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Celebrating a Centennial: The Academy in Times of War

April 3, 2014

Authoring his annual Report to the Trustees of the American Academy on the eve of the inauguration of the McKim, Mead & White main building, Director Jesse Benedict Carter reflected, “We would not stand apart, even if we could…In time of war, we must prepare for peace. America needs our influence more than ever, and she will need it more and more with each succeeding year. According to this need so shall our strength be.” On October 1, 1914, the doors of the McKim, Mead & White building opened solemnly onto a world at war. It was a war, they said, to end all wars, yet the institution would survive to see it end and another conflict begin. During these dark days the Academy’s buildings and grounds were put to alternative uses as Fellows and staff lived alternative wartime lives.

In the summer of 1914 thousands of American tourists across Europe and Fellows of the American Academy in Rome had no idea that war was imminent. The Academy itself was caught unprepared as its assets were frozen and finishing touches to the main building were delayed. Sparked by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Italy would remain neutral until May 1915 and President Woodrow Wilson would keep America out of the war for two long years thereafter. As a result of these conditions the Academy was able to remain open during most of First World War, although the number of Fellows and staff gradually dwindled. Secretary of the Academy C. Grant LaFarge reflected in December 1914, “The work of the Academy, at a moment when the world is in the agonies of devastating war, is a work of constructive civilization.”

After three years at the Academy, Sculptor Harry D. Thrasher, FAAR’14, was returning home in December 1914 and architect Walter Ward, FAAR’15, would follow him a year later. Sadly, they returned permanently to Europe in April 1917 after America’s entry into the war. These two fallen Fellows of the American Academy are commemorated by a memorial in the cortile, where a mural by Barry Faulkner, FAAR’10, and a marble bench with kneeling effigies of uniformed soldiers by Paul Manship, FAAR’12, were unveiled in 1925. Those who could not fight often became involved in civilian war work, as in the case of Lily Ross Taylor, FAAR’18, temporarily interrupting her studies in 1917 to join the American Red Cross. The Villa Aurelia was leased as an office base to the Italian Red Cross during the war years while the McKim, Mead & White building narrowly avoided use as a hospital when a welcome end to the war came in November 1918.

On an occasion that prefigured the impending threats ahead, Benito Mussolini visited the American Academy in February 1933 and sculptor William M. Simpson, FAAR’33, commented to the New York Herald Tribune that a swarm of security surrounded the Duce. Mussolini would enter Italy into the Second World War alongside Germany in June 1940 and that September the Academy discharged most of its employees. By June the following year the Academy had officially closed its doors and Italy declared war on the United States in December 1941. At that time the properties of the American Academy in Rome were placed under the protection of the Swiss Legation whose diplomats proved to be loyal friends. With its assets frozen, maintenance of the Academy by a skeletal staff was facilitated with loans from the Swiss Legation and the Vatican. A historian of the Swiss Institute in Rome, Laetitia Noelle-Perret, has shown that the Swiss Legation intervened to prevent the sequestration of the American Academy by the Fascist government in May 1942 and again rose to its defense in January 1944 when German officers illegally entered the grounds of the Academy and threatened Director Albert William Van Buren. In the spring of 1944 Allied armies were finally marching towards Rome. A graffiti message on a wall in Trastevere read, “Americans, hold in there! We’re coming to your rescue!”

While the Academy suspended its Rome Prize competition between 1942-1945, opting instead to award scholarships for graduate study of the Classics in the US and cash prizes for artistic work related to the war effort, members of the AAR community used their skills as scholars and artists in a unique aspect of the war effort. When General Mark Clark liberated the city on June 4, 1944, rolling down the streets from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Capitoline Hill, along with him came a special unit for artistic conservation.

The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas was formed in late June 1943 at the suggestion of President Roosevelt and chaired by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Owen J. Roberts. It was the Roberts Commission that then established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) branch of the Allied armies’ Civil Affairs Division or MFA&A, which was charged with promoting the preservation of cultural properties in war areas. In December of 1943 the Civil Affairs Division accepted an offer from the Trustees to house the MFA&A at the American Academy in Rome, but the prospect was ultimately never realized.  

Celebrated in Lynn H. Nicholas’s Rape of Europa (1994), Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men (2009), and Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s The Venus Fixers (2010), the MFA&A has most recently been the subject of actor and director George Clooney’s Monuments Men (2014). Sixteen members of the American Academy in Rome community, including Trustees, Advisors, Fellows, Residents, administration and staff would serve as “Monuments Men” during the war. Clooney’s Hollywood interpretation features actor John Goodman as Sgt. Walter Garfield who is loosely based on Walker Hancock, FAAR’28, RAAR’57, ’63. Hancock served in England, France and Germany and was later awarded the National Medal of Arts (1989) and the Medal of Freedom (1990). During his service Deane Keller, FAAR’29, Professor of painting and drawing at Yale, was struck by the misery that war had wrought on the children of Naples. To his infant son he wrote, “Little boys over here do not have bikes. They are too poor. Some do not have shoes. Isn’t it too bad?” Mason Hammond, Professor-in-Charge of the School of Classical Studies (1937-1939; 1955-1957), RAAR’52, ’63, served in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, England, France, and Germany and was later awarded the Academy Medal for Outstanding Service. Behind the wheel of a decrepit 1930s Balilla nicknamed “Hammond’s Peril,” Hammond surveyed towns, villages and hamlets, finding partners in local Italian soprintendenti

The American Academy’s newly forged mission in 1914 was to bring the arts and humanities together in order to fuel creative innovation. There could have been no greater test of its fortitude than the catastrophic destruction of two World Wars over the next 27 years, but the American Academy in Rome did not stand apart; in times of war it prepared for peace.

Read more about this in "Mellon Prof. Corey Brennan Looks Back at the 'Monuments Men' (and Women) of the AAR in WWII" (January 22, 2012) and look out for the next "Celebrating a Centennial" feature at the end of April, "Following in the Footsteps of the Academy," which will trace the historic sites of the Academy from 1894 to the present.