Podcast: The Ethiopian Cloak: Episode 1 “Departure”

Villa Freischütz, Foundation Navarini-Ugarte, Merano

Author: Ariane Karbe

SONG BY MARION MORODER “A long way” (chorus)

Ariane Karbe (AK): Welcome to Villa Freischütz! Right now I am in the attic of the villa. Most of our museum objects are stored here. Imagine, every millimetre around me is packed, the shelves are packed with dozens of boxes. I want to talk about one particular box, here it is: it’s quite big and black and the label says: “Ceremonial robe: velvet embroidered with gold and silver – Ethiopia (Menelik)”. I am a freelance curator and this box fascinates me since I started working for Villa Freischütz: Menelik, the Abyssinian emperor! The boxes were labelled very quickly during an initial inventory – I’ll talk about that a bit later. If the magnificently embroidered coat really belonged to the Emperor of Abyssinia – what is it doing here, in an enchanted villa in Obermais, in Merano in South Tyrol? How did it get here? And, I ask myself, should it stay here? Or should it be returned to Ethiopia? That’s what we want to find out.


This is the Ethiopian cloak. A story of war, guilt and oblivion. It is also a story about a small museum that asks big questions. This podcast is a production of the Navarini-Ugarte Foundation and part of the Euregio Museum Year. I am, the exhibition dramaturge Ariane Karbe. 

Episode 1: Departure


Villa Freischütz opened only recently, in 2019. The art collector Franz Fromm’s family lived in the villa for decades. His granddaughter Rosamaria was the last family member to live in the villa. She spent many years alone in the villa and when she finally died in 2013, she stipulated in her will that Villa Freischütz should become a museum. In order to become a museum we had to make an inventory of all the objects. In next to no time! The objects had to be listed, photographed and stored. With hundreds of objects, it was an incredible undertaking! The villa was full of objects, from the attic, and there are two rooms in the attic, to the cellar. We only had one year for this quick inventory. Such were the rules, only with an inventory the foundation was officially recognised as such.

Rosamaria Navarini had appointed her friend Karin Pircher and the architect Herta Waldner to the board of the foundation. Karin and Herta set about sifting through the objects, putting them in order and labelling them. There was almost no time to research individual objects. So a magnificently embroidered cloak ended up in a cardboard box. Herta and Karin noted on the label: “Ceremonial robe: velvet embroidered with gold and silver – Ethiopia (Menelik)”. Herta explains how she came up with the name Menelik:

Herta Waldner: In this house, I’ve had many objects in my hands, many fabrics or paraments. I immediately identified this one as not belonging to a Catholic or ecclesiastical history. I then realised it’s a special French gold work, we have a Belgian gala uniform in the same style. At that time I was in contact with Dr. Richtsfeld from the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Five Continents Museum) in Munich to talk about another object. I sent him a few photos of the coat too. His answer was, I don’t know anything about that, I’ll pass it on to a colleague. The colleague answered immediately: Yes, we have something similar, an Ethiopian priest’s cloak. That helped a lot. Then, I did some research on the internet and found something in a museum in Zurich. I also looked for King Menelik with the priest’s cloak, and a photo of Menelik with a similar cloak appeared. We also have Ethiopian coins. So I concluded, knowing that General Enea Navarini was originally stationed in Ethiopia, in Gimma, that it was probably either a gift or that he simply stole it somewhere, and that, perhaps, it wasn’t very legal.

AK: Enea Navarini. General Enea Navarini. This podcast is mainly about him. In 1925, he married the daughter of the art collector Franz Fromm. A year later their daughter Rosamaria, the founder of the museum, was born. Navarini had embarked on a military career early on and had already fought as a soldier in the First Italian-Lybian War and the First World War. In 1936, he fought in the Abyssinian War that Italy had started in October 1935. There, he was stationed for two years. He most likely brought the magnificent coat from Ethiopia to Merano. This podcast tries to verify this thesis and looks at it from different angles.

So Italy and Ethiopia share a difficult past. That is why I ask Hannes to join the project. Hannes Obermair, a historian from Bolzano and, among other things, an expert on fascism. The cloak’s history is all the more complicated because South Tyrol belonged to Austria-Hungary until the First World War before it was annexed by Italy. When we talk about “our past”, it is not always clear whose past we actually mean. Actually, this subject is full of pitfalls. Of course, we want to avoid them. With our project and our questions we want to connect people, we don’t want to deepen the divide, but we do point out critical issues. As Hannes always says, “Let’s dance the circumstances.” We also want to find and define an attitude and a position. The aim of this podcast and of our exhibition is mainly: we, the Villa Freischütz team, want to take part in the debate about museum objects and colonialism and we want to find answers.

What is our position concerning restitution, i.e. returning museum objects to the country they originally came from? Do we think Europe’s and Italy’s colonial past still plays a role for today’s museums and for our society? What about our responsibility? We are not going to answer these questions in an abstract way, instead we are going to find answers in a very hands-on manner.  

One specific object exemplifies these questions: the magnificent cloak from Ethiopia. Next, Hannes and I explain our idea and or motivation to Josef Prackwieser. Josef is a historian from Merano, he currently writes his final thesis at the Bavarian Museum Academy and accompanies our project. Hannes begins:

Hannes Obermair: I think the bearing of the male hero, the military hero, is very important. Navarini represents this hero, he does not exemplify the detached general the photos show. The photos we have and that we took a look at. We have the correspondence, the maps that were the basis for military actions, and we have military writings. I like to address this bellecistic spirit that lives to some extent in the collections or in part of the collections, with the help of the coat. To deconstruct it, to break it down into its individual parts, to work out this kind of spirit, this kind of thinking, speaking and the perspective. We want to show that with the help of the cloak, with Navarini as the person and stage director as it were. I think it’s important to show this particular mentality, this disposition, this authoritarian disposition.

Ariane Karbe: I’m glad to hear that, Hannes, the way you put it, this thought didn’t occur to me before. It’s a positive and valuable contribution to the project, your perspective. It’s another way of looking at it, the general concept of Villa Freischütz is to introduce all its residents. With Enea Navarini, we always said we won’t ignore him, but for the time being we won’t draw attention to him, either. Because we basically had nothing on him. We commissioned René to write his master’s thesis, an excellent thesis, and to reconstruct Enea Navarini’s biography, he also evaluates the existing letters, postcards and photos. In other words, he made an inventory and an initial assessment about who Enea Navarini was after all. It’s a good basis to work on. The project is exactly that, an opportunity to draw attention to Enea Navarini and to view him in a critical light.

AK: I want to involve all the Freischütz team in the project. That’s why I invited them to the villa to discuss the project. Herta and Karin together with Anntraud Torggler, an architect, too, were members of the foundation’s board from the start. Tim Koella, an art historian and a new member of the board, is part of the team, as are the volunteers Carmen Steiner, Rita Lahner, Helmut Schenk and Rosmarie Stocker. What do they think about returning the cloak to Ethiopia?

Karin Pircher: The cloak is from Ethiopia, for sure. But what interests me, the crucial point, was it a gift from some chieftain or lion warrior, to please Enea, or is it tainted with blood, is it perhaps a booty, a loot? To me that’s decisive, I’d like to know to be able to decide on restitution.

