PRINCESS Elena Corsini’s face is as white as sheet. News had just arrived saying that the German troops are on the move. Based on the information, Princess Elena knows that the
enemy soldiers had orders to confiscate her family’s vast art collection and claim them for Hitler’s super museum. Rumours that the Nazi dictator also intended to keep the choice pieces for his own private collection drove the princess to the brink of desperation.
It’s the middle of 1944 and Allied forces are starting to make their presence felt in Italy. The German troops are on a mission to seize as much of Florence’s riches before the tide of war turns. To protect her precious heirloom, Princess Elena hid the smaller works of art in an empty crypt in the Brancacci Chapel which forms part of the larger Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
Then, with the help of her trusted servants, she packed the larger paintings securely before loading them onto a truck. While doing that, the princess suddenly remembered that her family had an established and warm relationship with the New Zealand Maori Battalion who were part of the Allied contingent stationed around several of their rural properties.
She quickly despatched a message to New Zealanders requesting for their immediate assistance before heading off with the precious cargo to Villa Le Corti, a historical estate in Chianti. There, the valuable paintings were hidden behind a false wall.
In order to cover up the ruse, Princess Elena hung an oil painting of Saint Andrea Corsini, one of her family’s ancestors, on the newly-built wall. At the same time, she prayed that her ancestor would protect the precious works of art.
Not long after, the German soldiers arrived and began their search. By the time the troops noticed the still-wet plaster, a timely radio despatch arrived warning them of the approaching Maori Battalion. Frustrated for coming up empty handed, the Germans vented their anger by firing upon Saint Andrea through the forehead.
A few weeks later, the tide of war turned. Florence was liber¬ated with the combined efforts of the New Zealand forces and South African troops on Aug 4, 1944. While returning the art pieces to their rightful places, the Corsini family decided to allow the Saint Andrea painting to remain unrestored to highlight man’s inhumanity during war and also as a reminder of the art theft that was thwarted in the nick of time.
A PIECE OF HISTORY
Fast forward to the present day: the bullet-riddled painting was recently put on show at the Auckland Art Gallery when a large part of the Corsini art collection made its way out of Florence for the very first time in its long history.
The gallery’s staff member who opened the crate was very much taken aback to see the 388-year-old painting with two bullet holes, one through the saint’s forehead. It was at that moment that everyone pre¬sent were reminded of the unique tale of wartime friendship and courage under fire which involved the 28th Maori Battalion and a gusty Italian princess who risked every¬thing to save her family’s legacy.
When told of this amazing tale during my recent visit to Auckland, I knew it would be foolhardy to let this once in a lifetime opportunity slip through my fingers. Like me, art lovers rejoice in the fact that a fated moment in history has encouraged the owners of this priceless collection to give permission for it to embark on such a historic journey. To me, the Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence exhibition is indeed a terrific link that brings part of the Maori Battalion’s illustrious history back to life. The mere thought of how the local heritage is interwoven with its European counterpart is mind boggling to say the least!
The wide range of Renaissance and Baroque paintings by renowned artists such as Botticelli, Caravaggio, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo that are on display are indeed a sight for sore eyes. These early pieces transport me back to 14th century Florence, to the time when the Corsini family first set up home in Florence where they subsequently took up leading roles in government, law, banking and trade.
During that time, Florence was one of the largest mercantile and financial cen¬tres in the Western world. Along with other leading Florentine families, the Corsini name was interwoven with those of the powerful Medici until 1737, when the Medici line came to an end.
AN ILLUSTRIOUS COLLECTION
Getting prominent feature in this section are the illustrious Corsini ancestors who were closely associated with the Catholic Church. Apart from the already-famous family saint, Andrea Corsini, this influential family WAS also related to three cardinals and Pope Clement XII, who oversaw the building of the well-known Trevi Fountain in Rome.
While all artworks in this exhibition are equally unique and special in their own right, the early 16th century painting featuring Madonna and Child with Six Angels by Sandro Botticelli receives the most public attention. It is, after all, one of the oldest works to be shown in New Zealand.
