Tag Archive: WWII


When you consider the fierce fighting throughout Italy during WWII between the allied forces and the retreating German army, it’s a minor miracle that so much of Italy survives intact to this day. Mortar rounds and aerial bombs could have leveled everything and so much would have been lost forever. If you haven’t done so, try to see the documentary film “The Rape of Europa” on the nazis and European art. It’s an amazing film that tells the true story of art theft in WWII by the Nazis, and the allied attempt to rescue and restore the greatest works of art.

Amazingly, the retreating german army didn’t put up a fight in Rome, and the city was spared war destruction. They retreated to Florence and Pisa in the north and prepared for battle. The allies knew that those cities were delicate time capsules of art and architecture, and they faced a difficult problem. They knew that many soldiers would lose their lives in street to street combat with the enemy hidden in the maze of medieval buildings. They also knew that they couldn’t just wipe the town away with bombs. In Florence, they made the decision to take out the train station, which was a newer structure and a critical supply line for the Nazis. This was long before laser guided precision bombs. There was no guarantee that the bombs would land where they were supposed to, but amazingly, they did. In one of the most successful bombing raids of the war, the train station was gone, and the nazis had no way to receive critical supplies.

After a year of occupation, the nazis left Florence. Before they did, they set about destroying all of the cities historic bridges over the Arno river in an attempt to slow the Allied advance. They destroyed a famous tri-arched bridge designed by Michelangelo. One bridge, called the Ponte Vecchio, survived destruction, supposedly because it was so beautiful. Today, it’s one of the most famous bridges in the world.

The Ponte Vecchio has been rebuilt many times over its history, and has been in its present state since the 1300s. It too is a tri-arched bridge, lined with shops on either side of a central corridor. In medieval times it was a center for butcher shops, and the open space of the river on either side allowed for air to control the smell. Today, the shops are all jewelry stores. Supposedly, the term “bankrupt” was originated here, based on the words “banco rotto.” When someone couldn’t pay their debts, they would physically break (rotto) his table at the Ponte Vecchio.

Thankfully, the nazis decided not to blow up the Ponte Vecchio. Instead, they leveled the historic medieval buildings on either side of it, creating a mountain of rubble blocking the bridge. While it certainly was tragic to lose large parts of the neighborhood, they have since been rebuilt and modernized. Florence certainly suffered great destruction during the war, but amazingly the greatest of buildings and historic structures made it through.

The nazis also put up a fight in nearby Pisa, which was not so lucky. Known primarily for its famous leaning tower, Pisa was a wonderfully preserved medieval city until the war, when much of it was destroyed by bombing and fire. The leaning tower and famous cathedral in the center of town survived, but not all historic structures were so lucky.

Right next to the famous leaning tower and the cathedral is a cemetery called the Camposanto. In the 12th century, knights of the fourth crusade brought back loads of soil from Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem, and created a sacred burial space in Pisa. Over the centuries, the Camposanto became the cultural center of Pisa and the region. Many were buried there, and priceless Roman sarcophagi and statues, along with biblical relics, were housed there. The walls were completely decorated in immaculate frescos, and were beautiful beyond description. In short, the Camposanto was the one of the most important and priceless historical structures in all of Italy. The painting seen here shows how it looked.

On July 27, 1944, a wayward Allied bombs started a fire nearby that quickly spread to the Camposanto. The wooden rafters burst into flame and melted the lead on the roof, which dripped down and completely destroyed everything inside. It was a great loss to the entire world. Along the front lines of the allied troops, cultural/art historians rushed in to assess the damage. They were devastated to find the Camposanto ruined, and set about preserving what they could. The frescos had been melted off the walls, but in some areas a faint trace of the fresco remained. Today, work still continues at the Camposanto. Though it will never be as it was, burnt fragments of the paintings have been pieced back together and can be seen on display.

Here’s  a video on the Camposanto as it can be seen today- Enjoy

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World War II was an event that forever changed the cultural landscape of the world. Even today, nearly 70 years after its end, the pieces are still being put back together. The story of European art in WWII is a fascinating one. The Nazis hated modern art, as it was a symbol of free thinking and the individual. Beyond that, Hitler was a failed artist who harbored deep resentment against the art establishment. In the same way that he tried to purge Germany of people who were considered racially degenerate, he sought to rid Germany of modern art and establish a new German museum dedicated to images that celebrated true Arian culture. Many modern artists fled Europe all together in the years leading up to war. Others bravely stayed to face ridicule and persecution. As the Nazis fanned out across Europe, taking Poland, Austria and France, and becoming an ally with fascist Italy, the made a business of confiscating art where ever they could find it, which was pretty much everywhere. It was stolen and shipped back to Germany for the private collections of Hitler and his higher-ups, or sold off to other world museums to make money for the war effort. In France and Italy, many world-famous masterpieces were quickly wrapped up, removed from museums, and hidden in rural farmhouses to escape the on-coming armies and stray bombs.  Because of such efforts, many pieces remain today. Many others have ended up scattered around the world, leading to legal custody battles. Many world-famous pieces have simply vanished forever, either destroyed in the war or collecting dust waiting to be rediscovered.