Herta Waldner: The problem is, it seems very likely that these are expressions of defeat from a conquered and humiliated division of an Ethiopian army and always tainted with blood, even if it was a gift. I surrender, I lost the battle, I hand over to you my part of the land that belongs to me. I learned that a Ras is a noble general or a ruler of a small part of the people, that a Ras probably owned something like that and when he lost a battle, he handed it over as a…

Anntraud Torggler: …capitulation.

Herta Waldner: …capitulation is the term, you are right, a sign of capitulation, quite right, thanks.  

Anntraud Torggler: … a sign of their defeat.

Rosmarie Stocker: The coat, maybe it’s a symbol of power. He hands it over because he lost his power, his sovereignty, yes, maybe.

Ariane Karbe: We do know it’s a warrior’s garment, because of the lion’s hair on the shoulders, a typical feature, which is no longer quite so magnificent, it’s a bit tattered. It was awarded to special warriors or, I read that somewhere, to outstanding huntsmen. The lion symbolises courage. The question you raised earlier, Karin, you said something about … we still don’t know how Enea Navarini got hold of this coat…

Karin Pircher: We really have to consider every aspect and to examine it in detail. I think we should really do some research if that is possible at all after all that time. Because it is just as well possible that he received the cloak as a gift, he got a lot of gifts in Africa, or maybe it really was loot or a so-called booty, and possibly even bloodstained, that’s what we have to investigate.


AK: They were right. And the reminded me and Hannes of our duty to take on our responsibility. We had done some research before, of course, but are there others ways to learn about the cloak’s origin? I asked Hannes to write to the Central State Archives in Rome to enquire about documents on Enea Navarini. We are still expecting an answer and we’ll talk about in the next episode of the podcast.

In Villa Freischütz we have a couple of letters that Enea Navarini wrote home to his wife Luisa from the Abyssinian War. René Thaler Roschatt has already analysed the letters for his master’s thesis at the University of Innsbruck. In this thesis, René reconstructed Enea Navarini’s biography, an invaluable basis for Hannes and me. At that time, however, our focus was not on the cloak or other items Enea Navarini got in Ethiopia. Looking at them from a different angle, might the letters reveal new clues? I thought of Walter Gufler, a volunteer. He has offered to transcribe the letters and he was now so kind to take another look at Navarini’s letters. I was curious.

Ariane Karbe: Tell me, what did you find?

Walter Gufler: The cloak wasn’t mentioned in the letters, but other gifts were mentioned and I chose those letters.

Ariane Karbe: The question is: Will we find out how exactly he got the cloak? A hypothesis is that it was a gift. But we don’t know, we are still trying to find out.  

Walter Gufler: I didn’t find a letter that mentions the cloak …

Ariane Karbe: No, that’s great. That says something too, you know. If you hadn’t looked up the letters, we wouldn’t know and would still be wondering if the cloak is mentioned somewhere or if he describes some ceremony. And now, based on the letters in our collection, we can say … maybe in some of the boxes in the attic… we were unable to have a closer look at every detail …

Walter Gufler: He writes he is sending animal teeth and horns for the children. He also says he doesn’t know what to do with them, but he point out that they are more beautiful if you polish them. (Laughs).

Ariane Karbe: That’s true, we have them in our collection.

MUSIC: Marion Moroder: Reverse

Emilie Messner reads a letter from Enea Navarini: …

MUSIC: Marion Moroder: Reverse

AK: Kuki is Enea’s daughter Rosamaria. Luisa is his wife and Paco her brother. And Papá, he is Luisa’s father, the art collector Franz Fromm.

Enea Navarini – head of a commissariat in the colony and at the same time caring husband and loving father. Perhaps this was most impressive in the discussion in Villa Freischütz with the board members and the volunteers: how difficult it was to reconcile these two images.

Carmen Steiner: Because of the cloak I did some research on Mr. Enea Navarini, I googled the name. His military career is quite impressive and on the other hand he was said to be such a pleasant man.

Ariane Karbe: Do you think those two aspects clash?

Carmen Steiner: Yes, I do. Because I think the war in Ethiopia was very brutal, yes, it was a really nasty war, really atrocious. And that has to show in his personality somehow, you probably grew harder or had a more distanced relation to others. But with this gentleman it doesn’t seem to be the case. Karin says he was quite popular around here.

Karin Pircher: I still met him, Enea Navarini. I knew him even though I was only a young girl. He really was a nice old gentleman, he didn’t look like a terrifying general at all. That’s why I’m sure he was not promoted because of some cruel deeds he committed. It’s impossible to imagine that.

Ariane Karbe: Do you all agree? I ask because … Anntraud, you were about to say …?

Anntraud Torggler: I think it’s possible. As human beings we are quite complex, we are able to dissociate. I think it’s possible to dissociate and to split off certain attitudes. I’ve said that before but one part of you is this and another part is that. In the role of a general, a fighter on a mission, you are a different person from the person you are among your family and friends. The fact that I can cultivate friendships does not mean I cannot be cruel.  

Rosmarie Stocker: There are many examples, not only this one, very well-known examples from the time of National Socialism. A lot of people were obviously very loveable in their private lives among their acquaintances and friends, apparently, and in their role, in their function, they could be very, very cruel. What they do, they differentiate, my people versus strangers, subhumans as it were, Untermenschen. In my role I’m not responsible, it’s the state or the institution, not me, I am me, I only act my part.

Helmut Schenk: I think he was a military man, it was his profession, he attended the military academy. To start a career, of course, he had to work his way up and had to have a good reputation. And I think it’s a profession. And on the battlefield… when the war began… or when he was sent to a war on a special mission, he receives orders from Rome and he has to do what he is told to do. He’s not someone who goes and shoots people himself, he is somewhere else. He is the commander, he commands the army, he makes strategic plans, thinks about what to do to avert losses, etc. etc. He carries out his duty. It protects him, the idea that he is simply fulfilling the task he was trained for protects him. Next he is with his family, he lives his family life. I think it works.

AK: I mentioned this aspect in an interview with the historian Markus Wurzer –more about him in the next episode. Markus researched Italian colonialism. In his PhD thesis he examined Italian colonialism and family memories in South Tyrol. He writes that public memorials in Italy, places, streets, paint a positive picture of colonialism. “The violence is forgotten,” he said. And:

Markus Wurzer: It’s the same in families, this myth of the “brava gente” is even more condensed and stronger, because fathers, uncles, ancestors were involved in colonial projects and they refigure as good colonial master in these narratives. And the need for family loyalty and the desire for moral integrity prevent us from looking behind this façade and from seeing previous generations and their involvement in violent colonial regimes.

Ariane Karbe: That’s very interesting because Villa Freischütz is a house museum about its former residents. The project THE ETHIOPIAN CLOAK is about the former resident Enea Navarini. Three weeks ago, I invited volunteers and members of the foundation board to a meeting. And … I presented the project and we discussed it. It was really tangible, this need or this question, we asked: Enea Navarini, wasn’t he terribly friendly? How do we reconcile these images? To me, this is the most urgent question. As you said there is a protective mechanism in the family… the father figure or the nice uncle… I try to solve it and I wonder why we act like we do. Why is it so difficult to reconcile those two aspects? I think that‘s very interesting. We are practically… the team, we identify very much with Villa Freischütz, we spent so much time with the family in the last few years. Herta Waldner, the president of the foundation, says she knows the family better than her own family. (Laughs). So, there’s a point.

