July 17, 2015

LIFE and times: a look back on the destruction of Italian cultural heritage in WWII

By Hal Johnson, ARCA 2014 alumnus and DNA Consultant
Timing can be everything. I had just returned home to Chicago a week after attending this year’s conference in Amelia. Not long after leaving the airport my family told me about an old issue of LIFE magazine awaiting me at home (Figure 1). Dated 24 July 1944, it contained an article about the destruction of Italian art during World War II. What better tie-in to the ARCA conference, since several speakers addressed the loss of cultural property amidst the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria? It was an opportunity to put current events in perspective. 
The Allied invasion of Italy was well underway by the summer of 1944. Rome had already been liberated by Allied forces, who were continuing to advance toward German defensive lines in northern Italy. Southern Italy was secure and damage assessments had begun. Despite efforts by Allied command to preserve monuments and art whenever possible, not everything in Italy could be spared. Photojournalist George Silk was sent to document the destruction of churches in three Campanian cities – Capua, Naples and Benevento – for this LIFE photo-essay, entitled War Ravages Italy’s Art: Allies Try to Save Great Relics.    
A previous issue of LIFE (10 January 1944) printed a story about Nazi looting in Italy. This edition, however, addressed the conundrum faced by General Eisenhower and his commanders throughout their invasion of Europe: “…which is more precious: life itself or the living cultural traditions that give life much of its meaning.” Collateral damage was inevitable, but Silk’s photos underscored the salvage of church art and architecture that was already taking place (Figures 2-5). The article also makes a reference to the wartime art specialists we now know as “monuments men.” I don’t know if this is their earliest mention in mainstream media, but the passage is certainly worded to inform the home front about a new Allied mission:
“The British and U.S. governments have set up a group of experts to carry on the work of art preservation. The experts have prepared maps for bombing missions, carefully plotting the location of art treasures so that the bombers can avoid any unnecessary destruction. Once a town is captured, the art experts quickly move in to minimize damage. They erect scaffoldings to support shaken walls and ceilings, put up temporary roofs to protect interiors from rain and weather, gather all rubble together so it can be sifted for valuable fragments that can be used later to reconstruct damaged works. They have already helped compile a record of every important movable piece of Italian art, including all of the Nazi loot. This list will help to return to the pillaged towns many of their priceless paintings and sculptures.” 
Why would someone reading the news care about the shelling of a church halfway around the world? Funny how the same question could be posed to readers in both 1944 and 2015. And yet I think our grandparents and great-grandparents did care about the suffering of art in WWII Italy. Not because our greatest generation was made up of art lovers, but because of the unity that comes from a common purpose. Everyone was deeply invested in the Second World War. One only has to look at news, advertisements, pop culture and public service announcements from that era to understand that the war effort pervaded every aspect of their lives. I have this LIFE magazine today because my great Grandpa Myers used them to compile his own scrapbook of the war as it happened. Countless other civilians did the same.       
Today’s monuments men are often civilians with little or no access to the conflict zones where art is being destroyed. Or else they are a courageous few on the inside who risk their lives to save their people’s heritage. All of them are repeatedly called on to justify their cause. At best their audience is a society focused on issues closer to home. At worst they are faced with indifference. Sadly, foreign wars have become something that is easy to ignore if you choose to do so. My generation (and subsequent generations) of Americans can’t relate to the collective efforts of those who lived during the world wars. Unless you actually know men and women on active duty, war has become something you can switch off with your remote control or a click of the mouse. It is both a luxury and a shortcoming of our time.
The best way to interest people in 21st century cultural heritage protection may be through grassroots efforts. Start at home. Engage your friends and loved ones. Seek out local art groups or historical societies and inform them about these issues. Build networks, however small they may seem at first! It all adds up. 
In that vein, I’d like to thank my mother for bringing the LIFE magazine article to my attention. Thanks also to my friend (and fellow 2014 ARCA alum) Bryce McWhinnie for uploading it into the research database at the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.