Rolando Hettner was born in Florence, Italy in 1905 from a family of renowned artists and prominent intellectuals. His father, Otto Hettner, was one of the first impressionist painters in Germany. In the spring of 1933, when the Nazis ascended to power, Rolando Hettner attended the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden, Germany where he studied under Otto Dix. The Nazis ridiculed and characterized the artistic currents of Post-Impressionism as "degenerated". They especially hated Otto Dix for his socialist and pacifist leanings as expressed in his paintings. Dix was one of the first to be banned from fine arts institutes and academies. As a result, Hettner, who at that time was twenty-eight years old, was banned as well.The House of Reich for the Visual Arts was established and all painters were required to belong in order to continue their profession. Although Hettner was able to join, no Museum or Art gallery dared to exhibit his paintings because he was a student of Otto Dix.His artistic life was seriously threatened.
Like many other artists, he started to travel to distance himself from the political events and to determine the path of his future. In the autumn of 1935 a new edict called the "Laws of Nuremberg" was enacted. He was expelled from the House of Reich for the Visual Arts because his wife, Marfried, was identified as a "full-blooded Jew". Consequently, Hettner could no longer teach art or work as a designer in industry. In contrast to many other artists who could not exhibit their work yet were able to work in private industry, Hettner had no choice but to leave the country.
He decided to move to Italy, the country where he had spent part of its childhood and where he had traveled frequently. Even though he was divorced at the time that the "Laws of Nuremberg" were enacted, he did not try to appeal the decision against him, but instead reconciled with his wife and together with their three year old son Floriano, left in exile.
He arrived in Italy and settled in Milan, where he reconnected with two friends from his years at Dresden, the journalist Joachim Krull and the art critic Erich Baumbach, both of whom had emigrated earlier. Baumbach and the sculptor Jenny Wiegmann Mucchi introduced him to the "Corrente" group, which enabled him to develop contacts with other Italian artists. Baumbach introduced Hettner in a booklet, titled Der Maler Rolando Hettner - The Painter Rolando Hettner. Baumbach provided wider public exposure with an article in the magazine "Corrente".
During his stay in Milan, Hettner was able to participate in two group shows and his work created great interest, however he was rarely able to sell a painting. He was reduced to working temporary jobs often leaving him hungry and forcing him to move seven times during that period.
When Hettner departed from Dresden, Germany, he had to pretend that he would be returning a short time later so he would not require authorization from the Military district. In February 1938, he learned about a requirement for all German residents living abroad to register at the local consulate. Hettner did not comply. Hettner realized this situation was extremely risky because the Consulates were working closely with the foreign Nazi organization NSDAP whose members spied on the exiles. Additionally, both appointed Consuls in Milan were high officials of the SS and fanatical followers of the Fùhrer. Surveillance from the NSDAP was dangerous for Hettner because by living with his former wife, he would be accused of Rassenschande, or "offense to the race". Because of the collaboration between the German and Italian police, any undesired behavior could lead to forced repatriation back to Germany. During the occupation in France, Germans residing abroad were not recalled for military service. However, due to the serious losses suffered by German troops after the Battle of Stalingrad, this ruling was changed and Hettner risked being recalled. He succeeded in avoiding military service using false documents.
With the entry of Italy into the war, Rolando Hettner's wife, Marfried and son, Floriano were identified as "foreign Jews" and were interned at Brienza, an out-of-the-way locality of the Basilicata, lacking in basic electricity and running water. Inhabitants in this region were always filthy and barefoot because water was too precious, requiring it to be carried in terracotta jugs from a fountain far way from the village using donkeys. For a toilet, they used a rusty bucket that was emptied from the window overlooking the precipice. When Floriano became ill due to jaundice, they were allowed to change their place of internment and moved to Saint Severino Marches where conditions were better.