Markus Wurzer: It’s really a methodological challenge, it was a challenge for my research project and the dissertation. Working closely with families, because it’s about family history and traces in families’ histories, I found it incredibly challenging to differentiate. Their expectations, the expectations of the family. And, of course, you can’t take these narratives they presented about the father figure, for example, as a matter of fact, you have to see beyond them, to ask what functions these narratives actually fulfil in the family. Why are they presented to me as a questioning person, etc.? I remember it as a great challenge, and as a trained contemporary historian I was incredibly happy about the advice anthropologists gave me who are more experienced in observing themselves in the field, so to speak, and in reflecting their own position. I also remember the effort it was for me to recognise and overcome these intrafamilial defensive alliances, if you like, or the complicity, if you like. Yes, so it really is a methodological challenge.

AK: That’s interesting, because every story is different. And every museum is different. Villa Freischütz is a house museum. House museums are buildings: castles, palaces, huts that tell the history of the buildings and their former inhabitants. Villa Freischütz is a small cosmos with only a few people involved. As a result, we feel a special bond with Franz Fromm, the collector, with his granddaughter Rosamaria Navarini and her father Enea Navarini. That’s fine. We only have to be aware of the fact and take a step back from time to time so we can see clearly and with a critical eye. Enea Navarini may have presented himself as a cavalier in Merano, in Ethiopia he did wrong. He took part in a war the League of Nations condemned as an unjustified aggression on October 7th, 1935. And it’s the cloak that tells us this story.

In the next episode, we go to the neighbour regions of Tyrol and Trentino and learn more about the cloak and where it came from. We take a closer look at the war where Enea Navarini was a general and at South Tyrol’s role in the war. I’ll also discuss with Hannes what our exhibition would look like in an ideal world. And I’ll tell you why this almost spoiled our entire concept.


AK: The song was written and composed by Marion Moroder. Many thanks to Walter Gufler for transcribing the letters and to Emilie Messner for reading the letter aloud. And thank you, Markus Wurzer, for the interview.


Podcast: The Ethiopian Cloak: Episode 2 “South and north”

Villa Freischütz, Foundation Navarini-Ugarte, Merano

Author: Ariane Karbe

SONG BY MARION MORODER “A long way” (chorus)

Ariane Karbe (AK):

I am in Merano. In the background you can hear the Passer. I’m on my way to the war museum in Rovereto. Like Villa Freischütz, it is part of the Euregio museum year which takes place in South Tyrol and its neighbour regions Trentino and Tyrol. When we first met in Bolzano, Davide Zendri, our colleague in Rovereto, told us he, too, had a cloak from Ethiopia in his collection and he invited us to his museum. We, Herta Waldner and me, were of course happy to accept his invitation. You’ve met Herta in the last episode. She is the chairwoman of the Navarini-Ugarte foundation behind Villa Freischütz. And today Herta and me are going to Roverto. In the war museum we have an appointment with the director Francesco Frizzera. He agreed to tell us more about THEIR cloak. So maybe we’ll find out how OUR cloak found its way into Villa Freischütz. This is what this podcast is all about. And also about what this implies and if the cloak should be returned to Ethiopia. And, there she is, Herta is waiting for me at the hotel “Meraner Hof”. … Avanti, let’s go to Trentino!


This is THE ETHIOPIAN CLOAK. The story of war, guilt and oblivion. It’s also a story about a small  museum addressing big questions. This podcast is produced by the Navarini-Ugarte foundation and participates in the Euregio museum year. My name is Ariane Karbe, I am the exhibition dramaturge.

Episode 2: South and north

AK: The cloak in the war museum in Rovereto looks great. Herta and me are a bit jealous. It’s in excellent condition. Unlike the cloak in Villa Freischütz the lion fur on the shoulders is abundant and intact. Francesco is accompanied by the curator Marco Leonardi Scomazzoni, they both tell us that the cloak was brought into the collection by Amedeo Guillet.

Guillet was an Italian officer who was sent to Abyssinia in 1939 to fight the Ethiopian resistance. Officially, Mussolini had declared the Abyssinian war over already three years ago. He had merged Abyssinia and the colonies Eritrea and Somalia into the greater colony “Africa Orientale Italiana”. But in fact the Ethiopian freedom fighters (men and women) were quite persistent. Until the end of the Italian colonial rule in 1941, the country was never really pacified. A fact that will play a major role in the next episode: Italy ruled Ethiopia as a colony only for a few years and Ethiopia was the only African country that had not been a colony before.


Guillet was a gifted horseman himself and his mission in Ethiopia was to recruit a cavalry of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Yemeni warriors and to fight the resistance in the country with their help.

Francesco tells us that Guillet had a remarkably good relationship with the Ethiopian population and he also tells us how the cloak found its way into the museum.

Ariane Karbe: So,he got the cloakbecause he saved or rescued a herd of sheep for an Ethiopian and the shepherd gave him the cloak to thank him, did I get that right?

Francesco Frizzera: Yes, that’s right. My German isn’t fluent. It’s very likely, because he had a special rapport with the warriors.

Ariane Karbe: If we know the story of the cloak’s origin, we could trace back the owner and the man who first wore the cloak? Do we know the village? Can we find the village?

Francesco Frizzera: We don’t know the village. It’s very, very difficult with many colonial exhibits to know their exact story. This is really a special case. In our museum’s depot we have some colonial objects and we know only very little about them. This one is special because we know the owner, the man who wore it. We had the chance to talk to his son in detail and to learn more about him. He wrote a couple of books. So we could reconstruct about 95% of its history. But this is the only case. In most cases we know very, very little. We know too little about these exhibits.

AK: Returning fromRovereto I read more about Amedeo Guillet. As Francesco told us he was known for his fair treatment of his allies. And his enemies! For example, he defied an order from Commander-in-chief Rodolfo Graziani who was known to be cruel. Graziani had given the order to kill all enemies immediately after they’d been arrested. Instead, Guillet offered them to change alliances and to join the Italian side. So the story with the herd of sheep does sound plausible. And the cloak in the war museum really was a gift. Guillet received the cloak for a personal reason.

This might have been the case with Enea Navarini, too. Enea Navarini is the general I introduced in the last episode and who was stationed in Ethiopia during the Italian Abyssinian War. He brought the Ethiopian cloak to Merano and Villa Freischütz.

When we started our research, we were still unsure if it was him who brought the cloak into the Villa Freischütz collection. By now, my project partner Hannes Obermair and me think it’s a fact.


FIRST, there’s not the slightest hint that ANYONE ELSE brought the cloak into the museum. Neither Franz Fromm, Enea Navarini’s father-in-law, the art collector who brought most of the objects into the collection, nor his children or his servants had any kind of relation with Africa.

SECOND, the cloak is not the only object from Abyssinia in the collection, there are others objects that Enea Navarini brought back: horn beakers and jewellery and two shields, spears and sabres and religious manuscripts. I’ve mentioned the rhino horns in the last episode.

