Our Man in Italy; September 2015 : Monuments Women
FROM OUR MAN IN ITALY
Vera Cacciatore was the 30-year-old curator of the Keats Shelly House in Piazza di Spagna at the outbreak of World Warn. By December 1941 she realised that a museum dedicated to the British Romantic poets was a potential target, not only for its documents and manuscripts but also for its landmark position at the Spanish Steps.
She closed the premises and removed the plaques from outside of the house, and the museum was placed under neutral Swedish and Swiss administration. She then entrusted two small boxes containing the museum’s most prized possessions (Severn’s last drawing of the dying Keats, Keats’s own drawing of a Grecian urn, two first editions of his poems, locks of his and Shelly’s hair and many of their letters) and sent for safe keeping to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, then considered one of the safest places in Italy.
However, in October 1943, after the landing of Allied troops on mainland
Italy and the Italian government’s surrender in September, the Germans decided to evacuate the Monte Cassino archives and take them north. The librarian managed to place the anonymous boxes from the Keats Shelly House among his personal possessions on a German lorry to be delivered to the Benedictine motherhouse of S. Anselmo on the Avetine in Rome.
On 30th November, over six months before the liberation of the city, Cacciatore collected the two boxes from S. Anselmo and took them back to the museum in Piazza di Spagna. The danger was still intense. People were on the run, deserters and Jews were being rounded up, and in reprisal for the partisan bombing in Via Rasella of German troops, who had marched through Piazza di Spagna only minutes previously, 335 people were murdered in the Fosse Ardeatine on
24th March 1944.
In her own account of the story*, Cacciatore tells how only days after the liberation of Rome on 4th June 1944 the boxes were finally unsealed by the United States and British Ambassadors and that even before the conflict was over the museum once again became a haven for British and Americans and all lovers of the Romantic poets.
The article was written by Mary Wilsey.
* “A Room in Rome” by Vera Cacciatore part of which is reproduced in Keats and Italy by Sally Brown, is on sale at the Keats Shelly House, Piazza di Spagna 26.