on a building near the entrance to the villa grounds, which speaks to the horrors of war.  During WWII, the villa was requisitioned by the high German command. Later it was occupied by the Allies who also installed a military hospital there. (I can’t help thinking of the film, The English Patient.)

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You might say that some of the minor horrors of war were even clearly imprinted on this villa. When Paolo Peyron returned to his home after the war, it was a very bittersweet homecoming: all the objects that  Peyron had tried to save by hiding them in a room in the farmhouse were destroyed and scattered in the garden. Paintings and gilded frames were mockingly attached to olive trees; furniture was smashed; rare books, incunabula and prints of Piranesi, inherited from his father’s library, lay on the ground in the open, irremediably spoiled by the rain.

And now I will stop talking and simply place the photos of this beautiful locale on my post.  Enjoy!

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This gorgeous villa, open for visits, lies just beyond Fiesole.  It’s an easy trip by Ataf bus (#7) from Florence to Fiesole, and catch a connecting bus #47.  The #47 is unreliable (it has only 3 runs on Sundays, for example, and they are all in the morning).  But you can do what I did, and take a taxi to the Villa from Fiesole.

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