THIRD, we have two photos that show Navarini receiving presents. One photo shows two Ethiopian civilians giving him a sabre (like the one in Villa Freischütz). The other photo shows a local priest blessing Navarini with a cross and another priest is about to hand Navarini a piece of cloth (but not our cloak!).

Back to the question how EXACTLY Enea Navarini got hold of the cloak:

Let’s assume he got it like Amedeo Guillet from his Ethiopian allies as a thank you or in recognition of his personality. In that case, I’d say offering to give it back could be considered an insult. Because the cloak would have been given to him out of the giver’s own free will. To interpret this as an enforced act because it happened in a colonial context would in this case wrongly victimise the giver and deny him the capacity to act – or what do you think?

At the beginning of our research, Hannes and I discussed the different ways of how Navarini could have gotten hold of the cloak, carefully probing for answers. Hannes mentioned “booty” and I asked:

Ariane Karbe: Hannes, you just mentioned the word “booty”, could you describe in what case it would be justified to call it booty?

Hannes Obermair: I used the term because I come originally from a different direction, from a historical-political context, the Ethiopian or Abyssinian War. That’s my background as it were, and that is why I was immediately interested in this project, because it was a forerunner of World War II, as they call it, including chemical warfare, i.e. a genocidal way of warfare, it preceded the World War II warfare, especially the invasion of Russia. Fascist Italy waged a genocidal war in East Africa, in violation of the law of nations. And at the same time it was an enormous misappropriation of that country and everything it owns, raw materials, potential, too, prestige, all that comes with it. In this context, cultural goods from Ethiopia, Abyssinia, Eritrea going to Italy during this time, the Stele of Axum is a prime example, are generally booty insofar as even legalised, or legalised in the context of the time, assignments only cover a false balance of power, of course. Even in case of legal or semi-legal transfers there is a power structure that allows for this transfer in the first place. In this case, the cloak might very well have been a present from a chieftain to Navarini. Presumably, it was a symbolic assignment, a symbolic transfer, which is at the same time a transfer of power insignia. You can only interpret these proceedings as an appropriation that is at the same time a transfer of power.

Ariane Karbe: So you would really… Let’s just assume Enea Navarini bought the cloak on the market. Would you still call it booty because it was purchased within a colonial context?

Hannes Obermair: That would be a kind ofa harmonic kind of booty, if you like. I don’t think it’s conceivable, though, because a cloak as meaningful as this one, a cloak that meant a lot to the Ethiopian-Abyssinian society, is only transferred due to the death of its owner, someone Navarini or his people killed, in a fight, he did fight, he did, in a police campaign, or else it was transferred, Vercingetorix’ sword, so to speak, that sword he threw at Cesar’s feet, the defeated chieftain. I can’t possibly see that he might have bought it, I rather think he, like all Italian rulers in East Africa, wanted his subordinates to legitimate his position. The whole programme, also the construction programme in East Africa, i.e. in Addis Ababa or Asmara, aims at hardening the hierarchy of colonialists and subordinates. And so the cloak’s transfer must be seen and interpreted … or makes most sense in such a context. It most certainly was transferred. As a gesture of subordination or it was taken from a dead opponent. A scalp so to speak, a cultural scalp.

AK: After months of extensive research we think today it most likely that Navarini received the cloak from Ethiopian allies as a sign of subordination or collaboration. This is supported by the fact that splendid robes like this one were often used as gifts to consolidate alliances.

Angela Roberts confirms this, she is British and lives in Merano and in Ethiopia. I met her in a café to tell her about our project and to ask her to help us with our research. Angela will also play a role in the next episode.

Ariane Karbe: You saidstraight away it’s a warrior’s uniform, didn’t you?

Angela Roberts: No, it’s rather a recognition, one could say, a recognition of a great man, a soldier maybe, maybe a commander or a physician, but that’s like 150 years ago. Emperor Menelik used to say: “And a cape for you and a cape for this man and a cape for that man.” English inventors for example got capes. Someone from Germany who built a road or a bridge in Addis, French people, too, who built the railway between Addis and Djibouti, they got something like that. But usually, foreigners did not get one.

AK: Emperor Menelik! He figured in the last episode, do your remember? The project’s initial question was if the cloak belonged to him. It wasn’t that far-fetched after all! But he died in 1913, long before Enea Navarini went to Ethiopia.

The ethnographic museum in Vienna, the Weltmuseum Wien, houses a magnificent robe that Menelik presented to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1905. The Abyssinian emperor was a very skilful diplomat who forged alliances with Europe’s great powers. He wanted to position himself on equal terms with them and prevent colonialism. To this end he made presents. The Royal Collection Trust in London houses a cloak Menelik sent King Georg V in 1911 for his coronation. In my understanding these objects would now legitimately be in the possession of European museums and should thus NOT be returned.

And, get this: The Museo delle Civiltà, the museum of civilisations, in Rome houses 20 magnificent robes. 20! This is all the more interesting because the museum’s history is very exciting: In 2016, four national museums combined to form today’s museum. A year later, the Museo Coloniale was included. A museum about colonialism. Mussolini opened the museum in 1923 for propaganda purposes. It moved houses a couple of times, for a long time it was closed. Currently, it’s being reconstructed. Hannes and me asked the curators Gaia Delpino and Rossana di Lella about the cloaks and this is what they had to say about their “mantelle”:

Ariane Karbe: Does the collection include a similar cloak? Do you have such a cape?

Rossana di Lella: Si, allora, noi all’interno di queste collezioni abbiamo, credo proprio, quindici oggetti.

Ariane Karbe: Quindici?!

Rossana di Lella: In italiano le tradurremo come delle “mantelle”. Sono delle mantelline, nella descrizione troviamo solitamente quindici mantelline regali in pelle di leone.

Ariane Karbe: Is it possible to get pictures of the mantelle?

Rossana di Lella: Certo, sì!

Ariane Karbe: That would be perfect because the one in Villa Freischütz has a very rich embroidery and that seems to be very rare. I can’t find out anything about if it was a special cape. We know that capes were given to warriors who were very brave, and so it was a sign for noblemen to wear them but I’d love to find out if there’s a hint which kind of warrior or in which region or if it was a special thing. And there was a very, very important resistance fighter, you can call him, on the Ethiopian side, and General Enea Navarini was involved in chasing this Ethiopian soldier. So there’s still the hypothesis that perhaps the cape belonged to this very important figure for the Ethiopian history. Probably, we will never find out, it’s impossible to reconstruct, but I’m still trying and so it would be very useful to see which kind… That would be perfect. Thank you very much!

Gaia Delpino: I would like to add that al museo preistorico etnografico, il museo etnografico all’interno del museo delle civiltà, abbiamo invece cinque mantelle (mantelline) provenienti dall’Etiopia. Abbiamo qualche dato. Sappiamo quando sono entrate a far parte delle collezioni del museo e sappiamo che sono oggetti di grande valore perché erano doni importanti che sono stati fatti a Re Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia e prima ancora a suo padre Re Umberto I. E possiamo mandare anche foto di queste cinque, if you like.

Ariane Karbe: Yes! Wow, that’s perfect!

Gaia: And the data that we have.

Ariane Karbe: That’s great, okay. You know, meanwhile we know of some of these capes within European museums and it’s so interesting because every cape has its own history and story.

