On the trail of the Second World War in Sicily’s cultural heritage sites and museums



Antonino Crisà is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Institute of Archeology, Ghent University, Belgium. He is currently researching Cultural heritage in danger: Archeology and Communities in Sicily during World War II (1940–45).

Terrasini Tower, Sicily. CC0

World War II was one of the most devastating conflicts in all of human history. Millions of soldiers and civilians died between 1939 and 1945; the consequences of the war were terrible. Undoubtedly, the European countries were among the hardest hit in the world. Military operations caused much destruction in urban centers; Allied and Axis bombs destroyed factories, train stations, ports, factories and entire cities, and residents desperately sought shelter and waited for the attack to end. Of course, attacks were primarily carried out for military purposes and aimed to hit predetermined targets. However, bombs could and did hit historic buildings, churches, monuments, museums, and antiques. Therefore, the protection of cultural heritage became a major concern of all European countries, which implemented a number of plans to protect it at all costs.

Italy’s rich cultural heritage, made up of the tangible remains of bygone civilizations, was seriously endangered during the conflict. As soon as Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France on June 10, 1940, Italy entered World War II. Giuseppe Bottai (1895-1959), Minister of National Education, implemented some contingency plans to protect the Italian cultural heritage. For example, authorities have placed some prominent signals on the roofs of museums and monuments to alert enemy pilots in the event of aircraft attacks. Art and archaeological collections were moved from city museums to secure rural shelters and kept there throughout the conflict. Monuments were also protected with scaffolding and sandbags to limit damage from bomb explosions and fragments.

Sicily, an island in the center of the Mediterranean and rich in archaeological remains, was directly involved in World War II. First, it suffered significant Allied aircraft attacks in smaller and larger centers such as Catania, Messina and Palermo, important ports and therefore strategic destinations. Then Sicily became a theater of war between July and August 1943 during the successful Allied landing known as “Operation Husky”. Sicily became “Region I” of the Allied Military Government of the Occupied Territories (AMGOT). So far, scientists have hardly studied the real impact of the war on Sicilian antiquities.

Heritage at Risk: Archeology and Communities in Sicily during World War II (1940-45) (SICILYWAR), a top research project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) by the author at the University of Ghent in Belgium, looks at the effects of war on the island’s antiquities. The project benefits from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives at the intersection of history, archeology, museum, military and social sciences. It also evaluates a variety of fresh, unpublished documentary resources from Italian archives (particularly in Palermo and Rome), including dispatches, letters, pictures and maps.

First, SICILYWAR aims to better understand the role of the authorities involved in the preservation of the island’s antiquities, in particular the local superintendents and museum curators who had to update the national protection plans. They also dealt with accidental finds of archaeological finds during the construction of bunkers, military facilities or shelters in an urban context. Second, the project tries to identify social networks in which military and civil authorities operate and (often) collide in a war and emergency context. In this context, we have identified four social levels as follows: 1) State (Ministry of National Education); 2) regional (superintendent); 3) local (perfect and police force); 4) supranational (AMGOT). Archival research also reveals the activities of “minor characters” such as workers and custodians involved in the management of cultural heritage. Last but not least, SICILYWAR aims to contextualize Sicily in the larger European context and to identify common foundations, methods and solutions for the protection of the national cultural heritage.

In addition, the project focuses on three key protagonists who successfully defended antiques in Sicily under the supervision of the main authorities of the central government in Rome. The young archaeologist Pietro Griffo (1911-2007) initially operated in Agrigento, a well-known archaeological site in the south-western coastal area of ​​Sicily, where the Italian army had installed its military command to defend the island. Second, Jole Bovio Marconi (1897-1986), the first superintendent employed by the Italian state, worked in Palermo, where she directed the National Museum and protected provincial sites (e.g. Solunto). Third, Mason Hammond (1903-2002), US heritage officer for AMGOT, worked with both superintendents to inspect damaged sites, provide first aid to make up for war damage, and rescue any potential lost or looted art object.

In view of the documentation found so far in archives, we know that the war hit the antiquities and museums in Sicily hard. We can therefore identify two key influencing factors that seriously endanger cultural heritage. First, local authorities viewed bombs as the main concern for all Sicilian monuments. Allied air raids became more intense, especially in early and mid-1943 in preparation for Operation Husky. As a solution, Bovio Marconi moved all the archaeological collections from the Museum of Palermo to a safe shelter in San Martino delle Scale. Second, interference by military authorities could cause serious damage to archaeological sites. In Agrigento, the Italian army installed bunkers and anti-aircraft artillery positions on the site. Griffo strongly opposed these harmful actions, arguing with commanders and generals.

Eventually, SICILYWAR was disseminated through a variety of research results. In particular, we mention a two-day “virtual” conference on World War II and cultural heritage in danger (Ghent, October 15-16, 2020), which will be attended by international scholars.

(You can find more information about SICILYWAR on this website: https://sicilywar.wordpress.com/).

“Heritage at Risk: Archeology and Communities in Sicily during World War II (1940–45)” Project was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant Agreement No. 835876).


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