Articles in this series:
Series: Looted Crowns
03. Mussolini, and the Ethiopian Crowns of Tewodros, Yohannes, Menilek, and Haile Sellassie
During the Italian fascist occupation of Ethiopia, 1936-1941, the invaders looted not only the Aksum obelisk (which should have been returned in 1947-8, in accordance with the United Nations-Italian Peace, and in 1997, in accordance with the more recent Italian agreement with the present Ethiopian Government).
The Italians also carried off an indeterminate quantity of other Ethiopian artifacts. These included a number of Ethiopian royal crowns. Several of these, according to local tradition, were looted from the famous monastery of Debra Libanos, whose monks and deacons were massacred by the fascists in May 1937.
Mussolini Gives Them to the Colonial Museum
Several Ethiopian crowns at around this time came into the possession of Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian colonial general, who had led the invasion of Ethiopia on the southern front, and was later fascist Viceroy of Ethiopia.
According to the official Italian publication “Gli Annali dell’Africa Italiana”, Vol. II, No. 2, for June 1939 (page opposite p. 702), Graziani wanted to present four of these crowns to the Museo Coloniale, i.e. the Colonial Museum, in Rome. Subsequently, however, he gave then instead to his fascist master, Benito Mussolini, personally. The latter, again according to “Gli Annali”, subsequently gave them to the Colonial Museum. A photograph of them is reproduced in the publication, with a caption stating that they were “precious crowns of the last four Negus”, or kings, of Ethiopia. i.e. presumably Emperors Tewodros, Yohannes, Menilek, and Haile Sellassie. (Lej Iyasu, as far as we know, was uncrowned, and had no crown).
These four crowns, which were have apparently made of gold (or perhaps in the case of some, gilt), were placed in the Sala Graziani, or Graziani Room, named after Graziani.
The photograph, it will be noticed, shows in fact five, not four crowns. Several other crowns are to be seen in a second photograph in “Gli Annali”, not here reproduced. It depicts a second case, in the museum, with several other obviously Ethiopian crowns. This would suggest that the Colonial Museum, in 1939, possessed at least eight, and possibly nine, such crowns.
Mussolini Takes Them Away as He Tries to Escape
Though Mussolini had reportedly given his crowns to the Museum, he seems to have later revoked his gift (or had the crowns once again looted?). We say this because we find apparently the same crowns a few years later once more in his personal possession.
When attempting to flee to Switzerland, to escape from the Allies – and (perhaps more significantly from the Italian Partisans) – in Northern Italy, in April 1945, he took with him considerable treasure.
This treasure is popularly known as the “treasure of Dongo”, after the place, near the Swiss frontier where the ex-dictator was captured. The items he fled with were reported to consist of over sixty kilos of gold, several thousands pounds Sterling, in British, Swiss, French, and Portuguese money, and a large brief-case containing letters from Hitler, Churchill, and other luminaries. There were in addition an undisclosed number of Ethiopian royal crowns.
The fact that the Duce clung to the latter at such a difficult time, for him, would suggest that they were in fact made of gold, and hence of considerable sale value.
After the Duce’s execution, by Italian Partisans, at Dongo, on 28 April 1945, two Partisan leaders, General Raffaele Cadorna (left) and Colonel “Valerio”, or Walter Audisio (right), were photographed with these crowns.
The photograph, here reproduced, which shows three unmistakably Ethiopian crowns, subsequently appeared in the Italian magazine “Epoca”, of 25 August 1968. The shot was published primarily to depict the two Partisan leaders, and is probably incomplete, on the left-hand side, the side of the crowns. This leaves us uncertain how many Ethiopian crowns the Duce in fact took on his last, historic, journey.
What, we may ask, happened to these Ethiopian crowns, which, according to Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947, should have been returned within eighteen months? How many of them were there? Was the good General Cadorna, the good Colonel “Valerio”, and their good Partisan troops, ever questioned about the crowns?
If so, what did they say?
This ends the present series of three articles.