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Florentine Art under Fire - The True Story of a Monuments Man - Rescuing the Art of Florence
SIENA AND ITS PROVINCE
On June 13 I set out on my first journey. Under wartime conditions the shortest trip had to be carefully calculated. Roads, worn to bedrock by years of neglect and the subsequent weight of Allied traffic, had in addition been mined by the Germans. Only the roughest repairs had been made. Interminable traffic jams at by-passes and broken bridges meant hours of waiting in line. Military trucks, jeeps, artillery, and tanks churned up a dust so thick that the road was at times completely hidden. Twenty miles an hour was a good average speed in the light British truck which I was forced to use, being unable to get a jeep. But under such conditions I visited Chiusi, Montepulciano, and Pienza. The damage to the archaeological museum in Chiusi and to the roof of the cathedral in Pienza was offset by the almost complete escape of Montepulciano, perhaps the most spectacular of the Tuscan hill cities. This cluster of mediaeval houses and Renaissance palaces is massed on a rock towering more than a thousand feet above the Valdichiana, visible for miles across the plains and hills, above the blue mirror of Lake Trasimeno.
Before long I acquired a battered jeep to which I was to become deeply attached. In two years of service this curious vehicle had sustained both the North African and Sicilian campaigns. Region VIII had received it from Sardinia. Its windshield was shattered, it had only four, much worn, tires, its radiator leaked, its springs were weak, its shock absorbers defective. It possessed neither mirrors nor canvas top, and its rattling body threatened momentarily to disintegrate. Below the windshield appeared its name, “13 Lucky 13.” “Lucky” acquired a certain fame in Tuscany. It carried bishops, priests, and monks; princesses, countesses, and dukes; old peasant women and rich merchants; superintendents, architects, directors, and inspectors; colonels and privates, black, white, brown, and yellow; a U.S. Senator and the Assistant Secretary of War. Every kind of freight was loaded in it — sacks of flour or charcoal, cheeses, turkeys, chickens, pigs, and lambs, dead and alive; cement, plaster and other materials for restoration; priceless manuscripts, Sansoni’s negatives for the complete series of photographs of the Upper Church at Assisi, and even such important paintings as Masaccio’s St. Paul from the Pisa Carmine altarpiece and Duccio’s Flight into Egypt and Presentation in the Temple from the Maestà in Siena. Before its duties in Tuscany were over it had towed Grand Duke Ferdinand, all in bronze, from the courtyard of the Uffizi into the public square. Unfortunately the speedometer broke so many times that it was impossible to compute the mileage, but between the time I first rode in it in July 1944 and the rainy day in August 1945 when I bade it farewell in Salzburg, “Lucky” must have covered between thirty and forty thousand miles.
Franco Ruggenini drove the jeep superbly, with a real genius for negotiating the infernal military traffic. He was, moreover, a hardworking assistant and a loyal friend. During July we traveled from Orvieto to the principal towns of southern Tuscany, largely untouched by the war. I shall never forget the first visit to Cortona, which has always seemed to me the quintessence of Tuscany. The few Renaissance buildings and severe Gothic churches above the streets of intact twelfth and thirteenth century houses rise, in long masses of grey sandstone and brown roof-tile, high above the Valdichiana to the summit guarded by the gigantic fourteenth century castle. Halfway up from the valley floor stands Francesco di Giorgio’s greatest work, the church of the Madonna del Calcinaio. The war, raging in bitterly contested Arezzo twenty miles away, had not disturbed the peace that lay upon the cypresses and olive trees and upon the austere perfection of the architecture.
We learned to know well the Via Cassia, that climbs from the Umbrian border through desolate lands to the strange castle-town of Radicofani, more than three thousand feet above the sea. From this grim peak one looks across a succession of arid ridges, west to the cone of Mount Amiata, south to the blue hills of Latium, north to where on clear days the Apennines above Florence are visible a hundred miles away. We explored the roads through the chestnut forests of Mount Amiata, where here and there a disemboweled tank had been left behind by the tide of war, and along the barren pastures of the Orcia valley to the hovels of Castiglione d’Orcia and Rocca d’Orcia clustered around their castle ruins — inspecting Sienese primitives and Della Robbia reliefs surprisingly little damaged by the war. We visited the towered city of Montalcino on its ridge, last stand of the Sienese Republic against the Florentine invader, and San Quirico d’Orcia, shorn of its tallest tower but with its sculpture intact. But the climax of these early days of exploration was the trip through the succession of brown brick towns along the poplar-bordered course of the Arbia, many of them wrecked by heavy fighting, up to where across the ridges the miracle of Siena, its towers and spires flashing in the sunset, rose against the sky.