The next section brings me face to face with Giuseppe Zocchi’s detailed hand coloured representation of the Palazzo Corsini. Zocchi was an 18th century Italian painter and printmaker who made his name recording many famous Florentine landmarks. In this particular piece, Zocchi highlighted a cross-section of Florentine society by including dozing road workers, a knife-grinder, sunbathers and elegantly clad figures in the foreground.
Palazzo Corsini was purchased by Maria Maddalena Macchiavelli, the wife of the Marchese Filippo Corsini, from the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici in 1649. The building then underwent massive refurbishment where elegantly frescoed interiors painted by Florentine artists like Anton Domenico Gabbiani, Alessandro Gherardini and Pier Dandini were added.
It was during the family’s stay in this stately home that their fortunes peaked with the election of Lorenzo Corsini as Pope Clement XII. Today, Palazzo Corsini is home to Galleria Corsini.
A TRAGIC TALE
For centuries, aristocratic families, such as the Corsinis, have made alliances through marriage. The selection of a spouse for the sons and daughters of heads of state was a strategic matter, and portraits played a vital role when choosing a husband or wife from another country.
During the Renaissance, families settled feuds by marrying their daughters to the sons of their enemies, and traditionally these decisions were made without consultation with the future spouses, who might only meet shortly before or on their wedding day. Once married, the woman’s allegiance would shift to her husband’s family.
However, from the 18th century onwards, young people had more time to get to know their partner to be. Sadly though, these joyous events may at times, through a sad twist of fate, turn tragic. The portrait of Amerigo Corsini, son of Prince Tommaso Corsini and Pisan heiress Luisa Scotto, prepared in 1852, in this collection serves as a reminder to us that life can be cruel.
Amerigo went to Paris to meet the daughters of Don Ferdinando Muoez, Duke of Rianzares and Maria Cristina of Bourbon, the widow of Ferdinando VII King of Spain. There, he chose the eldest daughter, Donna Maria Amparo, to be his bride and the wed¬ding date was set for the following year. His return to Florence was supposed to be filled with joy and celebration but sadly, Amerigo fell ill and died at an untimely age of 18.
Heartbroken, Luisa dedicated the rest of her mortal life to preserving Amerigo’s memory. I reflect on this tragic tale while looking at a binder containing Amerigo’s watercolours which his mother had lov¬ingly assembled. So great was Luisa’s love for her son that she even embroidered the panels with his name.
At this point, I back track a little bit to a colourful lithograph showing the Corsini family tree. With so many foreign names to contend with, this artwork seems like the best place for me to get my bearings right. The thing I like best about this delightful family tree, which follows the early Renaissance tradition of showing a ‘tree of life’ with strong roots, is that it contains wonderful witty additions that highlight the family’s achievements.
The family saint is identified with a gold halo while red cardinal hats hover over family members who have attained high rank in the church. At the same time, Pope Clement XII is assigned a pope’s mitre. Interestingly, I learn that a parrot wearing a crown indicates the family’s first prince.
But most endearing of all must surely be the black dog resting on top of a memo¬rial tablet at the base of the tree. On the tablet is inscribed the words ‘In memory of all the dogs, large and small, across the centuries, who have shared the lives of so many members of this family’.
The entire Corsini exhibit is housed in eight spacious rooms but with so many pleasantly distracting treasures to look at, I find myself reaching the penultimate section even without realising it. As a slight departure from the others, this last room features objects used for domestic pleas¬ures and public celebrations.
Here, my attention is focused on the costume Tommaso Corsini’s wife Anna wore when she took part in the parade to celebrate the unveiling of Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore’s new facade on May 12, 1887. This light green caped dress is strik¬ingly decorated with yellow Barberini bees, the symbol of her own family.
My visit ends with the last display by the exit. Made by an unknown artist, the door curtain embroidered with the Corsini’s emblem is indeed a fitting piece for me to bid the exhibition a reluctant farewell. I stand and gaze at the intricate decora¬tive patterns and wonder which wall in the sprawling Corsini property it once graced. I’m sure it would have many won¬derful tales to tell if only it could speak.
This wonderful exhibition is nothing short of remarkable. This collection, amassed over seven centuries, reminds me of the family’s many great virtues: generosity, ambition, courage, entrepreneurship and above all, passion for art and its place in this world.