Salvatore Giannella Operazione Salvataggio Chiarelettere, 2014
‘To wage a war in Italy is like fighting in a damned art museum!’ These were the words of General Mark W. Clark, the commander in chief of the Allies in Italy during WWII. Italian writer and journalist Salvatore Giannella place them the beginning of his latest book, while remembering the unsung heroes, men and women who, by putting their lives at risk, had saved thousands of works of art from certain destruction. To use a poetic image, losing them would have meant losing all the mornings of the world. In its essence this is a book dealing with the salvific power of beauty seen in all its aspects, not only referring to paintings, sculptures and old castles but also including ancient books and parchments.
Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, both art buffs, used their influence to steal works of art from Italy well before the beginning of the war. Then, with Italy’s surrender in 1943, the stealing became more systematic and only thanks to the efforts of few good men wearing different uniforms, so many unique pieces were shielded from stealing and destruction. Men and women almost forgotten but who came back to life because of Giannella’s well documented and well written book. A book that deals not only with WWII but also with other wars and other times: like the saving of the treasures of the Prado Museum during the Spanish Civil War, or describing the mission of Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, who in 1975 founded an Afghan library in Switzerland and then created a foundation to save Afghan artistic treasures. Giannella ends with an appeal to save the treasure of Syria, where a ferocious obscurantism lead by people who are hostis humani generis – to use Tacitus’ famous expression – want to destroy our shared history and beauty.
The pages which have moved me most are those dedicated to a chapter hitherto unknown, at least to me: the saving, in 1944, of Sansepolcro – a town close to Arezzo – by a British Captain named Anthony Clarke, who was commanding an artillery unit. Like at Montacassino the Allies did not want to take risks and were ready to flatten entire cities whenever they suspected that German troops were hiding inside.
From a ridge overlooking the city, Captain Clarke had the target in sight and ordered some artillery shots to be fired to adjust the trajectory but then something emerged from his memory. Sansepolcro…where had he heard about it? He suddenly remembered: a book by Aldoux Huxley entitled Along the Road where the writer speaks of a walk he took between Arezzo and Sansepolcro, where he saw ‘the most beautiful painting of the world’ as he described it. It was Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. Clarke, awestruck, ordered the cease-fire. Immediately they called him from the headquarters to enquire what has happened; he came up with the excuse that no enemies were in sight and before they could ask: “How could you be sure?” The telephone line was cut. He was risking court martial and, even worst, sending his comrades to death. Then he spotted an Italian boy coming in his direction and he asked him if there were Germans, the boy said: ‘No, they had left!’ The next day, with his men, he liberated Sansepolcro and not a single shot was fired. Clarke then went to see the Resurrection painted on a wall of the city palace, a magnificent two metres by two metres fresco, completed in 1465. He stood there transfixed: that masterpiece had been saved by his literary recollection, together with countless civilians. After the war he moved to Cape Town in South Africa, where he opened a bookshop but he returned once to Sansepolcro, where his contribution was partially aknowledged as he was given honorary citizenship and, after his death in 1981, a street was named after him. His diary was found and made public only in 2011.
Salvatore Giannella (1949) had been the director of several Italian magazines, like L’Europeo, Genius and Airone and writes regularly for several newspapers. He has written the script of several movies, like Odyssey in the Abyss dedicated to Vassilj Arkhipov, the submarine commander who during the Cuban crisis refused to fire his missiles, thus averting WWIII. He is the author of more than twenty books and contributes daily to his blog, Giannella Channel.