Gaia: Yes, every object.

AK: So, five robes were given to the Italian King Victor Emanuel III and his father. Victor Emanuel was king of Italy for 46 years! From 1936 till 1941 he was also – emperor of Abyssinia! The origin of the other 15 cloaks is unclear and Rossana tells us why.

Rosanna di Lella: Qui invece, nel caso delle collezioni coloniali trattiamo invece di oggetti che sono stati presi, sotratti, raccolti nelle ex-colonie italiane e quindi quando parliamo di queste collezioni con Gaia, cogli altri colleghi diciamo sempre: sono tutti oggetti potenzialmente sensibili, perché sono stati tutti raccolti in un contesto in cui le questioni di potere tra le diverse parti non erano omogenee, non erano equilibrate, ovviamente. E all’interno di questa collezione, diciamo in qualche modo tutta sensibile storicamente, abbiamo anche degli oggetti sensibili per la loro storia, per come sono stati costruiti, per chi gli ha presi, insomma. Poi parleremo anche della provenienza di questi oggetti. Purtroppo accenno solamente il fatto che su queste collezioni non c’è stata la raccolta di dati specifici sulla provenienza, sul collezionista, sull’anno d’ingresso, perché il museo coloniale non aveva un libro d’ingresso degli oggetti. Non aveva nessuna forma di archiviazione, perché era un museo che dipendeva dal ministero delle colonie, come appunto abbiamo accennato è un museo di propaganda, non un museo di raccolte scientifiche, non un museo con una finalità di conoscienza come gli altri musei scientifici, etnografici dell’epoca. Quindi, non sappiamo quasi nulla delle provenienze.

AK: So this has to do with the special history of the colonial museum: all objects were collected in the Italian colonies of Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and Abyssinia, but not in order to learn about the culture but purely for propaganda purposes. There is no inventory as there usually is in museums to document new objects. Rossana says, because of this special purpose, basically ALL objects in the collection of the former colonial museum are suspicious.

Actually, talking to Rosanna and Gaia, I just mentioned the third and last thesis about Enea Navarini’s acquisition of the Ethiopian cloak that Hannes and me think plausible. We can’t rule out the possibility that he did take it from an enemy as a loot. In the beginning, Navarini took part in police campaigns to chase Ethiopian freedom fighters, as did Amedeo Guillet.

Commander-in-chief Rodolfo Graziani, mentioned above, specifically founded a special unit lead by brigadier Carlo Geloso. His unit chased particularly the resistance fighter Ras Desta Damtew and his troops and to this end he used poison gas.

MUSIC: Marion Moroder

Emilie Vorhauser reads two letters from Enea Navarini:

11th November 1936

Dearest Luisa

I’m marching towards the north. Ras Desta, who was before us, is retreating, for otherwise he’d be trapped, since Colonna Geloso is marching towards the same destination. The natives surrender and want to join us in our fight. I am fine. Tell Paolo I have two black servants, they are very well-behaved. At night one of them keeps watch in my tent. We’ll meet great difficulties on the streets but we will go ahead. Air planes are our constant companions. I have an excellent black cook. (…) Imagine, today we had fresh tomatoes, beans, pepperoni, they come from Neghelli. So far we’ve known no shortages, we lack nothing yet, we have mineral water, Chianti wine, only with fruits we have to content ourselves with those from the box. The black soldiers who are with us are really gorgeous – the white ones do all they can. (…) You don’t need to worry because everything is fine and will get better. (…) I think of you all the time and my only wish is that you are all in such a good health as I am. And you have to go to the pictures with Erna, you should not stay at home all the time. (…) Give my regards to Papà! I send you this letter because I’ve the opportunity to have it sent to Neghelli. (…) My regards to everyone at home. Love and kisses to you, Kuki and Bubi.

Your loving husband Enea

17th November 1936

Dearest Luisa

I am marching towards Allata – heading my convoy. The governor requests a speedy process but I can’t do it; step by step as we march on we build streets, bridges, etc. (…) The climate is marvellous, mostly sunny. The Abyssinians retreat, the people surrender, some ask us for protection, but they are so far away from us, it’s not possible. I am fine, I always sleep under the net – I have two (…) carabinieri as guards. A lot of work – I’m very busy all day long. (…) How are our children doing in school? Are they studying? And how are you all? You have to stay calm at all times and think of all the good things. I keep you all always in my heart. I wish that the children make you happy. Send my warmest regards to Papà and everybody else. And remember that I’m doing very well. I am now at a height of 2000 meters, but I’m fine. I kiss you, hugs and kisses to you and the children, my love to all of you.


MUSIC: Marion Moroder

AK: Eventually, Ras Desta Damtew was caught on 24th February 1937 and sentenced to death by hanging in a summary trial. As a warning, his body was displayed in public for a whole day.

A photo in the Villa Freischütz collection shows a house where Ras Desta Damtew used to live. So my idea was that Navarini might have taken some of Ras Desta Damtew’s belongings there.

In March 2020, someone published a photo of an Abyssinian sword in an Italian military internet forum. He claimed the sword along with other items belonged to Ras Desta Damtew. And he got them as a present from General Archimede Mischi’s son. Someone else in the forum wrote in response: “What a great piece for a museum! Congratulation!”

Probably, we’ll never know which of our three hypothesis is true. But we made some headway and developed a standpoint about the possibility of a restitution. Discussing the question with our colleagues helped a lot. We asked all of them what they think about restitution in general and about returning our cloak to Ethiopia specifically. More about that in the next episode. But one answer I’d like to reveal now because – as I mentioned in the previous episode – it turned our whole concept upside down. We not only went to Rovereto and Rome, that is south, but we also went north, to Tyrol. The ethnological museum in Schwaz also takes part in the Euregio museum year. I asked the director Lisa Noggler-Gürtler about the museum’s Ethiopian collection (it was only assembled in the 1960s and tells a different story yet again). I asked her:

Ariane Karbe: I want to ask you about restitution. Let’s say, like, we still don’t know for sure how Enea Navarini got hold of the cloak, but we do know he was a commander, a soldier who fought over there. I say, no matter what, no matter how you see it, there is blood, there are blood stains on the cloak, but I also think the discussion about a restitution is very interesting. I’ve noticed … the cloak serves as a starting point for discussions, which is great. It’s absurd, but the more we think about it and the more we learn about it, the more it becomes part of and grows closer to the Villa Freischütz collection. In a way it gets more and more justified that it stays part of the collection because it’s so essential for this project. It doesn’t mean I’m not open, it depends on many things, the board of the foundation, but they are very open about a restitution and about discussing it. But still it’s an interesting development, because at the beginning of the project I thought, for myself, my standpoint is: Yes, it should be returned if it’s wanted. That’s another question, what museum collection does it fit in over there? Do they have a lot of other objects? That’s what I ask myself and what I have to ask other people too. So what do you think?

Lisa Noggler-Gürtler: It’s very interesting because museums are of course a European concept. Apart from that, you have to explain the circumstances for this object and to find out if it works. But I do understand why it becomes a part of the collection because these objects help tell a lot of things that people avoided talking about for a long time. The problem, I think, for example when I do exhibitions for children, is I ask myself: Do I have to explain to them something was wrong in order to explain how to do right? Or do I simply do it right? You know what I mean?

