Through the course of World War I, even the former independent city states in Italy faced new and unforeseen challenges. Venice in particular has many more decades of independence than it had as a city within the unified Kingdom of Italy. As an independent republic, it had seen more than its fair share of wars, but nothing had ever compared to the scale of hostilities that rocked the Veneto region during the First World War.
During times of peace, the entire world flocked to Venice. The Grand Tour, from the 17th through 19th centuries, was seen as an educational rite of passage for the upper class in Europe. Venice was always one of the most important destinations. In wartime, however, many changes became necessary. Tourists were barred from the city, not only by regulations, but also by cannons and walls of steel. It took a lot of influence from those in high places, even for Italians, to gain admittance into the renowned city. During those terrible years of 1914 – 1918, for an American to enter the city, it was necessary to get special permission from the Minister of Marine.
Several times the city had been menaced by the Austrians from the north. Once, Venice was nearly captured. Time and again sorties by biplanes dropped bombs that damaged and in some cases even destroyed churches, hospitals and homes, killing many innocent civilians.
The strain was more than many Venetians could bear and they sought safety by fleeing the city. The result was a significant drain of the city’s population, evidenced by both empty streets and canals. No longer could singing be heard from the gondoliers. The beautiful hotels where so many had lived in comfort and luxury were either closed or converted into hospitals. Most of the shops around St. Mark’s Square closed. The famous glass and lace factories shut their doors. Picture postcards and photographs were rendered useless, since the government did not permit their mailing.
When Italy entered the war, a commission was immediately appointed by the government to consider measures for the protection of the country’s art treasures. Under the direction of the curators of galleries and museums, a civil engineer or architect was placed in charge of each principal building in all the art centers of northern Italy.
The persons so appointed set about devising individual means adapted to the shielding of walls, towers, statues and pictures from all forms of attack. In Venice, the chief works and structures selected for protection were the Doges’ Palace, with its rich arcades, sculptured facade and splendid halls; the Basilica of St. Mark; the medieval Logetta on the east side of the Campanile; the Churches of St. John and St. Paul; the San Rocco School and the noble equestrian statue known as the Colleoni Monument.
Titian’s masterpiece, the “Assumption of the Virgin,” was laboriously removed from the city’s Academy of Fine Arts and transported by boat and wagon to a place secure against attack. Tintoretto’s “Paradise,” the largest oil painting in the world (72’ by 23’), was unframed and removed from the Hall of the Great Council in the Palace of the Doges. Ceiling paintings were taken down, rolled around great cylinders of wood, thirty inches in diameter. These were hermetically sealed in copper canisters and stored in crypts. In all, seven thousand square yards of canvas were protected from attack and pillage.
Statues were wrapped in mattresses; the beloved horses above the doorway of St. Mark’s Basilica were lowered and taken away. Domes were roofed at an angle of sixty degrees so that aerial bombs would strike with a glancing blow without exploding. In the defense of Venetian art treasures alone, sixty men worked for three months to wall in everything delicate and beautiful.
Miraculously, no damage came to the Basilica of St. Mark. A bomb had dropped in front of it, but missed the edifice. During the war, the famous temple was but a shadow of its former self. It no longer glistened with Byzantine mosaics; its golden covering was removed or covered with sandbags. The ugliness of boarding and sandbags saddened many who recalled the Venice old.
Thankfully, the preparation and protection was successful. Venice was not seriously marred and most of the damage, especially to the churches and hospitals, was repaired. The inhabitants returned soon after hostilities ceased and the city was returned to its former beauty. Venice once again reigned in splendor as the Queen of the Adriatic.
The glorious city of canals was by no means alone in its need to protect its priceless works of art. In nearby Padua, Donatello’s equestrian monument of Gattamelata (erected in 1453) and the sepulchral church of St. Anthony of Padua received special care. Likewise, the Gate of the Scaligeri in Verona. In Bergamo, the magnificent Colleoni Chapel of the early Renaissance was at risk and a plan was devised to protect its art pieces, frescoes and as much as possible of the structure itself.
Throughout northern Italy, the list of historic, irreplaceable artwork grew – Leonardo’s immortal “The Last Supper,” in the refectory of the abbey-church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan was at the top of the list. But the Fountain of Neptune and the Church of San Petronio in Bologna could not be ignored. From Dante’s tomb in Ravenna to the Dante’s memorial in Florence, extraordinary care was taken to protect the heritage of Italy.
In Rome, the most renowned works of art, including the statue of Caesar in the Capitoline Museum, were padded and boarded up. Even as far south as Naples, special precautions were taken to guard against destruction from sea or air. In addition to painting, sculptures, frescoes and tapestries, the works of centuries of Italian craftsmen were protected including manuscripts, mosaics, metalwork and glassware. The massive national effort was undeniably successful, as visitors to Italy can attest. Had it not been for the tireless efforts of these curators, historians, architects and engineers, one can only shudder at the thought of the cultural treasuries that could have been damaged and lost. These heroes of art thus preserved these irreplaceable objects for generations to come.