Army surrenders gallery after 50-year occupation

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The Independent Online

After more than 50 years of fierce controversy, Italy is to gain possession at last of the National Gallery of Ancient Art after the Officers' Club of the Italian Armed Forces agreed to move out.

Palazzo Barberini, the location of the gallery, one of the most sumptuous and elaborate of Rome's many baroque papal palaces, was partially rented by the officers' club in the 1930s, when the building was still privately owned. When the Italian state bought it and subsequently ended the tenancy and told them to move out, the officers refused and stayed on as squatters.

They have been there ever since, and their refusal to budge, and the state's futile attempts to make them, have become one of Rome's permanent real-life soap operas.

The officers still describe the palace as their "social headquarters", and have been the improbable bedfellows of the art museum for more than half a century. Visitors taking in the museum's masterpieces by Raphael, Tintoretto, Caravaggio and the rest are frequently distracted by the smells of frying fish that drift in from the kitchens when an officers' banquet is being prepared, or by cries of "Viva gli sposi!" ("Long live the newlyweds!") as a wedding party gets under way.

Although the soldiers have paid no rent since 1965, they let out their premises to other organisations for parties. A couple of years ago Bob Geldof and the Yorkshire poet Tony Harrison addressed a large banquet in the Officers' Club celebrating the centenary of Rome's Keats Shelley Museum.

The agreement to move out is another feather in the cap for the Italian Culture Minister, Francesco Rutelli, who presided over the return last month of 13 antiquities looted from archaeological sites in Italy and sold by middlemen to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. With the departure of the soldiers, the museum will gain an extra 2,700 square metres of gallery space and will at last be able to put its unsurpassed collection in order. Hundreds of half-forgotten masterpieces are expected to emerge from the vaults.

The Palazzo was built to the orders of the Barberini pope, Urbano VIII, in the 1620s. Built on a steep hill, now in the centre of Rome but in the 16th century still semi-suburban, it was originally meant to emulate the thundering classicism of Michelangelo's Palazzo Farnese but in development it became a unique hybrid of city palace and grand rural villa, with a spectacular garden behind.

The army takeover of the palazzo began innocuously enough with the renting of part of it from its needy aristocratic owners in 1934. The state acquired the property in 1949, and, in 1952, parliament voted to "require the government to clear the palace". Despite that, the Ministry of Defence managed the next year to obtain a 12-year lease extension.

When that expired in 1965 they stayed put. The first minister to try to evict them was Alberto Ronchey in 1993, who said that getting a man on the moon was an easier task. Mr Rutelli might second that: although the army officers have vacated the ground floor, they retain - temporarily - 700 square metres upstairs. The war of attrition is not over yet.