On this date in 1944 the retreating Nazi troops were leaving Florence in advance of the Allies arrival up the Italian peninsula. The retreating Germans did everything they could to wreak havoc for the Allies, destroying communication channels and destroying every bridge over the Arno, with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio.
In this picture below you see the destroyed Ponte Santa Trinita, with the Ponte Vecchio blessedly still in situ.
Here’s a heartbreaking overview of the Lungarno in the Oltrarno, next to Ponte Vecchio.
Naturally many Florentines were displaced from their homes and some were allowed to take shelter inside the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, where temporary beds were set up, as below.
To remember those dark days, La Compagnia delle Seggiole will perform portions of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” tonight in the Piazza outside the Pitti. The Requiem was written to celebrate the reconstruction of the Gothic cathedral of Coventry. Entrance is free.
In my evening sojourn last night (at sunset, to beat the heat, when it is only 100 degrees F), I wandered by this modern, clean laundromat in Florence. It’s funny to me that they use Statue of Liberty imagery to promote their laundry. Is NYC known for its cleanliness? I think not!
See this rather formidable looking building? It is one of most important libraries in Europe. Once housed inside the Uffizi, since 1935 has been located in this building designed around 1911 by Cesare Bazzani and later enlarged by V. Mazzei. It is located along the Arno River in the quarter of Santa Croce.
Sometime very soon, (more or less) armed with my newly (more or less) acquired Italian language skills , I’ll be entering this august archive to start my research on Florence after WWII.
Wish me a lot of luck: this place has a reputation for being formidable and working hard to keep people out.
I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a bit intimidated!
You may take a virtual tour of the library’s exterior here: http://arno66-archive.netseven.it/vt/index.htm
Ah, what mysteries are held inside!
Here’s some formal data on the library, from Wikipedia:
The library was founded in 1714 when scholar Antonio Magliabechi bequeathed his entire collection of approximately 30,000 volumes to the city of Florence. By 1743, it was required that a copy of every work published in Tuscany be submitted to the library.
Originally known as the Magliabechiana, the library was opened to the public in 1747. Its holdings were combined with those of the Biblioteca Palatina (Firenze) in 1861, and by 1885, the library had been renamed as the National Central Library of Florence, or the BNCF. Since 1870, the library has collected copies of all Italian publications.
The National Library System (SBN), located in the BNCF, is responsible for the automation of library services and the indexing of national holdings.
Unfortunately, a major flood of the Arno River in 1966 damaged nearly one-third of the library’s holdings, most notably its periodicals and Palatine and Magliabechi collections. The Restoration Center was subsequently established and may be credited with saving many of these priceless artifacts. However, much work remains to be done and some items were forever lost.
Not a new picture, but a great one:
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.
In liberated Florence, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—Mrs. Ernest Hemingway—filed this heartbreaking report:
“The botanical gardens are now a graveyard and they are the most frightening place in Florence. The Germans had taken all the hearses; the cemeteries of Florence lie to the north of the city and are in German hands, and there is no wood for coffins. Add to these basic facts the daily normal deaths in a city of three hundred thousand and the daily deaths resulting from mines, mortars, shells and snipers and you have the ghastly problem of Florence. Dead had been left unburied by the Germans, and it was not always possible to retrieve bodies. For instance, one body lay for days on the stumps of Alle Grazie Bridge. No one could reach it, first because of snipers and then because of mines. So trenches are dug in the botanical gardens and the uncasketed bodies are laid in them.”
Even after Allied forces gained control of the north side of the Arno, life remained miserable for Florentines. People accessed the north and south sides of the city by walking across the broken remains of the other shattered bridges. Few buildings had intact windowpanes.
Stretches of what had once been one of the world’s most cultivated city centers had been replaced with piles of rubble thirty to forty feet high along sections of both sides of the Arno.
Women picked through the pieces searching for heirlooms. Men, armed with picks and shovels, hacked away at the remnants of their beaten city to clear paths for workers and begin the process of rebuilding. Gaunt faces conveyed the hardship endured by the Florentines.
Barefoot women, standing shoulder to shoulder, prepared spartan meals on outdoor stoves in the Boboli Gardens. Others hunched over on their knees along the banks of the Arno, using its dirty water to scrub even dirtier clothes on pieces of stone debris created by the blasts. Despite the filth, thousands of people sought relief from the heat and dust by swimming in the muck.
No one indulged in vanity. Young, dark-haired women looked thirty years older, with their once-well-coifed hair standing on end, caked with grayish dust. Men patched and repatched their ragged clothes. A cluster of people usually indicated the location of one of the city’s temporary clean-water supplies. Such oases were fairly easy to find; just follow someone carrying straw-covered wine jugs or gasoline cans in each hand. The children of Florence sat in circles on the ground, devouring meager suppers.
It was a desperate moment in the city’s storied history.
Here’s a diagram of what was destroyed in Florence on that fateful day:
The Ponte Vecchio is in the middle of the image, Ponte Santa Trinita to the upper left.
Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (p. 189). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.