Visiting Pompeii and the Reggia di Caserta last October, it struck me that, although these unique places make an invaluable contribution to Italy's remarkable cultural and historical landscape, they also place an incredible burden on those charged with their maintenance and preservation. Pompeii in particular has suffered centuries of abuse and neglect. Indeed, it is a ‘regrettable necessity’ that many of Pompeii’s greatest treasures have long been removed to the safety of the Naples' Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Still, walking the streets of Pompeii remains for me, as it is for many of its 2.3 million visitors per year, one of the highlights of my time in Italy.
In terms of its sheer over-indulgent opulence, the Reggia di Caserta is a palace that rivals Versailles. Although it is impressive (it was used as the setting for Queen Amidala's Royal Palace in the Star Wars film the Phantom Menace), like Pompeii it is obvious that it has seen better days (Pompeii obviously so!). That said, a day spent at the Reggia was so captivating and enjoyable that a screaming wasp stung 4-year-old, late in the afternoon in the ‘English Garden’, seemed a reasonable price to pay for a day of such aesthetic pleasure.
To the environmental problems of maintaining such large and complex sites can be added the twin evils of contemporary Italian society: political incompetence (The Latest Threat to Pompeii’s Treasures: Italy’s Red Tape) and mafia corruption (The mafia left Naples in ruins. Can they do the same to Pompeii?). Although both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Italy has 49 World Heritage Sites), they are located in the Camorra heartland surrounding Naples and, for Pompeii in particular, suspected Mafia involvement in restoration works follows decades of “neglect and mismanagement” at the site.
But, imagine trying to preserve these treasures, and all the rest of Italy’s incredible artistic and architectural riches (from the ancient relics of the Roman Empire, to the priceless treasures of the Vatican, and the masterpieces of the Renaissance) during the period of Nazi occupation, when a brutal civil war was being waged and a determined allied invasion had just begun.
In 1943, this was the task that fell to an unlikely group of heroes, museum directors, curators, artists, archivists, educators, librarians and architects. They were not combat soldiers, but they volunteered to serve in the combat zone. As with many from this generation, they put themselves in harms way and suffered personal hardships that now seem unimaginable.
Deane Keller, a professor of art at Yale University, was persuaded to join the army so he could put his artistic expertise to good use in Italy. His duties were to locate and safeguard art treasures and to coordinate emergency restoration of damaged monuments, churches and museums. The cartoon drawings that he sent home to his 3-year old son illustrate the sacrifices he made while serving in Italy. He died in 1992 and, in recognition of his extraordinary wartime efforts, was buried at Campo Santo in Pisa.
While the restoration of art was certainly a secondary concern behind achieving military objectives, the Allies efforts to protect Italy's historic riches were admirable. Unfortunately, though, many treasures were plundered and destroyed as a consequence of the aerial bombardment and ground warfare that engulfed Italy. But, the situation would have been a lot worse were it not for the efforts of these men and their commanding officers who recognised the importance of their work.
Keller's story, and that of the other Monuments Men, is told in Robert M. Edsel book Saving Italy. The film Monuments Men, directed by and starring a uniformed and mustachioed George Clooney, will be released in December.
Richard Hough writes about history, football, wine, whisky, culture + travel and is currently working on a trilogy about wartime Verona.