This intricate Renaissance shield was never used in battle—but its history is inseparable from the defining conflicts of the modern era. Once owned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sparked World War I, the armor was looted by Nazi soldiers during World War II and eventually transported across the Atlantic.
Now, after nearly eight decades overseas, the shield is finally returning home. As officials from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) announced this week, the Pennsylvania institution plans to return the item to the Czech Republic, where it will enter the collections of the European country’s National Heritage Institute.
“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,” says PMA director Timothy Rub in a statement.
Hynek Kmoníček, Czech ambassador to the United States, calls the case “a prime example of best practices in restitution.”
In the statement, he adds, “Our fruitful collaboration can serve as a model of international partnership in restoring looted art.”
Italian sculptor and painter Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso likely created the shield around 1535. Working from a design by contemporary Giulio Romano, the artist used gesso and bits of gold to render a complex wartime scene on the object’s surface, reports Stephan Salisbury for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Measuring 24 inches in diameter, the shield depicts the Romans’ storming of New Carthage, in present-day Spain, in 209 B.C.E. As the statement notes, the shield’s creator was likely attempting to draw a parallel between this historic Roman victory and the contemporary military successes of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled from 1519 to 1556.
During the Second Punic War, Roman general Scipio Africanus led many successful campaigns in northern Africa; at the time of the shield’s creation, Charles had just completed a successful military campaign against the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the same region. Upon his return from battle in 1535, cities across Italy held celebrations in the emperor’s honor—and this decorative shield was probably used as a ceremonial prop during the festivities.
As Eileen Kinsella reports for Artnet News, the shield eventually became part of Archduke Ferdinand’s extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance armor. The trove decorated his home at Konopiště Castle, in what is now the Czech town of Benešov.
After Ferdinand’s assassination, the outbreak of World War I and the eventual collapse of the Habsburg dynasty, the castle and its contents were placed under the care of the newly formed Czechoslovakian government. When Hitler’s forces annexed this region of the nascent nation in 1939, Nazi curators moved the armor collection to Prague. They later selected the finest works—including the shield—for transport to Vienna, where they were stored in anticipation of going on view at Adolf Hitler’s (unrealized) Das Führermuseum, per Artnet News.
Though most of the armor was recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities, the shield numbered among 15 items from the collection that remained missing for decades. The museum does not specify how, but the shield was eventually acquired by Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch, an avid collector of medieval arms and armor who donated his holdings to the Philadelphia institution when he died in 1976.
In 2016, a team of art historians from the PMA and the Czech Republic began researching the shield’s provenance, reports Matt Stevens for the New York Times. Over the course of five years, researchers uncovered pre-World War II inventory lists and a photograph of the shield dated to about 1913.
These two pieces of evidence, according to the statement, were enough to “persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis.”