In part one on Italy and WWII, I discussed the ethical dilemma that faced allied troops in places like Italy. They were under orders to limit the damage the cultural sites and world-famous art, which is hard to do when you’re being shot at and soldiers are dying. As the allied troops gradually pushed the Nazis north back towards Germany, they had to plan their operations around limiting damage to the great cities of Europe. Their solution was to place specialists on the front line who were able to recognize what needed to be saved. These art-historian specialists were the first ones in to evaluate the damage and preserve what was found from looting and further damage. It was a remarkably delicate operation.

There is a fantastic documentary made a few years ago that tells the story of Nazi occupation and the allied recovery of art works. It’s a film that will absolutely enhance your understanding of European art and appreciation for those who managed to save so much of it in the face of near total destruction. It’s called “The Rape of Europa” and is available for internet streaming on Netflix. I have yet to find a free version online, but I would consider it essential viewing before heading to Italy. Make a point to see it. For now, here’s a trailer-

It’s sounds cliché, but Italian culture really is like an onion with layers upon layers of history. It’s easy to forget when standing places like the perfectly preserved narrow baroque streets of Rome, or the medieval time capsules of San Gimignano or Sienna, that Italy really is unique in what has been preserved. The 20th century saw 2 horrific world wars centered in Europe,  a most hellish nightmare  for those countries involved. Today when you go to the great cities of Germany or the eastern European counties, specifically places like Berlin and Warsaw, you just don’t see centuries-old architecture. That’s because those places were leveled during WWII. They don’t exist anymore. They are gone, along with so much art and cultural heritage. WWII is a deep scar upon Europe that will be felt for a very long time. For those still around and only a few generations removed, the war remains a fresh wound.

So what was the effect on Italy during WWII? Italy escaped the destruction that came to Germany, but that doesn’t mean things weren’t bad. Italy was ruled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who rose to power (as Adolf Hitler did in Germany) by exploiting the economic hardships that resulted from WWI. He spread a strong message of Nationalism, and while Fascist Italy never came to rival the evil giant that Nazi Germany became, Mussolini pulled Italy into the war by allying Italy with Germany. That decision would bring extreme destruction and hardship to Italy. Eventually, after many years of war, Mussolini was executed in Italy as a war criminal by his own people.

Before D-DAY and the Allied invasion of France, the allies invaded Sicily from North Africa and began a slow march northward up the boot of Italy. Eventually, they pushed the Nazis out of Italy all together, but at a horrible cost. 320,000 Allied troops died in Italy alone, and many more German/Italian troops and Italian civilians perished as well. Along the way, as the enemy retreated and the allies advanced from city to city, Italy posed a difficult problem. Everywhere you look in Italy you see history and culture, historic structures stretching back up to 3,000 years, priceless statues and art, and beautiful churches packed with artifacts. Fighting a war in the advanced age with machine guns, tanks, bombers and millions of tons of bombs really was like putting a bull in a china shop. Allied troops were instructed to preserve sites of cultural significance as much as they could, but this posed a  difficult dilemma: What is the value of a priceless work of art? Is it worth the cost of a life? To a soldier advancing through a shower of shrapnel and bullets, watching his friends die, these kinds of priorities become something very different. Even worse, the Germans were smart and often sheltered in historic sites for protection knowing they wouldn’t be bombed.

The worst battle in Italy and a tragic example of this dilemma was in Monte Cassino. Situated halfway between Rome and Naples in an area of tall rugged hills and deep valleys, Monte Cassino was a prefect fallback position for the Germans. The hills gave them many places to hide and an open view of the valley below. It was nearly impossible to take an enemy hill without near total casualties, as a few troop devisions found out. One advantage the allies had was air power, so they took to littering the hillsides with bombs in coordinated assaults with troops on the ground.

The greatest cultural landmark in Cassino, and indeed among the greatest in all of Italy, was the great Benedictine Abbey, a huge monastery atop the tallest hill overlooking the beautiful valley below. It was founded by St. Benedict in 529, the abbey was the oldest and grandest of the medieval monasteries, filled with priceless art and ancient manuscripts (a few fortunately taken to the Vatican during the war for safe-keeping.) Beyond that, the abbey was a symbol of Italian faith and devotion. It provided a perfect vantage point of the valley and allied commanders were certain that the Germans were using it as a fortress, so they made the decision to level it with bombs on Feb 15, 1944. As it turns out, there was not a single German in the abbey, only women and children. In one sad move, one of the grandest and most important Italian structures was wiped out, all for nothing. In fact, the Germans quickly took to the rubble of the abbey with their guns, and used the bombing as propaganda in Germany to show American evil.

