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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.