Pisa, all but destroyed during WWII


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.


Dateline: Florence, August 4, 1944

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:

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 1.07.14 PM

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.

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.

Living atop Florence!

You may look at the photo below and think, that’s not the best shot of Giotto’s Campanile that she’s posted recently.


And you’d be right!  It isn’t!  But, what I’m trying to focus on is the terra cotta chimney topper on the chimney in the middle of the picture.  See it?


This thing.  I’m talking about this chimney topper of 3 upside down V’s.

What I’ve noticed about living up high above historic Florence is that there are all manner of interesting and artistic chimney toppers.  I love looking at them.

For example, there’s also this one:


I know, you’re probably looking at the Duomo dome.  But I’m focusing right now on this thing:


It’s another cool terra cotta chimney topper and it looks like a little Roman temple!

Then there’s this:


I’m sure that by now your eye is trained and you can focus right on the chimney topper.  This one looks like a little barn with a rolled top.

I’ve yet to see any two chimney toppers alike!



I mean, just look at all the types in any one view!  It’s rather amazing.


And then I start noticing how people up at this level like to decorate their terraces.  Check out the line of matching ceramic pots in the picture above.  See them?


There.  You got it!




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.


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.


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





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