Italy’s beauty and complications recognized even in wartime




“Trapani! Trapani, don’t you see?” [British] Capt. Edward Croft-Murray exclaimed as the skyline of the Sicilian coastal town first appeared through the porthole of the Allied aircraft. [The Brit] Sitting next to him, Maj. Lionel Fielden, who had been drifting off into daydream for much of the flight from Tunis, opened his eyes to the landscape below. “And there, below us,” Fielden later wrote, “swam through the sea a crescent of sunwashed white houses, lavender hillsides and rust red roofs, and a high campanile whose bells, soft across the water, stole to the mental ear. No country in the world has, for me, the breathtaking beauty of Italy.

…As soon as the first Monuments Officers reached Sicily, the implications of such a mandate [to preserves as many cultural works as possible] proved as difficult as its scope was vast. The Italian campaign, predicted to be swift by Allied commanders, turned into a 22-month slog. The whole of Italy became a battlefield. In the path of the Allied armies, as troops slowly made their ascent from Sicily to the Alps, lay many beautiful cities, ancient little towns and innumerable masterpieces. As General Mark Clark declared with frustration, fighting in Italy amounted to conducting war “in a goddamn museum.”

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Allied forces in Florence

From the safe distance of 2018, it is interesting to think back to the situation in Florence during WWII, especially after the Allied Forces liberated the Renaissance citta’.


The leaders and troops of the Allied Forces are my heroes. There are many to name.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower is foremost among them.  I recently wrote a post on his directive, which saved many cultural monuments in Italian. Here is a picture of Ike in Italy:

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As the Allies liberated region after region in Italy, starting from the southern tip and working their way north, thanks to the farsighted leaders, as many cultural works as were possible were saved.



These wonderful postcards, with their simple illustrations of the Florentine architectural masterpieces, tell a poignant story.





General Dwight D. Eisenhower as protector of cultural heritage


The cumulative weight and momentum of General Marshall’s mid-October admonition about the importance of protecting Italy’s cultural treasures, followed by successive warnings from McCloy and Woolley and the reports of Monuments officers themselves, finally produced a change.

On December 29, General Eisenhower Eisenhower issued a directive that placed the responsibility of protecting cultural property squarely upon the shoulders of every commander and, in turn, every officer and every soldier.

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It also, for the first time, introduced the Monuments officers (referenced as “A.M.G. officers”—Allied Military Government) to everyone in uniform.  Here is Eisdenhower’s directive:

To: All Commanders Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows. If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference. It is a responsibility of higher commanders to determine through A.M.G. Officers the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us. This information passed to lower echelons through normal channels places the responsibility of all Commanders of complying with the spirit of this letter.


Ike’s directive was bold; it was concise; and it was now official policy. His Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, issued an accompanying order that provided more specific details on how this new policy should be implemented.

Woolley remarked that Ike’s words “made it clear that the responsibility for the protection of monuments lay with the army as a whole and not with the [Monuments officer] specialist.”

Even Churchill weighed in on the matter: “The weakness of the Monuments and Fine Arts organization in the past was . . . due to the fact that it had . . . depended on an external civilian body not in touch with the Army. . . . The new arrangements which have been worked out in the light of experience are well calculated to promote, as far as military exigencies allow, a more effective effort to protect historical monuments of first importance in the future.”

Many problems lay ahead for implementing this new order. Mistakes would continue. The order would be put to the test in a major way within just six weeks.

But it marked the turning point for the Monuments officers and their work. For the first time since Mason Hammond had landed in Sicily, the Monuments Men had the backing of the Commander-in-Chief. Their work contributed greatly to the experience Eisenhower would take with him to England to plan the invasion of Western Europe as the newly appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.


Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (p. 68). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Wartime Florence

In 1565, by connecting the Uffizi and the Pitti and provided the Medici with an escape route in the event of political unrest. Its narrow hallways are decorated with more than a thousand paintings, mostly self-portraits, by many of the artists whose works adorn the walls of the city’s museums and churches. Farther north is the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall), the Duomo, and the Accademia, home to the world’s most famous piece of marble, Michelangelo’s David.

In the summer of 1944, war placed this legendary city, and centuries of creative achievements, in danger of utter destruction.

ON NOVEMBER 10, 1943, Adolf Hitler remarked to Ambassador Rudolf Rahn, “Florence is too beautiful a city to destroy. Do what you can to protect it: you have my permission and assistance.” Hitler’s affection for the city initially gave Florentine Superintendent Giovanni Poggi and other city officials hope that Florence would be spared the fate of Naples. The fact that Rome and Siena had escaped major damage also encouraged them.

But, as Allied soldiers inched closer each day, a small group of dedicated souls—now seen as guardian angels of Florence—became increasingly concerned that the coming battle would overtake their city. They had few resources and dwindling options. These benefactors’ best hope was to push Germany and the Allies to jointly declare Florence an “open city,” first suggested by the Director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Friedrich Kriegbaum.

But for a city to be declared “open,” it had to be undefended; there could be no military targets; and both sides had to have freedom of entry. In Florence, German forces had positioned two artillery batteries in the della Gherardesca and dei Semplici Gardens. They had stationed soldiers at numerous mortar positions in the city.