Today, the abbey is rebuilt at Monte Cassino, but the wound remains. It’s hard to imagine that in a place so heavenly beautiful, hell was once unleashed in all its fury. In the next posts, I’ll explain more about WWII and its great effect on Italy. For now, here’s some rare color footage from Monte Cassino in 1944, including the bombing.

In the center of old Rome lies a jumbled mess of broken columns, foundation fragments and crumbled structures overgrown with earth. Occasionally, a row of columns or an arch remain where once the greatest complex of temples, palaces and government buildings stood. It’s called the Roman Forum, and understanding it in it’s present state takes quite a bit of imagination and understanding of what it once was. For centuries, it was the heart of the known world, the place where the greatest empire the world built grand monuments and conducted ceremonies.

It’s sometimes hard to tell now with so many buildings, but the landscape of Rome is hilly. There were 7 great hills within the city of ancient Rome, and others outside the city limits- such as the Vatican hill. The Roman Forum is situated between the Capitoline Hill on the West, the Palatine Hill on the south extends to the Colosseum on the West. Today, there is a large museum on the Capitoline Hill, with many artifacts from the ancient city and a plaza designed by Michelangelo. The Palatine Hill was important to ancient Romans. They believed it to be the spot were Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, eventually establishing Rome on the hill. Excavations continue in the Forum as they have for centuries, and digs on the Palatine have found ancient tools and evidence of an early civilization there. The Palatine is an enormous ruin today of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian and others.

The Forum is in bad shape. Workers are always trying to save what is little is left from further decay. It’s tough to fully understand all that the Forum was just by looking at it today. Even before the fall of Rome, there were earthquakes and fires that periodically leveled parts of the city. Over the centuries, the Emperors replaced decaying wooden structures with marble and other stone (Emperor Trajan), and occasionally leveled buildings built by their tyrant predecessors in order to discredit them (Emperor Vespasian). Each new building is a new layer, leaving traces of what was there first. After the fall of Rome, the city was sacked and plundered. There were more fires and earthquakes and what remained was seen as a total loss in the middles ages. Gradually, dirt filled many places in and farmers even used the area for pasture. Some of the buildings that remained were converted to churches (the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina), or used as a quarry for stone. Today, pieces of precious granite, marble, and carved columns from the forum can be found in other buildings scattered across the city. In more recent times, dictator Benito Mussolini had a huge highway built directly through the Forum called the Via del Fori Imperiali. It was built for big military parades in WWII. Today it’s the busiest road in Rome. It was built directly on top of the Forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva, and today archeologists continue to carefully dig under the street. For all these reasons, the Forum is like a scattered jigsaw puzzle, each piece representing a different moment in history and a specific original function. It would be almost impossible to learn everything about it, so I’ll touch on a few of the most important features of the Forum in this post and a few others.

The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals    

The most sacred of buildings to the Romans was the temple of Vesta. It was a small round temple in the forum dedicated the the goddess vesta. The priestesses of Vesta were the vestal virgins, who took a vow of celibacy and lived in seclusion at a huge 3 story 50-room complex called the house of the Vestals.They had one purpose- to keep the sacred fire of vesta burning inside the temple day and night, never to go out.

The fire represented Vesta’s protection of Rome, so it was hugely important to the Romans to keep it going. Being a Vestal meant a 30 year term of total dedication to the temple, with harsh punishments for breaking the rules. If a vestal was found to have broken her vow of celibacy, it was Roman law for her to be buried alive. Today, the you can see the foundation and column bases were the house of Vesta was, and a small section of the Temple of Vesta stands with a few columns. This however, is a modern reconstruction, also made under Mussolini.

Temple of Saturn

Another important structure was the Temple of Saturn. Today, it’s probably the most iconic image of the forum, with 8 huge columns from the original front still standing. It’s the first thing you see when you enter on the Capitoline Hill side, and it remains grand even as a shell of it’s former self. The Temple of Saturn was one of the oldest temples in Rome, dating back to 450 BC. That structure is long gone, rebuilt at least twice after fire. The ruins today are from the year 283, and you can still see the latin inscription on the top- “The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”.

It’s hard to comprehend how grand the Forum must have looked in its heyday. There are many resources online, including an online database were researchers are attempting to digitally recreate the entire forum with all its buildings. You can even find reconstructions of the forum within google earth to better understand the Rome that the Romans saw. I’ll discuss other important features in later posts.