Once in the town, I walked the ancient streets with their Gothic arcades and windows, brick walls and travertine carvings, looked across the Campo to the Palazzo Pubblico, climbed to the cathedral. Only a shellburst here and there, scarring an occasional bit of wall with flying fragments, showed that the war had passed over the city. The Sienese, who have always called their town the City of the Virgin, believed firmly that the Madonna herself had intervened to save it. Be that as it may, I walked the streets all evening, giving especial thanks for the preservation of this enchanted web of history from the fate that had overwhelmed Viterbo and the shining towns of the Alban hills.
Yet the sound of not-so-distant artillery was a firm undertone to all the chatter and noise of the crowded streets. And it was in Siena that two alarming reports reached me from Captain Keller on conditions in San Gimignano.
With its marvelous crown of mediaeval towers, the best preserved skyline of any town in Tuscany, San Gimignano is regally enthroned above the blue-green valley of the Elsa. Captain Keller’s detailed reports told of the terrible havoc wrought by two days of shelling by the Germans with 280 millimeter projectiles. (I was luckily ignorant of the uninformed report which had appeared in Time that the city and all its works of art had been totally destroyed.) While the towers seemed to have stood up very well under the attack, roofs everywhere had given way and many walls had been shattered. The roof of Sant’ Agostino had been damaged, exposing to the weather the enchanting fresco series of the Life of St. Augustine by Benozzo Gozzoli. In the same church the altar of San Bartolo by Benedetto da Maiano had been spared. A shell had crashed against the chapel of Santa Fina in the Collegiata and by some special miracle had missed all the treasures the chapel contained. The two frescoes of the Vision and the Funeral of Santa Fina, by Ghirlandaio, were unscratched and only a few pieces of the plaster architecture surrounding the altarpiece by Benedetto da Maiano were snapped off. The Palazzo del Podestà had been heavily shelled and the windows and roof smashed, endangering the frescoes within, particularly the huge Maestà by Lippo Memmi. The little museum of the Collegiata had been completely unroofed, but the contents had been previously placed in safety by the clergy.
But the chief tragedy had befallen the nave of the Collegiata. Shells directed at the nearby tower of the Palazzo del Podesctà, which the Germans with good reason believed was a French artillery observation post, had exploded all over the roof, destroying more than half of the tiled surface, shattering beams and crosspieces, and tearing great holes in the stone vaulting of the Romanesque nave. The unique fresco series by Barna da Siena had been badly hit. A 280 had gone right through the Crucifixion, the most dramatic and moving of the whole series, carrying away a circular section a yard in diameter. Two shells had pierced the Marriage in Cana, tearing out nearly half of it. Benozzo Gozzoli’s St.Sebastian on the inner wall of the façade had been splashed with fragments, and a shell had pierced the Paradise of Taddeo di Bartolo. So far my work in Tuscany, for all its inconveniences, had been a pleasure trip. Now I was faced with a major disaster beside which the damage at Pienza and San Quirico seemed trifling.
With the cooperation of Colonel Michie (then SCAO of the French Corps), and the help of Capt. Sidney Waugh, the CAO of San Gimignano, Captain Keller had in the five days since the liberation of the town begun an active program of salvage and repair. The communal engineer, Simonelli, had already been set to work on the damaged roof of Sant’ Agostino. The Collegiata had been closed to visitors; Off Limits signs in French and English had been posted on the monuments; and the unwilling clergy had been directed and assisted in the salvage of the precious vestments exposed to the weather in damaged sacristies. I was naturally anxious, however, for the superintendent of monuments and galleries, Raffaelle Niccoli, to reach the town as quickly as possible to assume direction of the work and make plans for permanent repairs. An hour after I read Captain Keller’s report we set out for San Gimignano. A brief stop at Colle di Val d’Elsa, whose magnificent...