Additionally, Florence, like Rome before it fell to the Allies, served as a major rail transport hub for the German Army. Even after the Allies’ air attacks on the Santa Maria Novella and Campo di Marte marshaling yards, men and materiel moved through the city.

Undaunted by these facts, German leaders referred to Florence as an “open city,” accusing the Allies of refusing to publicly affirm that designation. For their part, the Allies wouldn’t declare Florence an open city until the Germans removed their guns and soldiers.

The standoff held through the spring and early summer of 1944, while Allied forces were engaged in combat operations hundreds of miles to the south. Things grew much more urgent following the liberation of Rome in June and of Siena in July.

City officials believed that their portable art treasures, tucked away by Poggi in Tuscan villas, were safe. But protecting the city’s architectural treasures still depended upon securing an official, unequivocal declaration of Florence as an open city.

Members of the principal group working toward this designation were the German Consul, Gerhard Wolf; the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa; the Extraordinary Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary of San Marino to the Holy See, Marchese Filippo Serlupi Crescenzi; and the Swiss Consul in Florence, Carlo Alessandro Steinhäuslin. These four men did more to save Florence than anyone else.

After four years of service in the German Army, Gerhard Wolf attended Heidelberg University, where he met Rudolf Rahn, who would become a lifelong friend. In the years following graduation, both would enter Germany’s Foreign Service. Seeking to distance himself from the Nazi Party, Wolf accepted a position as the German Consul to Florence.

Cardinal Dalla Costa, a seventy-two-year-old prelate, was another of the city’s guardians. Soft-spoken yet forceful, he assumed an increasingly visible role in defense of the city. During Hitler’s 1938 visit, he ordered that the windows of his palace be shut in symbolic protest. He declined to participate in the official celebrations, explaining that he did not worship “any other cross, if not that of Christ.”

As the situation became more desperate, the cardinal agreed to issue notices that stated, “His Eminence Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, Archbishop of Florence, declares that this building and the artworks inside, are under the protection of the Holy See.” While he pleaded with the German commanders to respect Florence as an open city, he did so knowing that, “in order to truly protect Florentine works of art, it would be necessary to place a huge pavilion made of impenetrable steel and unbreakable bronze, to cover the entire city.”

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


Artwork hidden from the Nazis

With the Academy Awards coming up soon and two of the best films nominated for best picture (Darkest Hour and Dunkirk) dealing with art hidden from Nazis in the U.K., comes this timely exhibition.

The National Gallery in London celebrates how it hid priceless paintings from Nazis in a Welsh mine. The gallery’s display will recall the summer of 1940 when, following Dunkirk, the British feared invasion.


The new exhibition shows 24 archival photographs detailing how paintings were removed, packed, transported and stashed in a disused slate mine in Snowdonia, along with a picture of how it looks today.

A new 30 minute film about the rescue mission, capturing an “immersive” dance and spoken word performance, has been commissioned to accompany it, to be broadcast on BBC Two.


In 1940, the Bristish feared for the safety of the national art collection: Winston Churchill is known to have personally intervened to veto a plan to take them to Canada by ship, fearing a u-boat attack could leave paintings lost at sea.

Instead, curators agreed to hide works in the Manod mine, enlarging its entrance with explosives and building small brick “bungalows” inside to protect them from damp.

Monitoring the conditions the paintings were kept in further led to “valuable discoveries” about how best to protect them, a spokesman for the gallery said, explaining air conditioning was then added to the renovated London gallery after the war.


The Marshall Plan


FROM JUNE 1947 to its termination at the end of 1951, the Marshall Plan provided approximately $13 billion to finance the recovery and rehabilitation of war-torn and postwar weary Western Europe.

In today’s dollars that sum equals roughly $100 billion, and as a comparable share of U.S. Gross National Product it would be in excess of $500 billion.

It was a mammoth sum, more than the United States spent to govern itself in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century.

More than the provision of dollars and aid, the Marshall Plan was the cornerstone of American foreign policy for much of those formative and consequential postwar years.

It was a monumental undertaking and—echoing Walt Whitman’s famous lines—it contained multitudes and contradictions.

For, after the war, Europe increasingly found itself looking across the Atlantic to the United States. The United States was the only power whose economy had flourished during the war. Europe needed the goods and natural resources abundant in the United States to fuel its recovery.

But, at the same time, Europe was not able to offer the United States goods or resources in return, nor could it draw on stores of investments or invisible earnings (like shipping or insurance).

Europe had a balance-of-payments problem with the United States: in 1946 Europe’s overseas trade debt was $5 billion and growing. It was known as the “Dollar Gap.” It was the key problem looming behind Europe’s incipient recovery and it was becoming dire.

From 1941 to 1945, American industry had mobilized its prodigious production capacity for the war effort.

By the end of the war, thirteen rationing programs were in effect, covering scarce commodities ranging from gasoline and shoes to sugar and red meat. Consumer goods such as refrigerators and automobiles were largely unavailable. Women were asked to leave the home and enter the workforce. By one count more than a quarter of American wives worked for pay during the war.

Americans were asked to save as never before. In 1940, personal savings amounted to around $4 billion. By 1945, it was $137.5 billion. All of this sacrifice was summoned after a decade-long economic depression.


from Behrman, Greg. The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe. Free Press. Kindle Edition.


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.