Ariane Karbe: No, I don’t.

Lisa Noggler-Gürtler: Let me put it differently. I’ve curated an exhibition for children in the Humboldt Forum that opened recently. The Humboldt Forum opened a month ago with five exhibitions. It’s not all there yet but there are five exhibitions now and one of them is “Nimm Platz!”, an exhibition for children aged 3 to 10 years. We spent a lot of time discussing the story we want to tell about the objects from the ethnological museum, if we show them at all. Do we say that it might not have been quite right how they got here once and that we are now thinking about the proceedings then and about why they are here after all? Or do I try to open a meta-level? The exhibition is called, quite aptly, “Nimm Platz!”, which means „have a seat, take your place!“. Or do I simply say everybody is welcome to the exhibition? We are equal, as far as possible, we don’t differentiate between groups of inclusion, country and society of origin, etc., so that we build a forum where some issues are just not relevant because they no longer matter, for example bad words like “the colour of your skin”, etc. So my question is: Do I need these objects to tell a story so that it never happens again or do I try to create a climate in the museum that clearly shows where our sympathies lie? You might need both aspects, it’s very interesting indeed.

AK: This is exactly what Hannes and I thought while preparing our exhibition. We had met in Villa Freischütz to talk about the purpose of the exhibition. Our idea was to have our visitors look at the cloak, listening to music. We designed initial layout ideas – and suddenly I stopped and asked Hannes: „Actually, what would the exhibition look like in an ideal world?” We looked at each other. The answer was obvious: in an ideal world where we encounter other people on equal terms regardless of their cultural background, including Ethiopian partners would be a must or rather self-evident.

And so we decided on an experiment: we wanted to make an exhibition exactly the way we think it right: a white man from South Tyrol and a white woman from Berlin. And then we would open it for discussion and invite Ethiopians to join the discussion. And see what happens. And maybe redo the exhibition completely if need be. Or produce an additional podcast episode in English … Or whatever … We’ll see.

This decision made us doubt if we had better never started on this project – Why? I’ll tell you in the next episode.


AK: Marion Moroder wrote and composed the song. Thank you, Walter Gufler, for transcribing the letters and thank you, Emilie Vorhauser, for reading them. Thank you, Francesco Frizzera, Marco Leonardi Scomazzoni, Lisa Noggler-Gürtler, Gaia Delpino, Rossana Di Lella and Angela Roberts for talking to us.


The Ethiopian Cloak: Episode 3: Still a long way

Ariane Karbe (AK):


I am now in the Villa Freischütz like in the first episode. This time I’m not in the attic but in the Red Room, looking at the Ethiopian cloak. We haven’t packed it away into the depot yet. Even though the exhibition ended officially at the beginning of the winter break. There are guided tours and other events during the break and the exhibition is still on display. Somehow it seems apt that it has not come to an end: the story of the Ethiopian cloak is not yet over, too many questions remain open. Like Marion Moroder sings in her song about the cloak:

You were taken

by force and greed

Or maybe not

No one tells me

No, no one tells me

When Hannes Obermair and me started our research, we knew it was very unlikely to find the cloak’s original owner back in Ethiopia before General Enea Navarini took the cloak into his possession and brought it to Villa Freischütz. What matters is the journey, not the destination, we said. But now the fact that we can’t answer the question, at least not with any certainty, haunts me. Meanwhile, there is one, no: there are TWO new possible answers. We had a closer look at other objects in the Villa Freischütz collection from Abyssinia –and found something quite spectacular. More on that later.

This is the ETHIOPIAN CLOAK. A story of war, guilt and oblivion. It is also a story about a small museum that asks big questions. This podcast is a production of the Navarini-Ugarte Foundation and part of the Euregio Museum Year. I am the exhibition dramaturge Ariane Karbe.

Episode 3: Still a long way

AK: In the last episode I told you that Hannes and me decided to put the exhibition up for discussion, especially to the Ethiopian side. I’ll tell you what happened in a minute. And why, as mentioned in the last episode, this made us doubt if we should have started the project at all. Maybe you ask yourself why we didn’t get in contact with colleagues in Ethiopia BEFORE we opened the exhibition. We did! But only late and hesitantly. For a long time I had a bad conscience because I knew how important an exchange is.

Here, I explain to the historian Josef Prackwieser why I hesitated:

Ariane Karbe: Something that I find difficult and that I’d like to say because it matters to me: museum science ask museums to reveal their subjectivity. And not to pretend to tell the truth. I think you have to live up to that requirement. You can’t expect museums to do it, but rather museums are made of people and if you want to transport that idea, you have to live up to that idea within the museum, too. Part of that, I think, is to talk about fears and obstacles. One thing I’m unsure about and that I think about a lot (and you mentioned it, too, Josef), we wanted to contact Ethiopian colleagues. I’m still hesitating. We do have contacts and we could activate them. But I’m afraid to lose control. Somehow I think, unless Hannes and I haven’t worked out a standpoint or did the groundwork, before we put it up to discussion … I’m less afraid they might say: Yes, give it back, give it back as soon as possible. I’m not afraid of that, I’m rather afraid of the complexity of the discussion and the sensibility. I think I’ve told you before, Josef, I’m afraid that Ethiopian colleagues really might say: “This cloak, it’s embarrassing. It’s all rumpled, there’s only little lion fur left on the shoulders. And, by the way, we have dozens of those cloaks.” Maybe we make fools of ourselves. Or maybe they say: “Well, keep it, anyway. It’s part of your country’s history. In our museum we have an Italian general’s uniform.” I’m [afraid] of these pitfalls, like … I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes. But that’s what it’s all about – and that’s why we concentrate on one object – to run head on into these embarrassments and then to just go on from that. This is part of it, of Villa Freischütz, to reach a standpoint and have some kind of tool, to know the tools of the trade, as it were, communication tools. And to learn from that. And to share that learning with other museums. So that others can avoid that pitfall.

AK: And that’s what we did. We reached a standpoint, we read and learned about restitution and decolonisation and we studied Italy’s colonial past and Abyssinia in particular. We prepared ourselves for possible encounters, always aware that we move on uncertain grounds and we were always ready to admit we went astray. Looking back, I’m glad we prepared the project so thoroughly. Because when the time came and we first met Angela Roberts – you know her from the last episode, she spends half her time in South Tyrol and half her time in Ethiopia – she told us:

Angela Roberts: Now it’s very open but in the time of the Derg clothes and weapons like this were hidden. Because families didn’t want people to know that their grandfather or brother or father were actually fighting. Because the Derg was such a brutal regime and people didn’t talk.And still today some older people are afraid to talk. They don’t ask questions and they don’t answer questions. They are careful what they say.

AK: The time of the Derg is long over, the military dictatorial regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1991. Speaking with Angela and listening to her talking about the fears that are still alive I realised: in some cases talking about certain objects might not only embarrass members of the society of provenance but would also be dangerous for them. That would be a catastrophe.


