Hans Memling (? - 1494)  

Portrait of a Young Man (c.1480-1490)

oil on panel, 13.78 x 9.45 in. (35 x 24 cm)

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Hans Memling’s small painting was finished in the late 1400s, and depicts a young man, looking slightly to the right. Memling was an artist who became very popular during his lifetime, but who’s fame gradually declined after his death. By the twentieth century, however, he was viewed as one of the great Flemish Primitives. This portrait is property of the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy.

 

With the outbreak of war in 1940, the art collections of Italy were transferred out of the cities for safekeeping. Mostly stored in privately-owned villas and palazzos in Tuscany, this push increased with the Allied bombing campaigns of 1942. The collections of several of the most important galleries in Florence, including the Uffizi, were evacuated to the Castle in the village of Poppi on December 29, 1942.

 

By mid-1944 the Allies were advancing north through Italy and would soon reach Florence. It was on the night of August 18, 1944 that a German officer arrived at the palace with the apparent task of checking for concealed weapons and ammunition. Four days later, at 8 pm on the night of August 22, a German captain, second lieutenant and a non-commissioned officer arrived and insisted on inspecting every room again with the excuse that “the village was a nest of spies and rebels”. If a key was not found quickly enough, they broke down doors. After checking the entire castle, the soldiers, guns drawn, ordered the municipal police to carry box no. 8 containing art to their truck.

 

Only a few hours later, at midnight, more soldiers returned, informing the local townspeople to stay in the cellars of their homes as they would be soon detonating mines placed under the town's medieval gate. With therefore no witnesses to their looting, the German 305th Infantry Division set to taking crates of art with them. Shots were fired into the air to keep the locals away, and by six in the morning the trucks were gone. After a brief stop in Forlì on August 31, the paintings continued north.

 

An inspection of the Castle of Poppi after the raid by the Commissario Prefettizio found broken walls, doors, and debris all around. Two German second lieutenants appeared to seemingly explain away the events of the night before. According to them, all was “by order of the German High Command, that it was only to save the works of art from being taken away by the Anglo-American troops, that the High Command was extremely sorry that it had to leave so many pictures there, and that all trace of the episode must at once be removed, even to the point of walling up the doors again.” At 2 pm that afternoon the Germans stayed true to their word, detonating the mines around the town. The medieval gate, some local homes, and the only road into Poppi were all destroyed.  

 

Monuments Man 2nd Lt. Frederick Hartt reached the castle on September 25, after three weeks of trying to reach the area. Two days later, a detailed inspection revealed some masterpieces remaining and some that were conspicuously absent. One hundred and ninety-eight paintings had been taken, including by artists Rembrandt, Ingres, Lippi, Raphael, and Rubens. It was noticed that there was a certain bias towards the artists of northern Europe, including Cranach and Brueghel; some of the most important pieces of the Florentine collections were left behind, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo's Doni Madonna, one of only four known paintings on panel by the master. As Hartt stated in his report, “The pictures taken were of such importance that it is difficult to know which ones to choose as the principal losses.”

Sadly Portrait of a Young Man has not been seen since it was taken in 1944.

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Courtesy of the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

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