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Description & Context

Short introduction

The main scope of SICILYWAR, an innovative, multidisciplinary project, is to assess the impact of World War 2 (1940-45) on the rich cultural heritage of the island with a major focus on antiquities, archaeological sites and museums which the conflict put at serious risk. First, the project seeks to understand how local authorities dealt with casual archaeological discoveries occurred within military operations or construction of defensive structures. Second, SICILYWAR pursues to reconstruct contexts and social networks involving the national and military authorities, archaeologists and local communities, acting and ‘clashing’ in a state of war and emergency. Third, the project pursues to contextualise Sicilian archaeology in the wider European stage, identifying ‘common strategies’ actualised by other states to protect antiquities. The interdisciplinary perspectives and research methods combine a variety of sources at the intersection of archaeology, history, military, social and museum studies. Analytical data derives from archival records (dispatches, letters, excavation reports, etc.), pictures and maps which allow us to achieve a faithful reconstruction of historical events and achieve the research objectives.

The Temple of Concordia in Agrigento (1920s), one of the major site under threat during World War 2 in Sicily.

The historical context

Italy entered World War 2 on 10 June 1940 when Mussolini declared war to Great Britain and France. It was a crucial event in the history of Italy and all nation would have been affected by a long and devastating conflict until 25 April 1945. In the early stages of the war, enemies attacked Italian cities performing targeted aircraft attacks. Their military objectives were factories, stations, ports, etc. Bombing became a major threat for civilians who suffered and died. Sicily was one of the first regions to be hit by the enemy aircrafts (even in June 1940!). Catania, Messina and Palermo were essential, key targets for their strategic position in the Mediterranean basin and the presence of remarkable ports. Unfortunately, bombs hit, damaged and even destroyed churches, monuments, theatre, museums and (sometimes) antiquities.

The necessity to defend Sicily against a potential attack carried out by the Allied forces became more impelling in 1942, when the Italian Army started to occupy and/or fortify some key areas, like promontories, coastline sites, hilltops and even historical building (e.g. Porta Felice in Palermo, on which the German troops installed some anti-aircraft artillery positions). Bombing activity became more and more intensive especially between early January and mid-June 1943, when the Allied were preparing a military attack in Sicily. The Allied landing in Sicily, called Operation Husky, was organised meticulously by the USA and British military authorities who chose generals Patton and Montgomery to coordinate the operation ‘in the field’. Launched on 9 July and ended on 19 August 1943, the action involved thousands of soldiers who landed in Sicily with the scope of creating a new frontline and starting a major action to advance towards the Italian peninsula. The Italian and German armies defended the island. Palermo was occupied by the USA troops on 23 July. Fierce combats occurred in Adrano, Catania, Messina, Troina and other small centres. The end of Operation Husky was crucial for the history of Italy which then signed the Armistice on 8 September 1943 at Cassibile.

After the liberation of Palermo, the AMGOT (Allied Military Government of the Occupied Territories; AMG thereafter) opened its headquarters. Thus, Sicily became “Region I” of the new military government. It sought to ease the transition between the Fascist government (acutalising the defascistization of personnel and authorities) and a novel ‘democratic’ state. It also established new rules, supervised the management of local offices and also helped local authorities to safeguard antiquities. And, of course, the Monuments Officers, scholars, professors and art experts, were involved in this process. In Sicily, Mason Hammond (1903-2002), an American professor, was the main officer who strictly collaborated with local authorities, like Jole Bovio Marconi (1897-1986), to verify any potential damages on historical building and proved a first-aid help to cover war damages.

The protection of cultural heritage and antiquities

Some cities were constantly hit by enemy aircrafts which also caused much destruction of local cultural heritage (monuments, churches, museums, sites, etc.). Giuseppe Bottai (1895-1959), Minister of National Education, actualised a series of actions to protect monuments, museums and sites starting from June 1940. For instance, local superintendents and museums curators had to install protective devices on historical buildings and sites (e.g. distinctive signals against aircraft attacks, scaffolding, etc.). Laws established that bunkers and/or shelters were built up in countryside (or secret areas) to keep important fine art objects collections (coins, statues, inscriptions, paintings, vases, etc.).

Sicily had some main shelters, like those in Palermo and Syracuse. The majority of finds were transferred to these main bunkers which could host thousands and thousands of artefacts. Transferring of finds and collections was a hard job: everything had to packed in boxes and then moved to shelters on military (or civilian) trucks escorted by police forces.

The war strongly impacted on the safeguarding of antiquities in Sicily. First, bombing caused much destruction on the museum of Palermo (hit by a bomb in April 1943). Second, the interference of the Italian Army on antiquities could be much harmful for their preservation. The Engineer Corps could install military positions close (or even inside!) archaeological putting their integrity at serious risk. The role of local authorities was crucial to limit these activities. But, as known, the scope of the army was to protect Italy against the enemy! Third, while building up new structures, the army or local bodies (e.g. city council) could perform causal discoveries of archaeological finds. The emergency context made the surveillance of excavation by local archaeological inspectors very hard and problematic.