Florence in mourning: Remembering the Nazis’ destruction

Aljazeera America 3 August 2014
By Ilaria Dagnini Brey

At the end of WWII, the retreating German army destroyed the city’s historic bridges in an effort to prolong the war

Damage next to the Ponte Vecchio. Before retreating from Florence in August 1944, the Germans destroyed all the bridges over the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio, which they blocked by demolishing houses on both ends and mining the bridge.

“It is exactly 10 minutes to 10: I’ll never forget this hour,” the Florentine architect Nello Baroni wrote in his diary on the night of Aug. 3, 1944. He was one of 4,000 to 6,000 people who found shelter in the Pitti Palace after the German military occupied the Italian city of Florence. On July 30, everyone who lived in the roughly one-mile-wide area of town surrounding the Arno River and its bridges were evacuated. They had nowhere to go, so they sought refuge inside the massive palace that had been the ducal seat of the Medici and was now a national museum. As entire families arrived at the Pitti, the palace’s splendid rooms were filled with mattresses, pots, pets and stoves.

Seeking respite from the scorching summer sun, the evacuees sat under the portico of the Pitti’s courtyard and bathed in the fountains of the Boboli Gardens, which the famous architect Niccolo Pericoli, known as Il Tribolo, designed for Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th century. Some cooked meals on makeshift stoves. “Women manage to knead out of unleavened flour some thin focacce that taste of nothing but are so indigestible they give you the illusion of being less hungry,” Baroni wrote. “Everybody was busy with immediate things,” observed the author Carlo Levi, who was also among the refugees at Pitti, “yet nobody could stop wondering what would happen to their besieged city.”

A painting of the Santa Trìnita bridge, by Fabio Borbottoni (1820–1902).

For weeks the Florentines were haunted by the rumor that the Nazis were planning to blow up all of the city’s bridges. The noises that could be heard through the Pitti’s heavy doors seemed to confirm it. A delegation of Florentines, led by the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Dalla Costa, and the superintendent of fine arts, Giovanni Poggi, desperately tried to negotiate with the Nazi commandant, to no avail. Driving by the medieval Ponte Alla Carraia on July 31, Swiss consul Carlo Steinhauslin — whose efforts to help Florence, as he admitted after the city’s liberation, hadn’t been “100 percent neutral” — noticed rows of boxes that he feared could only contain explosives.

On Aug. 25, 1944, in his “Letter From Florence” for The New Yorker, Daniel Lang explained why the city, its people and its art and architecture ended up paying such a terrible price, writing, “Florence … was a city rather too close to the Gothic Line.” In his last-ditch effort to drag the war into yet another winter, Gen. Albert Kesselring, commander of the German army in Italy, didn’t want to concede any military advantage to the Allies. The destruction of the city’s bridges, he calculated, would slow down the Allies’ advance and help the German army’s retreat to the north of Italy.

Even after sundown, the heat on Aug. 3 was intense. Ugo Procacci, an inspector of fine arts in Florence and an evacuee at Pitti, took a stroll with his wife around the Boboli Gardens. Baroni and a small group of men climbed to the palace’s attic, the soffittone, and tried to get a glimpse of what was happening through its round windows. The first explosion, at 9:50 p.m., was so violent, it felt like an earthquake.

“For a moment, we thought it was the end,” Procacci recalled. Many among the terrified crowd at the Pitti started shouting, “The bridges, the bridges!” The blasts continued, at almost regular intervals, throughout the night. Judging from the direction of the booms, the Florentines tried to guess which bridges or monuments were being felled. In the neighborhoods that had not been evacuated, people climbed to their roofs and saw a thick cloud of dark smoke hovering over the Arno. The final blast was heard at 5 in the morning.

The damage on the Arno, August 1944. The rubble from Ponte Santa Trìnita is in the foreground.

The Ponte Santa Trìnita was the last of the Florentine bridges to fall. “They called it the most beautiful bridge in the world,” wrote the Florentine author and politician Piero Calamandrei, “a miraculous bridge by Ammannati that seemed to summarize in the harmony of its lines the apex of a civilization.” The bridge was so well built that it only shuddered at the first blast and fell after the third.

On Aug. 4, the few Florentines who dared to defy the Germans’ curfew and step out of their houses saw a landscape of ruin. Of all the ancient Florentine bridges, only the Ponte Vecchio was spared, although the area surrounding it was razed. On entering Florence a few days later, the American monuments officer Frederick Hartt reckoned that one-third of medieval Florence had been wiped out by the Nazis’ mines: Old Via de’ Bardi was reduced to a pile of smoking rubble, and so were the Lungarno Acciaioli and the medieval Borgo San Jacopo; among the many palaces and ancient towers destroyed was the house where Niccolo Machiavelli lived and died. The Uffizi Gallery was shaken by the blasts — and parts of its frescoed ceilings fell — but the structure of the building was not seriously damaged.

The Ponte Santa Trìnita today.

The devastation was so extensive that it prompted Herbert Matthews to write in Harper’s at the time, “The Florence that we and successive generations of men since the days of the Medici knew and loved is no more. Of all the world’s artistic losses in the war, this one is the saddest.” Still, he remarked, “civilization goes on … for it lives in the hearts and minds of men who rebuild what other men have destroyed.” From those early days of August 1944 and for a year thereafter, Allied monuments officers and Italian fine arts officials engaged in the effort to salvage the few monuments that were left standing. The medieval Torre Degli Amidei on Por Santa Maria and the nearby small church of Santo Stefano al Ponte are the legacy, to Florence and the world, of their determined work.

On the evening of Aug. 3 in the Boboli Gardens, the tragic events of 1944 will be remembered with an evening of readings from the diaries of some who lived through it. And on Aug. 11, Florence will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation and fascist control.
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