It's every art gallery staffer's worst nightmare: priceless paintings arrive from the other side of the world, you carefully and painstakingly remove them from purpose-designed packaging and discover a painting with not one but two bullet holes right through it.

It happened last month when an Auckland Art Gallery exhibition preparator, known only as Darren, opened crates containing art works from the collection of Florence's Corsini family and discovered one 387-year-old painting with holes in it.

He hadn't been told that the 1630 painting of Saint Andrea Corsini had been shot during WWII leaving two bullet holes in it; one right through the saint's forehead.

But Mary Kisler, senior curator of Auckland Art Gallery's Mackelvie collection and international art, knew and rather than being aghast was able to "roar with laughter" at his reaction.


"He certainly looked very concerned, but I had heard the story of how the painting came to be damaged so was quite calm."

In WWII, German soldiers - angered at being thwarted in attempts to steal Corsini family artworks - shot the painting as they fled Florence. Rather than have the painting restored, the Corsini family decided to keep it damaged to demonstrate man's inhumanity and as a reminder of the art theft that took place during the war.

But those bullet holes have now shed light on a tale of wartime friendship and courage under fire which involves the 28th Maori Battalion and a gusty Italian princess determined to save her family's legacy.

Indeed, if it weren't for the Maori Battalion art lovers might not be enjoying Auckland Art Gallery's latest exhibition, The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence.

German forces had been ordered to take art to contribute to a vast super museum Hitler planned and for his private collection but didn't have time to steal any of the Corsini collection partly because Allied troops, including New Zealanders, were rapidly advancing.

The family had already had contact with NZers through members of the Maori Battalion who were stationed around some of its rural properties.

Kisler said elderly family members remembered the kindness the soldiers showed and, when asked whether some of their art could leave Italy for the first time and travel to NZ, encouraged it because the Maori Battalion had helped save family land and the art itself.

"It [the exhibition] brings part of the Battalion's history back; it's a terrific link and it's this sort of detail that makes the collection and the exhibition unique," said Kisler. "It's where our histories intersect."

The exhibition features Renaissance and Baroque painting by artists such as Botticelli, Caravaggio, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo. It also features historical objects which tell the story of Florence, including the devastation wrought by WWII.

In 1944, fearing the art was about to be stolen, Princess Elena Corsini hid smaller works in an empty crypt in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. She packed larger paintings onto a truck, drove them to Villa Le Corti, an historical estate in Chianti, and hid them behind a false wall.

The oil painting of Saint Andrea Corsini, one of the family's ancestors, was hung on the wall in the hope he would protect the artworks behind it. German soldiers noticed the still-wet plaster but had no time to examine it further and, instead, settled for shooting Saint Andrea through the forehead.

A description of the painting reads: "Guercino's painting shows a single tear rolling down Andrea's cheek at Christ's suffering on the cross, which reflects Counter-Reformation beliefs that art should create empathy in the viewer."

The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence is at Auckland Art Gallery until January 21.