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First steps

Art Academy

Old masters


His Sister Emma

His friend Marya



Brotherly love and a passion for Art

by Domenico Maria Ardizzone

Innsbruck 1917
Emma Hess aged around 15

Emma was very close to her brother, who was 7 years older than her. Both had been born in Bolzano, both had lost their parents and two siblings. Between 1905 and 1917 four members of the Hess family were struck down by consumption, a disease which at the time was widespread. Events conspired to prevent close contact between them. The First World War split them up: he was sent to the Western Front, she went to stay with her Aunt Anna in Innsbruck; but the ties between them remained strong and tenacious.


Emma, nursemaid

Emma moved to Messina in 1923 along with the  Zuffo family, owners of an import-export company with offices in the Tyrol and Sicily. She not only worked as the family nursemaid but also as a translator of the company’s commercial correspondence. Here we can see her, aged around 20, as she taking the Zuffo children for a walk in Messina. Fifteen years after the massive earthquake which devastated the city it is clear that much reconstruction still needed to be done.  

At age sixteen Emma still did not know how she should call her brother: of the three names given to him by his parents - Alois, Dominikus, Anton -  he accepted with difficulty only the first, and that he transformed into Louis. Emma’s embarrassment increased further when he signed a postcard to her from the trenches with his newly chosen professional name Christl. However, she went along with his wishes and addressed her correspondence to him using his chosen name. But not long afterwards, when the painter chose another name: Christian, Emma decided to call him familiarly as Louis and when he moved to Sicily, Luigi. Emma completed her studies at the Staatsgewerbeschule in Innsbruck, the same state institute of art her brother had attended. Here she excelled in drawing and Italian but neither subject offered her any immediate possibilities of employment. For a brief period she worked at the military headquarters in Innsbruck, then she learnt shorthand and also obtained a diploma as a hairdresser but in order to earn a living she was eventually obliged to move from the Tyrol to Sicily and work as a nursemaid.


Messina 1929 – Emma holds her firstborn child Luisa as “Uncle Luigi” toasts his niece with a glass of red wine.  In the background the two figures in  a fresco by Hess seem to be joining in the toast.

This came about through her acquaintance with the Zuffo family who managed an import-export business between the Tyrol and Sicily. Finding herself liked and trusted, she accepted their invitation to move to Messina. Emma was deeply fond of her brother and even more deeply passionate about his art; her desire to be close to him, however, was of the most pious. The First World War had separated them; the distance between them was to grow further still when Hess enrolled at the Munich Academy and Emma migrated to Sicily to find work. Ironically, it was Nazi ostracism that would bring them closer together again, when Hess chose voluntary exile in Sicily. Later the Second World War would separate them forever. In 1923 Messina had still not fully recovered from the disastrous earthquake of 1908. Emma’s arrival must have seemed a sublime apparition to Guglielmo, a young trader who was a frequent visitor to the Zuffo freight offices. Guglielmo’s assiduous courtship of the blue-eyed beauty from the Tyrol eventually paid off and after almost a year the couple were married. In 1925 they moved to a house in via Palmara; later that summer Hess joined them there for his first holiday on the island.

Two paintings for her 25th birthday


In the summer of 1927 when Hess was staying in Messina he produced two paintings for Emma on the occasion of her 25th birthday. The pictures reveal a shrewd sense of composition which goes far beyond the affectionate fraternal tribute. The portrait gives a striking sense of Emma’s interior calm, with just a sheen of melancholy, as she stands with her back to the balcony which is barely hinted at in the background. Also remarkable are the use of colour and compositional design: the hamlet peeping out from the brown earth and the hillock sloping down to the sea with the strip of sky above. The other painting, “Flowers and fruit”, with its spontaneous brushstrokes and the dedication “Meiner lieben Schwester!”, signed “C. Hess 1927”, was carried out on the night of 30 August 1927 as a surprise for the artist’s sister whose birthday it was the following day.

In December 1925, after visiting the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek  and
studying the cultural historian Casimir
von Chledowski’s “Die Menschen der Renaissance” (“Men of the Renaissance”) Hess showed he had grasped an understanding of Sicilian traditional
songs and motets, transcribing for his brother in law an eloquent stanza in the dialect of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, in the province of  Messina:

A la Barcillunisa

Caru cugnatu, la facisti lesta
vi la purtastu la suruzza mia
vi la purtastu pulita e onesta
chi poti stari ‘nta na signoria.

( Dear brother in law, you made quick work of that / you’ve taken away my little sister / you took her fair and true / tthat she may stay in a royal palace.)

Hess held his sister in high regard and considered her his confidante and inspiration. Although they were far apart, he wrote frequently to her, to keep her up to date with his artistic activities, his travels, his conquests, his misfortunes. Emma had a strong character; she understood her brother’s anxieties and she knew how best to support him in times of difficulty: especially during his Sicilian exile and even more so after the break up of Hess’ marriage, when her brother’s dream of having found a safe haven, far from political harassment, with the woman he loved was suddenly shattered and he slumped into desperate despondency. Only through Emma’s comfort and support was Hess able to pick himself up again and find the strength to leave in search of fresh exile in Switzerland. It was then that the painter entrusted his works to Emma who was to prove a jealous custodian.

Emma’s painstaking committment to safeguarding her brother’s artistic heritage is covered in detail in the section “Thank you, Emma!”. Mention should also be made of the difficulties posed for her by the repeated displacement of Hess’ works due to family moves, some of them caused by the war. The first came in 1937, when Emma moved house within the municipality of Tremestieri from Casa Preggi to Casa Chemi. In the summer of 1940 Italy entered the war and in the autumn Hess’ paintings and other works were transferred to via Mario Reitano Spadafora in Messina. In the summer of 1942 to avoid the dangers posed by allied bombing raids, the collection was once again moved, this time to Ala Marina, where it remained until after the German withdrawal and the arrival of Anglo-American forces

With the art critic
Hans Eckstein


Messina, summer 1972. Emma and her daughter Luisa talking with the German art critic Hans Eckstein who had traveled from Munich to see Hess’ paintings.

Emma saved the works not only from wartime bombs, but she also protected them in a series of post-war moves. In 1945 Hess’ collection was transferred to a house in via Borrelli in Messina; the following year it was transferred across the city to via Simeto. In 1956 a group of paintings was placed on display at the Verona-Trento Institute in Messina. In 1958 Emma and her family moved house to via Napoli and two years later they again changed address within the city, moving to piazza Annibale di Francia. In 1962 Emma and the paintings moved to via Nino Bixio and the following year the collection returned to via Simeto. In 1971 the paintings were taken to Rome for restoration in preparation for the Rediscovery Exhibition.   

Returning finally once more to Messina the collection was displayed as if in a gallery, on the walls of Emma’s luminous new house at Spianata Cappuccini. Here in her final years Emma was able to share her brother’s art with a group of German journalists and a number of representatives of European cultural life, in particular the German art critic Hans Eckstein, who had met Hess in Munich in the 1930’s, and Marcello Venturoli the co-authors of the essays in the 1974 catalogue introduced by Leonardo Sciascia. For Emma these meetings represented the preview showing to the Traveling Exhibition of Hess’ Rediscoverd Art which began 30 years precisely after the artist’s death in Palermo, in what was a fitting tribute by the Sicilian capital to the German artist who had so loved the island of Sicily. There followed 11 further exhibitions in Italy, Austria and Germany. The effects of Emma’s enthralling efforts so that her brother’s art received its just recognition may still be felt today. A message which has been taken up and made its own by the Christian Hess Cultural Association.

Grandma Emma’s poetry