Pisa, all but destroyed during WWII

SEPTEMBER–NOVEMBER 1944

The disappearance of its priceless artworks aside, Florence had been far more fortunate than Pisa. The Tuscan capital had lost a great number of medieval structures, but Florence and its citizens were alive.

In contrast, the city of Pisa—or what was left of it—was ghastly and quiet. War had emptied the streets and piazzas. While Deane Keller focused on saving Pisa’s Camposanto, his overarching concern was restoring life to the city itself.

U.S. Fifth Army troops battled the Germans for six weeks before liberating the city on September 2. Allied bombers had done their work well; the devastation had rendered the city largely uninhabitable.

Even then, German long-range artillery pounded the city for an additional three weeks. As Keller noted in his report, little remained undamaged: “Thirty-eight of her monumental churches exhibited major war damage; eight of her secular buildings of monumental importance suffered severely; numerous houses dating back to the Renaissance times were hurt . . . this in addition to the loss of her bridges, railroad station and other public utilities.”

Keller had other responsibilities in Pisa besides the Camposanto. The nearby Leaning Tower had been closed due to an accumulation of water that some thought might threaten the foundation. The water proved more of a nuisance because of the horrid smell than any structural problem. After arranging for the water to be pumped out, and rerouting traffic away from the building, he reopened the Leaning Tower to the public. It became an instant attraction for soldiers.

Well aware of Pisa’s reputation as a center of learning, Keller put his knowledge of academic life to good use by jump-starting the university. “Without the University the town has no economic future at all let alone its importance as an intellectual center. All its factories and industries are destroyed.” It took two months to locate the faculty, remove mines that the Germans had placed throughout the university’s buildings, and return to its library books that had been stored off-site for safekeeping.

On November 25, General Hume returned to Pisa and hosted a ceremony celebrating the reopening and the enrollment of some six hundred students. The city’s key institution was operational. The dead city Keller had encountered when he first arrived started to resuscitate.

Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (p. 204). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

 

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