AK: One month after we started our project the conflict in the Tigray region in north Ethiopia broke out and now, in November 2021, civil war is near the capital Addis Ababa. News are scarce and we don’t really know what’s going on. Moreover, the Ethiopian cloak is a warrior’s garment or a dignitary’s vestment and is thus politically charged. A fact we were not aware of when we started the project. I don’t mean to imply that an exchange is now impossible, but it comes with a burden and we have to act with prudence and care.

Probably, the civil war in Ethiopia is the reason why there are almost no reactions to our project. At the moment, their priorities are – understandably – completely different. Although the ethnological museum in Addis Ababa and the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, for example, did send valuable information about similar objects (the museum has 50 comparable cloaks), they didn’t answer our question if the cloak should be returned.

So, too, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Italian embassy and the Africa Unbound museum in Addis Ababa did not react when we invited them to join the discussion. We contacted the “Fairfield House” museum in England where Emperor Haile Selassie lived in exile. The directors William Heath and Princess Esther Sellassie Antohin, Haile Selassie’s great-granddaughter, are interested in our project and helped us but they didn’t answer our question if the cloak should be returned, either.

Scientists researching Ethiopian culture we contacted on Twitter were sympathetic and generous in their help with information about the objects, but they, too, did not say a word about a restitution or our, white, approach and project.

The missing reactions made us feel unsure. A couple of days ago Hannes and I took stock and he said:

Hannes Obermair: Mymost important insight, I realise now, is some kind of humility. It’s no more a classic relation, you and the object. And you try to understand, to learn, to contextualise it so you’ll do it justice. I rather see a complex, a subject that’s bigger than me, that’s so much bigger than me it sometimes overwhelms me. I don’t feel guilty, it’s not about a bad conscience. Because a bad conscience is always a wrong conscience. For me it’s more about recognising that an analytical, discursive approach only gets you that far. And then something is missing. I feel this void, this flaw, I really do, in a way this is the Ethiopian side, the other side of the story that’s missing. The silence around the cloak and the other objects is like a haze that makes me feel dizzy.

AK: This strange void made us ask if it was wrong to enquire openly about a restitution. Especially Petra Raymond’s answer, director of the Goethe Institute in Addis Ababa, made us think again. We had asked her for a feedback about our project: (Jutta Wieser reads) “In Europe, and Italy, there is, as part of a debate about decolonisation, an effort to think about restitutions and to question their colonial past. I see your museum’s initiative in this context. The Ethiopian perspective, unlike other African country’s that vehemently ask the global north to question their role, differs. Not having been colonised is the vital narrative for their national identity, instead the term ‘Italian occupation’ is used. A stately garment from Ethiopia as a rationale for Italy’s colonial past would at least be conceived as a misunderstanding over here or an inappropriate approach.”

AK: Talking to Gaia Delpino and Rossana Di Lella from the Museo delle Civiltà in Rome we voiced our doubts:

Ariane Karbe: I want to ask you about our project because I think about this point a lot recently. Because we ask if the cloak should be returned to Ethiopia. This question became more and more important because it’s a provocation and it should be a provocation. Nobody asked us to give it back. We ask the question. On the one hand I think it’s our responsibility because if we consider them as stolen objects, I think it’s the responsibility of the people who stole something to offer to give it back if they want to do justice. And on the other hand I become more and more insecure and I ask myself – how can I describe it? Because so far there were no reactions from the Ethiopian side, and so I think one part is that the cloak is not very significant. But my question is (and I wonder) if asking in such an active way, I don’t want to persist, I don’t want to ask again and again: do you want to get it back? Because if not, it’s okay. Do you understand what I mean?

Rossana Di Lella: È molto interessante questo lavoro che state facendo di messa in discussione le vostre stesse soluzioni di prospettive di lavoro. Veramente interessante perché in qualche modo siamo sintonizzati con voi. Perché da un lato, quando vi dicevamo che non ci sono attualmente delle richieste di restituzione, questo non vuol dire per noi che non ci poniamo come voi il problema della restituzione. Ovviamente, dal punto di vista formale, dal punto di vista di una restituzione fisica degli oggetti non possiamo prendere una posizione aperta ufficiale…

Ton Hannes Obermair: Certo, certo…

Rossana Di Lella: …che va nella direzione di un’effettiva restituzione. Ma possiamo fare un lavoro di riflessione collettiva e ponendo questi temi anche a visitatori e persone che non c’hanno mai pensato, perché nella loro vita non hanno mai avuto esperienza diretta nei contesti di questo tipo. Quindi, lavorare anche su un piano di presa di coscienza, perché sappiamo che la restituzione, come appunto dicevate anche voi, è un elemento di un processo molto più complesso che prevede un piano politico, prevede un piano simbolico. Non è l’oggetto di per sé che viene trasferito, la cosa importante. Perché nel momento in cui l’elemento viene trasferito da un paese all’altro significa che ci sono le condizioni da una parte dall’altra perché quell’oggetto col trasferimento abbia un valore. Se c’è questo, allora il trasferimento fisico restituisce effettivamente qualcosa perché crea un nuovo equilibrio nelle parti. Da un punto di vista simbolico, politico, educativo etc. Se si tratta di una forzatura, di una cosa che viene solo da un lato, non so come dire…, allora il processo è meno completo. E quindi capisco le vostre difficoltà rispetto alla no-reazione della parte etiopica.

Hannes Obermair: Certo…

AK: Currently, the museum faces no claims for a restitution but Gaia and Rossana also think about it, and they also do it in order to reach a standpoint. They cooperate with artists, historians and journalists. Since the Museo delle Civiltà is a public museum, unlike Villa Freischütz with a private foundation, they can’t decide on a restitution on their own responsibility.

Let’s go back to what Petra Raymond said. Even though the resistance against the Italian occupation never really stopped, as mentioned in the last episode, and no extensive, robust colonial administration was established in Abyssinia, WE think of the Abyssinian War from 1935 until 1941 as part of Italy’s colonial past. And that is because Mussolini’s mission behind the occupation was to found a colonial empire. WE think it’s important to FOCUS on the colonial context of the Abyssinian War because Italy’s colonial past is still not widely discussed.

The historian Markus Wurzer says:

Markus Wurzer: In Italy, the colonial commemoration is mostly silent, there’s no public discussion and what is remembered is often heavily informed by myths like “Italiani brava gente”, i. e. the idea that Italians were more humane as colonial rulers, as it were, than the Germans were or the British or French. This myth or the figures and images it consists of has its roots in the fascist propaganda, ultimately in the years between the wars when the fascist regime tried to legitimise their colonial project in north and east Africa, to disguise it as a civilising mission and to discredit, on the other hand, the bigger empires like the French or British one by accusing them of exploiting the colonies. That overlooks the fact that, of course, the fascist regime was doing exactly that or was about territorial expansion or gaining so called “Lebensraum” for the Italian people. The fascist regime rather tried to market the colonial project in north and east Africa as a civilising mission that, paradoxically, the local people were supposed to benefit from. In reality, it was something completely different altogether, there was violence, massive violence, really genocidal violence, not only in the Ethiopian war, but also in Libya in the 1920s and 30s, but we don’t remember that. German speaking veterans of the Ethiopian war, when talking about it, and they didn’t often talk about and not in public, they really only started in the years following 2000, were always very eager to frame and tell this war as an Italian war, a fascist war they had nothing to do with and they distanced themselves from the war, they were only watching, as it were, as adventurers. The pictures they brought home support just that, these propaganda pictures, showing exotic looking landscapes and animals and people. As if to say: I only went on a safari as an adventurer over there – the war, it was Italians who fought the war. And that leads, when reminiscing, to an exclusion or elimination, families remember the South Tyrol colonial master as a good colonial master.