His wife eventually received permission to go to Rome, ostensibly to obtain a Visa to go to Brazil. She was able to work clandestinely as an extra in Cinecittà (Movie Studio) and after some time, Floriano was able to join her.
After the heavy strafing on Milan in March 1943, Rolando Hettner took Floriano and moved to a house in Blevio, near Como. Later that year, Hettner decided to return to Rome to be with Marfried. This was a time of great danger as they risked being deported to a concentration camp. In order to make the journey south, he would have had to travel on crowded trains and run the risk of encountering German patrols. After September 8th, all German citizens whose presence in Italy was not considered indispensable were required to return to Germany and anyone who violated the order would risk arrest. For Hettner, the return to Germany would have meant immediate enlistment and separation from his family. He had no other choice but to hide.
In Rome, Hettner lived a short distance from the offices of the Wehrmacht, where the director Fritz Metzger, who was Swiss, protected him from the police. In the meantime, father Raffaele Cubbe at the boarding school of Mondragone, near Frascati, offered Marfried sanctuary. Rolando and Floriano would eventually join her later.
In January 1944, the town of Mount Porzio Catone provided Rolando Hettner with a temporary document of identity under the name of Rolando Santini, with the birthplace of Catania. Since this was under the control of the allies, this made it impossible for the Germans to verify his documentation.
As the allied troops drew near, the students of the boarding school as well as other persons hidden in the monastery were transferred to Rome. Father Pallottini provided Rolando Hettner one of his guest rooms, while Marfried found a job as a domestic with a family. Floriano later found a place in the boarding house of San Giuseppe.
After the liberation of Rome, Rolando Hettner established contacts with militants of the "Resistenza" (Resistance) and collaborated as illustrator to two new magazines, "Folla" and "Il Cosmopolita".
Hettner returned to Milan once it was freed of its occupation. As a youngster, he had spent six years of his life there. The move to Milan marked the definitive separation of Hettner from his wife. Marfried together with Floriano, later settled in Ischia, an island outside of Naples, where she later remarried.
In Milan, Hettner worked as an illustrator for the magazine of ElioVittorini, called "II Politecnico", but the salary was so meager it was necessary to find work elsewhere. When an important manufacturer of ceramics at the factory Gabbianelli, offered him a job he accepted it. This allowed him to work in an area of art that he had learned in Germany, prior to studying to be a painter. Due to the deprivations of the exile and his clandestine activities, he was eventually forced to abandon this promising activity when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After spending some months in a Sanatorium in Cernusco, he settled down with José Repuzzi near Como, where they bought an old flour mill and transformed it into a ceramics factory. In the fifties, after he had received his Italian citizenship, he was considered one of the best ceramists in Italy, and in the 1951 he was conferred a gold medal of the Triennial of Milan.
In 1958, he wrote a section for the magazine "La Ceramica" (The Ceramic) called, "I consigli di Hettner" (The Advice of Hettner), which addressed the new generation of Italian Ceramicists. Despite the prestige gained with this publication, he returned to painting.
His work became even more important when he transitioned to that of a teacher. He taught in an experimental school and contributed significantly to the reform of art instruction in Italian middle schools. Professors and journalists of many continents visited his art class in the middle school of Oulx to evaluate and examine his innovative teaching methods. This experience would lead to the publication of an art textbook 'Mi esprimo con l'Arte" (I express myself through art). Co-author was Carlo Perucci, and the Publishing House Turin Le Monnier, Firenze, 1964. During this period, he participated in numerous course updates for the teachers in the Ministry of the public education.
Exiled and without a homeland, Rolando Hettner travelled throughout Europe and tried adapting to his new environments. His talent grew and developed in his early years while living in Germany. Yet it wasn't until later that his skills as a painter and ceramicist became recognized as an Italian citizen.
In 1967, Hettner withdrew to his country house in the province of Milan and continued focusing his remaining energies on extreme expressive forms of expressionist oil painting. Rolando Hettner died on January 7, 1978.