Frederick Hartt: Monuments Man

The following post is composed of excerpts from Frederick Hartt: A Tribute by William E. Wallace, Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor, Department of Art History & Archaeology in the School of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.  The essay appears in the catalog for the exhibition Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction in the 1950s: Building the Collection at Washington University in St. Louis, which was on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum from May 4 through August 27, 2012. 

Frederick Hartt and jeep in Italy during his time as Reginal...

Frederick Hartt, Livorno, Italy, January 1945.  Frederick Hartt Papers, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gallery Archives.  

Frederick Hartt taught at Washington University from 1949-1960, when he was lured away to the University of Pennsylvania  and subsequently, in 1967, to the University of Virginia, where he ended his distinguished career as the Paul Goodloe McIntire Professor of the History of Art.  He was remarkable for more than his unique typewriter.[1]  He often spoke of having been lucky – that is, he was in the right place at two critical moments in the history of Italian art – although they could scarcely have appeared so “lucky” at the time.  The first was during the closing months of the campaign to liberate Italy from Nazi control, when, as a young scholar, Hartt served as regional Monuments and Fine Arts officer.  Given a jeep and a driver, young Fred sped around central and northern Italy, locating and securing the depositories of priceless artwork – from the churches and museums of Florence, Siena, and elsewhere – that had been stored in country villas and other remote locations to protect them from the ravages of war.  Often Lieutenant Hartt found himself trapped between the retreating German army and the advancing allies who were bombing and shelling the rapidly shifting front; further, the roads he had to navigate were often planted with landmines.  In such chaotic circumstances, Hartt contributed mightily to the protection and preservation of Italy’s incomparable patrimony, helping to track down more than five hundred million dollars worth of stolen art.  To encounter Botticelli’s Birth of Venus stacked against the wall of a dank stone cellar along with innumerable other masterpieces was a life-changing experiences that launched not only a storied career, but also his fascinating and immensely engaging book, Florentine Art under Fire (Princeton University Press, 1949), which recounts his unique experience during these critical months of World War II.  Had he done or written nothing more, Hartt would be remembered for his contribution to the preservation of some of the world’s most valuable, and still vulnerable, cultural heritage.  But, in addition to being art’s champion, he was also its eloquent promoter.  He proved to be a passionate, sensitive, and prolific art historian, the author of one of the most important textbooks of Renaissance art history, and leading specialist on Michelangelo.

Frederick Hartt's famous pink typewriter

Frederick Hartt’s famous pink typewriter

… I especially recall the last time I spent time with Frederick Hartt shortly before he died in 1991.  In 1990, we were both part of a small group of scholars, curators, and conservators from around the world invited to confer with the Vatican during the conservation of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.  One evening, he invited me to dine with him at one of his favorite Roman restaurants, a small and elegant trattoria not far from Via Veneto.  I was the lucky recipient that evening of his stories of art and life in Italy; I admired his easy and colloquial Italian while I savored a dinner that reflected his refined gourmand tastes. The next day we spent in the Sistine Chapel, which included listening to the beatific sounds of the boys choir (once castrati) singing under the newly cleaned and brilliantly colored vault.  Although frail, Hartt clambered around the scaffold of the Last Judgment with enthusiasm, both thrilled and terrified to be so close to Michelangelo’s eschatological vision of the second coming.  Perhaps cognizant of his own mortality, Hartt discovered a self-portrait of Michelangelo among the elect of heaven – the subject of his last published article.  Not everyone accepts the hypothetical identification, but to me it serves as a fitting tribute to this scholar of intellectual breadth and curiosity with a life-long passion and rare sensitivity to the art of Michelangelo and the Italian Renaissance.

Photograph of Frederick Hartt while a faculty member at Washington University in the 1950s

Photograph of Frederick Hartt while a faculty member at Washington University in the 1950s


[1] It is pastel pink with cream-colored keys.

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