Renaissance Shield With an Afterlife in World Wars Is Returning to Europe

By Matt Stevens

The Philadelphia Museum will return a 16th-century shield that scholars say was once owned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand and later taken by the Nazis.

The Philadelphia Museum plans to return the shield, which features decoration attributed to Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso.
The Philadelphia Museum plans to return the shield, which features decoration attributed to Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso.Credit...via Philadelphia Museum of Art
Matt Stevens

The Philadelphia Museum of Art said on Monday that it would return a ceremonial pageant shield to the Czech Republic after scholars determined that it had been part of a collection that once belonged to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and that was later confiscated by the Nazis after they annexed Czechoslovakia during World War II.

It will be the latest journey for a shield that was created by an Italian artist during the Renaissance, and which went on to have an unusual afterlife in wars centuries later. Ultimately it ended up in a bequest to the Philadelphia museum, where it went on display in the Galleries of Arms and Armor starting in 1976 as part of the Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch Collection.

The museum had been working with historians in the Czech Republic since 2016 to evaluate the history and provenance of the shield, officials said in a news release.

“After many decades, a remarkable piece of Italian Renaissance art, historically belonging to the d’Este Collection of the Konopiste Castle, returns to the Czech Republic,” Nadezda Goryczkova, the head of the Czech Republic’s National Heritage Institute, said in a statement. “We are delighted.” The agreement to return the artifact was reached jointly by the museum and the National Heritage Institute, which has promised to consider any future loan request for the shield from the museum.

In Philadelphia, Timothy Rub, the museum’s director and chief executive, said in a statement on Monday, “A work that had been lost during the turmoil of World War II is being happily restituted, and out of this has come an exceptional scholarly partnership.”

Experts say the shield, which has been attributed to the artist Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso, was probably commissioned for one of the many ceremonies held throughout Italy in the 1500s to welcome the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V home from military campaigns in northern Africa. The shield was made about 1535 of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment and measures 24 inches in diameter. The scene depicted on the surface of the disc shows the storming of New Carthage (in what is now Spain) by Roman soldiers, they said. That motif of an ancient military victory can be seen as a parallel to the conquests of Charles V.

Historians determined that the shield once belonged to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, whose assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 set off World War I.

The shield depicts Romans storming New Carthage in what is now Spain.Credit...via Philadelphia Museum of Art

The archduke owned an impressive collection of arms and armor, which he displayed at his country residence, Konopiste Castle, near Prague. After World War I, the castle and its collections became the property of the newly formed government of Czechoslovakia. But by 1939, Germany had annexed the region that included Konopiste, and four years later, the Nazis confiscated the castle’s armor collection, curators said.

The museum said in a statement that Leopold Ruprecht, who was Hitler’s arms and armor curator, had eventually gathered the best pieces in the collection and sent them to Vienna, intending that they end up in a museum being planned for Linz, Austria. When the artifacts were returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II, there were 15 objects missing.

One of them was this elaborately decorated shield, made sometime around 1535 for ceremonial purposes. The shield was identified through art inventories from before World War II and a photograph — dated to around 1913 — which showed it displayed at Konopiste Castle, museum officials said.

The shield is one of many artworks the Nazis seized. The provenance of some pieces, many of which were taken from Jewish families, remains a matter of dispute today, as heirs have sought to reclaim items from museums or private collectors. In some cases those efforts have resulted in lawsuits over works that are said to be worth millions of dollars.