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Friday, February 3, 2023

Philadelphia Museum Returns Stolen Shield to Czech Republic

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This striking Renaissance ceremonial shield was intended to feature in Adolf Hitlers Mega-Museum in Linz, Austria. Now, this highly-symbolic piece of ancient armor will be returned to the Czech Republic where is was held for centuries before the Nazis attacked in the 20th century.

Created around 1535 AD by Italian sculptor and painter Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso, the shield was based it on a design made by contemporary Giulio Romano. Measuring 24 inches in diameter the shield tells the story of a Roman army attacking New Carthage, in what is today Spain, in 209 BC. A report on the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) website says the famous artist carefully applied gesso and bits of gold to illustrate his highly-detailed war scene.

The armor was part of a treasure collection plundered by Nazi soldiers during World War II and it was ultimately transported across Atlantic almost eight decades ago. Today, the shield remains in the Philadelphia Museum of Art , and PMA director Timothy Rub announced in a  statement this week that the historically priceless item will now be returned to the Czech Republic, where it will be exhibited in the  National Heritage Institute .

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‘Shield Showing the Storming of New Carthage’, made in Italy 1535. By Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso. (PhilaMuseum)

‘Shield Showing the Storming of New Carthage’, made in Italy 1535. By Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso. ( PhilaMuseum)

Ceremonial Shield Uniting Ancient And Medieval Warfare

According to Smithsonian Mag the shield was lost during the aftermath of World War II. Hynek Kmoníček, Czech ambassador to the United States, said in his statement that the case was a prime example of “best practices in restitution.” He added that the unified legal work between the U.S and the Czech Republic should serve as a future model of “international partnership in restoring looted art.”

The PMA statement suggests the symbolic shield’s creator, Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso, attempted to draw a parallel between the 209 BC Roman victory at New Carthage, and the 16th century military successes of Charles V, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire between 1519 to 1556 AD. In 1535 AD Charles served a major win against the Muslim  Ottoman Empire and all over Italy cities rejoiced the emperor. PMA director Timothy Rub said in the statement that the shield was most probably used as a ceremonial prop during the post-war celebrations.

A Noble Ceremonial Battle Shield, For The People

The shield was passed down through many generations until it was inherited by Archduke Ferdinand. He kept the shield at Konopiště Castle, his home at that time, in the small town of Benešov, in the Central Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic. Sparking World War I, on June 28, 1914, Nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the rightful heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, in Sarajevo. This historic event also created a twist in the otherwise safe passage of the ancient shield.

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Konopiště Castle, Benešov, Czech Republic, 2011. Photo courtesy National Heritage Institute (NPÚ), Czech Republic (PhilaMuseum)

Konopiště Castle, Benešov, Czech Republic, 2011. Photo courtesy National Heritage Institute (NPÚ), Czech Republic ( PhilaMuseum)

Konopiště Castle is a magnificent four-winged three-storey defensive structure that was founded in the 13th century in the town of Benešov. When Hitler annexed the region in 1939 the castle and its ancient treasures were seized by the new Czechoslovakian government. The PMA statement says that at this time the shield was sent to Prague to await transport to Vienna. There, Adolf Hitler was to consider it for inclusion in his planned Das Führermuseum , “Mega-Museum,” in Linz, Austria.

The Mystery Of The Nazi Plunder Transfer

The Philadelphia Museum statement explains that while most of the treasures recovered from Konopiště Castle by the Allies were returned to Czech authorities, “the shield numbered among 15 items from the collection that remained missing for decades.” In 1976, the medieval arms collector Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch died and donated a collection to the Philadelphia institution, in which the shield was discovered.

New York Times reports that in 2016, pre-World War II inventory lists and a photograph of the shield dated to about 1913 were discovered by a team of art historians from the PMA and the Czech Republic. These two pieces of tangible evidence were enough to legally determine that the shield had indeed come from the Konopiště Castle Nazi raid. What remains unanswered is how it got from a Post-WWII allied forces seizure in Europe into the private collection of Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch, in the U.S.

Top image: Ceremonial Shield Showing the Storming of New Carthage. Source: PhilaMuseum

By Ashley Cowie

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