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.

 

The bombing of Pompeii, 1943, on the anniversary of eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Things didn’t go so well for Italy’s artistic treasures at the beginning of the Allied invasion.  To wit:

No one wanted another embarrassing incident, such as the recent bombing of Pompeii. The Allies had flown at least eleven missions, dropping 156 bombs on suspected German command posts around the ancient archaeological site. This accomplished little beyond killing Pompeii’s dead, again and again. The southern portion of the site lay in rubble; the Pompeii Antiquarium was “half demolished” with “serious losses to the collection.” Adding irony to insult, the date of the first Allied raid—August 24—marked the 1,864th anniversary of the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (pp. 61-62). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Palermo, December 1943

The daily life in Palermo of a Monument Man, described in a letter sent home:

It’s a curious city of poverty & plenty, breadlines & marvelous pastry cakes, telephone wires strung by the Signal Corps on the heads & outstretched arms of marble saints, mounds of uncleared rubble in alleys, bombed Baroque churches, hot roasted chestnuts, walnuts, almonds & oranges, salvage dumps & hospitals, blackouts & bomb shelters. The things which effect [sic] life most are the lack of glass—most windows were shattered, shortage of water (I have to fill my helmet & wash in it morning & night), constant G.I. food (all restaurants are off bounds) & the cold (one is never quite warm).

Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (pp. 59-60). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The streets are alive with undercurrents of history: Buondelmonti Tower.

All you have to do is stop from time to time, then you will receive the currents.

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In the past 6 months, I’ve said this over and over:  “I walk by this landmark…several times a week, a day, a month” and it’s true, I do.  In Florence, every inch of earth is covered or filled with history.

About a block from where I live stands this medieval tower, the Torre dei Buondelmonti, from 12 or 13th century.  I use the alley way beside it at least daily. I always admire this tower, as I walk by.

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It’s so tall and the streets of Florence are so narrow that it is hard to get the tower in one shot.

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This appearance of this antique tower is very faithful to the 
original 13th century appearance. On the ground floor there
is an opening with a double arch, while on the upper floors 
there are five high and narrow windows of different sizes.

The ground floor exhibits a slight use of rusticated ashlar masonry, known in Italian as bugnato; this is among the first examples 
of its use in Florence. At the top there is a stone filaretto,
while the topfloor has a simpler brickwork. The tower's left
side, facing the alleyway called the Chiasso delle Misure,
originally had two doors and a window, which were enclosed
at later revision.

In the 14th century, the Buondelmonti family moved from the location of this tower on Via delle Terme, to the newer Palazzo Buondelmonti in Piazza Santa Trinita.

The feud between the Buondelmonti and other Florentine aristocratic families is well known.  The famous wedding that ended in Buondelmonti bloodshed took place not 5 minutes away, near the Ponte Vecchio in a particular event during the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts. In 1215, during a banquet celebrating the ennoblement of a young Florentine, one of the guests, Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti, stabbed a rival in the arm. In restitution for the injury and dishonor, the elders decided that young Buondelmonte should wed a girl from the Amidei family. That arranged, the Amidei and Buondelmonti families arranged an engagement ceremony, where Buondelmonte was to publicly pledge troth to the Amidei girl. With the Amidei assembled in the piazza, the young Buondelmonte man rode past the Amidei, and instead asked for the hand of a girl from the Donati family, members of the Guelf faction.

Furious, the Amidei and allies plotted revenge. They debated whether they should scar Buondelmonte’s face, beat him up, or kill him. Mosca di Lamberti took the floor and argued that they should kill him at the place where he had dishonoured them. His famous words, ‘cosa fatta capo ha‘, were recorded in Dante’s Inferno and an earlier chronicle known as Pseudo-Latini. On Easter morning, on his way to marry the Donati girl, as Buondelmonte crossed the Ponte Vecchio, he was waylaid by the Amidei and their allies, and murdered. The Buondelmonte murder and its associated clan rivalry became the legendary origin of the Guelf and Ghibelline conflict in Florence.  For more, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amidei

 

Isola Tiberino, Roma

If you like to stroll along the banks of the Tiber River, as I do when the weather is fine, you’ll eventually encounter the small river island known as Isola Tiberino.

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The Tiber Island is the only island in the southern bend of the Tiber river. The purposely boat-shaped island is approximately 270 metres (890 feet) long and 67 metres (220 feet) wide.  It is  and has been connected with bridges to both sides of the river since antiquity.

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In antiquity, an ancient temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, was built on the island.

Ancient sources say there was a great plague in Rome in 293 BC and the Senate consulted the Sibyl who instructed them to build a temple to Aesculapius. The Senate sent a delegation to Epidauros to obtain a statue of the deity. As instructed, the delegation went on board a ship to sail out and obtain a statue.

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They obtained a snake from a temple and put it on the ship. It immediately curled itself around the ship’s mast, which was deemed as a good sign by them. Upon their return up the Tiber river, the snake is said to have slithered off the ship and swam onto the island. They believed that this was a sign from Aesculapius, a sign which meant that he wanted his temple to be built on that island.

This location may have been chosen for the Aesculapius Temple because it was separate from the rest of the city, which could help protect whoever was there from plague and illnesses.

 

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The island eventually became so identified with that temple, that it was modeled to resemble a ship as a reminder of how it came to be. The Romans added travertine facing by the banks to resemble a ship’s prow and stern, and erected an obelisk in the middle to symbolizing the vessel’s mast. Walls were put around the island, and it came to resemble a Roman ship. Faint vestiges of Aesculapius’ rod with an entwining snake are still visible on the “prow”.

In 998 San Bartolomeo all’Isola (with a different original name) was built over the Aesculapius temple’s ruins on the eastern side (downstream end) of the island.

 

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The island is still considered a place of healing because a hospital, founded in 1584, was built on the island and is still operating. It is staffed by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or “Fatebenefratelli”. The hospital was built on the western half of the island.

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Interior ceiling and apse of the Basilica di San Bartolomeo:

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Today the island is a popular place to stroll on a fine day, to dine in the couple of trattorie, or to have an ice cream.  African hawkers of knock-off goods line the 2 bridges, selling their wares until officials come along.

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