Ariane Karbe: That’s interesting, indeed. This myth of the “brava gente” on the Italian side, which is basically the tale: we brought you civilisation, we wanted to bring you good things. And the South Tyrol side: but we were really the good guys. (laughs)

Markus Wurzer: Exactly.

Ariane Karbe: It shows that we always have to ask what function these tales, these stories fulfil. What purpose do they serve and what perception of ourselves do they reflect?

AK: A visitor called Fanaye who saw our project on the Villa Freischütz website wrote the following comment: (Jutta Wieser reads) “I write to tell you what is not in your history books. My grandfather was fighting in the resistance against Graziani and Badoglio. When the generals wanted to take possession of Addis Ababa, they found a burnt-down city. Because before they left the town together with all men fit for action, my grandfather and Ras Abebe Aregay had set the many huts on fire. The fire wasn’t good for Graziani. He was furious and he gave orders to massacre all high-ranking government officials. Most of them were old and frail men who had served under Emperor Menelik II. My grandmother’s father was among those who were shot. Their women and children who were praying in a church were deported to the island of Asinara (spoils of war?) and stayed there until the war ended. Maybe your precious ‘Ethiopian cloak’ belonged to one of the victims of the massacre. In that case, there’s invisible blood on the cloak. That is why I think you should return the cloak to the Christian country.”

AK: Petra Raymond ended her mail saying: (Jutta Wieser reads) “In order to answer the question if the cloak should be returned or not, other things matter more to the Ethiopian side, e. g. who was the owner of the cloak? That would lead to the question who might be interested in a restitution.”

AK: Indeed, I couldn’t get this question out of my mind. But only a few days ago I had an idea how to determine the origin of the cloak after all: as already mentioned, the Villa Freischütz collection also houses three swords from Abyssinia. Hannes, Herta and me had looked at them a couple of months ago, but didn’t pay much attention. I had noticed the Amharic inscription on two of the weapons but I had though, no way are they the names of the former owners. Suddenly, a few days ago I thought, maybe they are their names.

I posted a photo of the swords on Twitter and Sophia Dege-Müller, an expert on Ethiopian manuscripts, was able to translate the inscription straight away: it read: Ras Tassama Nadaw. Ras Tassama Nadaw! An important general, politician and close friend of Menelik II. The inscription on the second sword was more difficult to decipher and no one on Twitter tried to translate it. So we asked a translator to translate the text.

Ariane Karbe: Now this is exciting. I will look into my emails and see what the translation tells us about the sabre. I open the email … Ah…okay, it’s the brand. An individual inscription would be more important for us, a name, in fact. This is really exciting because we found out another owner. It not only gives the name of the brand, the name of the swordsmith on the sabre – Henry Wilkinson –, but also the name of the former owner: Fitawrari Habte Giyorgis.

AK: Fitawrari Habte Giyorgis Dinagde was secretary of war under Menelik II, under his successor Zauditu and HER successor Haile Selassie. Maybe the cloak belongs to the weapons and was either owned by Tassama Nadaw or Fitawrari Habte Giyorgis Dinagde. The cloak is now close to Emperor Menelik – you remember that we started the project assuming that the stately garment might have belonged to the Abyssinian emperor. In the course of the project, we had ruled that possibility out, today, because of the swords, we no longer think it’s impossible, but it is very unlikely.

More important, both Habte Giyorgis Dinagde and Tassama Nadaw fought in the battle of Adwa in 1896. As early as in the 19th century, Italy had tried to conquer Abyssinia – and failed miserably. To wipe out the “disgrace of Adwa” was Mussolini’s motive for attacking Ethiopia in 1935. If the stately garment and the weapons come from that era, they’d, first, symbolise Abyssinia’s victory over Italy – and, second, the temporal defeat of the African country because Enea Navarini took them.

Perhaps, this makes a restitution of the cloak more interesting from an Ethiopian point of view because, together with the two swords, it might clearly symbolise Ethiopia’s successful fight against colonisation.

I ask myself how many colonial objects are still in European museums without anybody KNOWING about their existence. A few days ago I got a message from Frank Steinheimer, head of the central depot of the scientific collection in Halle (Zentralmagazin Naturwissenschaftlicher Sammlungen). I had told him about the podcast. He now told me what he had just found in the attic of the former institute of zoology:

Frank Steinheimer: Dear Ariane, suddenly your podcast is newsworthy, we’ve changed our roof and found several human skeletons in the attic. At first, I didn’t think much about it, I assumed they were from some European cemetery. But after a genetic analysis we know that they are five male and three female skeletons. We also found a label at the bottom of the box that reads: “Maka, Gallaland, Abessinien.” It then became clear that our eight skeletons are from the ethnic group of Maka from the group of Oromo who today live in Ethiopia. And so, suddenly, now we ask ourselves not only what to do with the cloak but also with these eight skeletons that we would like to repatriate. And we too find it difficult to find a contact person and to really know if these eight skeletons would today be welcome in Ethiopia at all. So I took your podcast as a starting point, you’ve paved the way, so to speak, and I’m looking forward to find out what will happen.

AK: We started this project with the aim to reveal the story of the Ethiopian cloak. At the same time, we, the Villa Freischütz team, wanted to work out a standpoint about colonial objects in museums. Hannes and me support the restitution of the cloak even if we still couldn’t reconstruct the exact circumstances of the acquisition or the donation or the robbery. Even if, as discussed in the last episode, it really was a gift. Because of the colonial context and because we think a token of good will might contribute to a healing of the violent past that Ethiopia and Italy and South Tyrol share.

The crucial point is the opinion of the Navarini-Ugarte foundation. It’s become extremely urgent, as of yesterday, to be precise. Since yesterday the possibility of a restitution, something we’ve been thinking about for months, has suddenly become quite real. I had grown a bit anxious because of the missing reactions from the Ethiopian side and wondered only recently whom else I could contact. The journalist Andrew Heavens came to mind who is currently writing a book about Ethiopian loot and plunder. I discovered him on Twitter and asked him why hardly anybody reacts. Because of the civil war, he said. And he told me about Alula Pankhurst, an expert on Ethiopia, who just now helps to return 16 objects from England to Ethiopia. I wrote Alula, and my feeling was that the project would have come to a good close even if he didn’t answer. Simply because with him the information would be in good hands. If he didn’t react, he’d have good reasons. Yesterday, he wrote to say that he supports a restitution and would love to help us. This very moment, once I’ve finished this episode in the studio with a view to the Dolomites, I’ll get into Hannes’ car and drive with him to Villa Freischütz to discuss a restitution with the members of the board of the Navarini-Ugarte foundation. What will they say? How will they decide? Will the Ethiopian cloak return home?


AK: Marion Moroder wrote and composed the song. Thank you, Jutta Wieser, for reading the texts. Thanks to the translators at Comtext Fremdsprachenservice for translating the text on the sword. And thanks to everybody who talked to us.

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