In 1836, Italian farm workers dug up three gilded bronze pieces in Calvatone in northern Italy: a woman's head, a torso with one arm and a sphere. When assembled, the parts resulted in a graceful female figure hovering above a celestial globe. The inscription on the globe, which praises the victory of the Romans over the Barbarians, refers to the period of the shared rule of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus and can be dated to 161-169 A.D.
A few years later, Gustav Friedrich Waagen, director of Berlin's Gemäldegalerie museum, discovered the statue in the Museum of Brescia during a shopping trip in Italy. He was enthusiastic about the antique beauty and convinced his boss to purchase it.
A majestic goddess: Victoria of Calvatone
The goddess spent the next 100 years in Berlin, where she first enthroned majestically on a connecting bridge between the Altes Museum and the Neues Museum. It became a symbol of the city's collection of Classical Antiquities. Experts admired the perfection of the Roman sculpture. The fact that it was almost the size of an actual human and made of gilded bronze made it unique. Numerous plaster casts for other European museums were made of the Victoria of Calvatone statue in the Berlin plaster workshops.
In 1939 the statue was evacuated to protect it from air raids. The building, however, was destroyed in March 1945 in bombing raids and the underground vault was flooded.
That summer, Red Army brigades retrieved the sculpture from the water and Moscow-based archaeologist Vladimir Blawatski, a renowned antiquarian, arranged for it to be transported to the Soviet Union.
Through "compensatory restitution" — a term used by the Russians instead of directly stating that it was looted art — the objects were arbitrarily distributed among museums in Moscow, Leningrad and the countryside. In all cases, the corresponding documentation went to the Committee for Cultural Assets in Moscow.
Decades of uncertainty
"You could say that Victoria lost her identity in the turmoil of the war," says Anna Aponasenko, research assistant at the Saint Petersburg Hermitage. "She came to us at that time without any papers. Even the Berlin inventory number was wiped out. Without identification, the statue was believed to be lost for many decades."
Victoria ended up considered to be of little value and was stored in a wooden box in the 17th-century French art department. It is suspected in the Hermitage that the "delicate pose" and somewhat frivolous wardrobe of the long-legged lady might have been to blame for this classification. "One automatically thought of France," laughs Anna Vilenskaya, art historian in the Hermitage's department of Western European art and one of the discoverers of Victoria.
Currently, more than three million objects are stored in the Saint Petersburg Museum and its facilities. The Collection of Classical Antiquities alone includes over 106,000 exhibits.
German-Russian museum dialogue
Victoria's trail was rediscovered exactly 70 years after her disappearance. During a study of the transportation documentation of the works in the Moscow archive, Anna Aponasenko found clues to the sculpture's whereabouts. The trail led to the old box with its supposedly frivolous contents. "We were very happy about that," says Martin Maischberger, deputy director of the Berlin antiquities collection. "You could say that Victoria was our greatest loss in the war."
Aponasenko and Vilenskaya set out to search for the missing exhibit from Berlin thanks to the German-Russian Museum Dialogue, an initiative launched by experts from both countries aimed at a scientific exchange between Russian and German museums and archives. In the almost 15 years of its existence, the collaboration has initiated many joint projects, including the "Merovingian Period" (2007) and "Bronze Age: Europe without Borders" (2013) exhibitions.
Thanks to these major research and exhibition projects, numerous "looted art" pieces from Germany, including the famous Eberswalde gold treasure, emerged again after decades in secret Russian depots.
Museums are successful in areas where politicians have long since reached a dead end. In 1998, Russia declared German looted art to be Russian state property as compensation for the horrendous war losses of Russian museums in World War II. Germany, on the other hand, insists on international law; according to the Hague Convention, cultural assets are not regarded as war loot.
For the time being, the legal situation makes joint exhibitions in Germany impossible. Even if Russia were to approve loans, the German public prosecutor would be obliged to confiscate the objects as soon as they reach German soil. In this muddled situation, Russian and German experts are counting on cooperation and exchange beyond the realm of politics. "In a way, we have made necessity a virtue," says Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, adding that the intensity and quality of cooperation are unique in the world of museums.
Victoria, it seems, is to be integrated into the Hermitage permanent collection. It wouldn't be the first such incorporation of a looted art object from Germany; the Pushkin Museum in Moscow has "Priam's Treasure," unearthed in 1873 by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, and the Hermitage has a Rubens painting that once hung in Potsdam, "Tarquinius and Lucretia."
News of Victoria's re-emergence shines a light on the German-Russian group's efforts, with the next joint project scheduled to open in June 2020. The third exhibition in the "Europe without Borders" series, an exploration into the Iron Age, will be shown in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Victoria, Diana, Aurora?
Researchers are now taking a closer look at the long-lost Victoria. "You can easily see the history of the art of restoration," says Igor Malkiel, head of the restoration workshops for precious metals at the Hermitage. The majestic wings, for instance, were not an original part of the ancient Roman sculpture. The experts found out that Victoria received her heavy bronze wings in 1844 in Berlin. "They followed the well-known iconography of the Victoria representation," says Malkiel. "But they ignored the fact that the antique lady is wearing a fur wrap, possibly she is a Diana, or an Aurora, hovering over the celestial globe."
Since December 19, the Petersburg Museum has had the sculpture on show in one of its most beautiful halls, the "Roman Courtyard" at the New Hermitage. A film documentary commissioned by the Hermitage entitled "The Story of a Masterpiece" celebrates the return of the whimsical goddess and tells the story of her journey from Calvatone to Berlin and Saint Petersburg in great detail.
Whether the sculpture will ever be shown in Berlin again remains unclear.