EMINENTFIGURES | Fernanda Wittgens. An Italian “monument-woman”

Fernanda Wittgens was an art historian and the first female director of the Pinacoteca di Brera: we owe to her the rescue of most of the paintings in Milan’s museums during the Second World War.

Childhood and youth

Fernanda was born in Milan on April 3, 1903 from Margherita Righini and Adolfo Wittgens. On Sundat her father used to take her and her brothers and sisters to the museums of the city: this habit, almost certainly, instilled in Fernanda the interest and love for art.

Graduated from the classical high school, in 1925 the young girl obtained her master degree in art history at the Scientific-literary Academy in Milan, under the guidance of Paolo D’Ancona. After a period as a teacher at the Parini High School and the Regio Liceo Manzoni, in 1928 Fernanda Wittgens, thanks to her friend Mario Salmi, inspector at the Brera art gallery, was hired as an “adventitious worker” in Brera. The great culture and artistic sensibility allowed Fernanda to have an impressive career progression: in 1931, she become assistant to Ettore Modigliani, director of the Pinacoteca.

Emilio Sommariva, Ritratto di Fernanda Wittgens, 1936. Milano, Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Fondo Emilio Sommariva
Emilio Sommariva, Portrait of Fernanda Wittgens (1936)
Racial laws and war

Fernanda worked side by side with Modigliani until 1935, when the director was dismissed from his office because he was anti-fascist (following the racial laws of 1938, Modigliani was sentenced to confinement in the Marche region. Anyway Fernanda Wittgens continued to update him punctually on the events in Milan and the direction of the gallery).

In 1940 Fernanda Wittgens won the competition as director of the Pinacoteca di Brera becoming the first woman in Italy leading a museum (in 1941 she was followed by Palma Bucarelli PERSONAGGI | Palma Bucarelli, la Regina di Quadri). 

When the war began to threat Milan, the first thought of the director was to secure the masterpieces of Brera and other Milanese museums. In spite of the reduced staff, Wittgens managed to save all the masterpieces of Brera and numerous works of the Museo dell’Ospedale Maggiore and the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, transporting them to safe places and air-raid shelters. She worked on the transfer of the paintings until June 1943. On August, 7th and 8th the Pinacoteca di Brera was bombed by the Allies and 24 rooms out of 36 were destroyed, but, thanks to Fernanda, they were empty.

Pinacoteca courtyard
The courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera in 1942, with trucks loading the works of art
The trial of the ladies

During the war years, Fernanda Wittgens had worked tirelessly to help friends, family and people of Jewish descent to cross the italian border in order to escape racial persecution. In 1944, however, a young German Jew, whose expatriation Fernanda was organizing, denounced the woman to the Nazis. The famous art historian was jailed first in Como and then in Milan, in San Vittore. Together with Adele Cappelli, Zina and Mariarosa Tresoldi, who were also involved in helping Jews and anti-fascists, she was tried and sentenced to 4 years imprisonment in what the newspapers of the time called “the trial of the ladies”.

From the prison Fernanda Wittgens wrote to her relatives some letters full of pride and bravery. Trough her letters we can see a strong woman, not afraid at all because of the harsh prison conditions. Despite the dramatic situation she continued to firmly believe in her ideals and actions.

The Great Brera, Michelangelo and Leonardo

Released at the dawn of the liberation of Italy, a few months later Fernanda Wittgens is back in Brera, in her place as director, engaged in the reconstruction. Together with Modigliani, returned from confinement, she planned the idea of the “Great Brera”: a museum connected with the other great artistic institutions of Milan, such as the Academy of Fine Arts and the Observatory of Astronomy. The art gallery, enlarged and restored, was finally inaugurated in 1950.  Dr. Wittgens inaugurates a new concept of art gallery, a “living” museum with events, concerts, fashion shows, vernissage, a true cultural heart of the city.

In 1950 the director of Brera was appointed Superintendent of the Lombardy Galleries. Two years later she managed to get the city of Milan to buy Michelangelo’s Pietà Rondanini, recently on the art market.

Among Fernanda Wittgens’ successes is the rescue of Leonardo’s Last Supper. In the early 1950s, when no one believed that the grandiose mural could be saved from its state of decay (already deteriorated by time, it had suffered enormous damage during the war), the Superintendent nevertheless wanted to try and entrust its restoration to Mario Pelliccioli. The painting was finally reopened to the public on May 30, 1954.

Fernanda Wittgens
Fernanda Wittgens in her studio in Brera (1955)
Righteous among the Nations

Fernanda Wittgens died prematurely in 1957, only 54 years old.

A street in Milan, in the central San Lorenzo neighborhood, is dedicated to her. In 2014, for her aid to the Jews, she was named “Righteous Among the Nations”, a tree was planted in her name and a memorial stone was erected in the Garden of the Righteous in Milan.

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