The Monuments Men of the 21st Century: the Italian Carabinieri
During World War II, the United States and England established the high bar for the protection of cultural treasures during war through the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Western Allied armies. The fullness of the achievements of the Monuments Men and Women, both during and especially after the war, are only now being realized. Today, however, that mantle of leadership has passed to the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of the Carabinieri, the Italian military police. More than just protecting the art treasures of Italy, the Carabinieri also assist with training other nations’ cultural guardians through well-established programs in Rome, and abroad, in particular in Iraq.
This year marks the 50th anniversary since the founding of the dedicated unit, currently skillfully and passionately led by General Fabrizio Parrulli. On Friday, my wife and I were privileged to attend a private tour of a stunning exhibition at the Quirinale Palace in Rome that illustrated some of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit’s greatest achievements – and I do mean STUNNING! Titled “The Art of Saving Art: Fragments of the Story of Italy,” this gathering of priceless works of art, some stolen, others exported illegally, demonstrated both the cleverness of thieves and the determination of the Carabinieri to defeat them. The recovered works included an exquisite portrait by van Gogh, Etruscan pottery, and some of the most beautiful silver vases and bowls from the 3rd century B.C. that I have ever seen. But the exhibition, now closed, went much further. One room contained index cards of some of the tens of thousands of missing objects listed on the Carabinieri data base. Another room was filled with paintings, statues, and other relics rescued by the Carabinieri from the rubble of towns destroyed by the 2016 earthquake in Umbria. These damaged but still beautiful works of art underscore a key and often overlooked point about the preservation of culture: the threats to their survival are constant and involve far more than just theft. Budget cuts and neglect are just as formidable a foe as earthquakes, floods, and war. The fire that consumed much of Notre Dame provides recent proof.
All who love art and culture and share a desire for it to be enjoyed by future generations owe a debt of gratitude to General Parrulli, his predecessors, and the extraordinary team of Cultural Heritage Protection Unit professionals of the Carabinieri. The Monuments Men of World War II would be pleased to know that their work protecting our shared cultural heritage is being continued by such a competent and dedicated force.