“War & Art”

This spring the EU Delegation received a special opportunity, courtesy of the Italian Embassy, to host a memorable exhibit “War & Art”, on the walls of its first floor premises. This impressive collection of photographs was first shown in 2014, through a joint effort by the Embassy of Italy in Washington D.C., the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento in Rome, the National World War I Museum in Kansas City and the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington D.C. The purpose was two-fold: to remind us of the devastating effect of World War I on people and the culture they value; to highlight the strength and determination of individuals to preserve what is priceless — images of the human spirit.

Paul Adams on the Journal visiting the Museum in Aquileia, accompanied by the journalist Ugo Ojetti, 1916, Rome, Museo Centrale del Risorgimento

The exhibit arrived at the Delegation in May, perfect timing for viewing by a large number of Washington inhabitants and visitors. May marks the European Month of Culture (EUMC), a month long festival of events taking place every May in the Washington area, highlighting the diverse and innovative cultures of the 28 countries that are members of the European Union. This year EUMC offered over 130 events through joint participation by the Delegation, all 28 Embassies of the EU Member States and multiple U.S. cultural and educational institutions. A highlight of this month is EU Open House, one day each year when the Delegation and all 28 embassies of the EU Member States open their doors to the public with special events. To our delight, over 2000 people had a chance to see the “War & Art” exhibit that day. We have been excited also to share it with many more during other Delegation events, meetings and educational talks for outside groups including students. To complement the exhibit, curators Marco Pizzo and Renato Miracco created a fascinating catalogue with background descriptions.

Bergamo, protection of the interior of the Colleoni Chapel, 1916, Rome, Museo Centrale del Risorgimento

I knew that efforts were made to safeguard cultural treasures during WWI, but it was fascinating to delve into the details and also to learn more about Italy at that time period. In fact, Italy as a unified country was quite young and in the process of re-defining itself. Poets, writers and artists who went to the front line during the Great War to document it, influenced the development among the Italian people of a unified sense of country. These “soldier-painters” brought the war’s effects into graphic visualization with words, paintings and photography. During this time period, destroying cultural artifacts was considered to be a barbaric and cowardly act of war. So the artistic and literary culture that arose from these artists was effectively used as propaganda. A simple photograph could also go around the world to create a visceral image on the horrific impact of war for those with no personal experience of it. To make selections for this exhibit the curators of this exhibit poured over 300,000 photos in the Museo di Risorgimento. They did an incredible job.

It caused me to ponder, how do you make the decision what to try and protect? One priority chosen was to focus on cities close to the front lines. Venice was one such city.

Venice, removal of the monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1916–1917, Rome, Museo Centrale del Risorgimento

How do you go about doing it? These photos show some amazing construction of masonry and wooden support structures around buildings like the Palazzo Ducale. Monuments were wrapped up with sacks of sand or seaweed, and mattresses covered frescoes. People built cupboards to store away objects. St. Marks was stuffed with sandbags; fake fences covered the Basilica. One of the more compelling images is that of the horses of St. Mark’s being brought down off their perches, suspended for a while in the air, then placed in crates. They look like real animals. The protection efforts were so extensive that Venice was described as “being dressed for war” in a 1915 publication by L’Illustrazione Italiana.

It is always a challenge to enter into a different period in time, so remote from how we view and experience the world today. And it’s all too easy to not remember that remote events have relevance for our decisions today. But when I view these photographs I can enter in some small way into that world and imagine the sheer stubborn determination and the courage it took to do whatever it took to save objects that have power and beauty; that represent the best part of being human and what is essential to the human spirit.

I love Venice and feel a need to immerse myself there every couple of years or so. The next visit will be extraordinary. I will see my favorite parts of Venice as it is today and also now in my mind, as they looked “dressed for war”.

This exhibit brings us back to 1914–1918, but what really has changed? The need to protect the cultural objects that define who we are is timeless. We see this in the Middle East conflicts of today. In response to these current events, the Delegation and several other EU Member State embassies have been participating in a year-long series of programs, “Protecting Our Heritage”, spearheaded by the Italian Cultural Institute. These high quality programs are open to the public.

The “War & Art” exhibit is part of a program of rotating art exhibits generously shared by various EU Member State embassies with the Delegation. The EU Delegation is not open to the public on a walk-in basis as it functions as an embassy, but we hold events where the public can attend. These can be found on our website. Exhibits can be viewed during the public events. The quality is superb and the nature of the art diverse, which makes for an added highlight to attending an event or meeting at the Delegation.