2022 Summer Culture Historical Sites Italy Mary Wetherbee Museums Reflection Temple Rome Temple Summer

Rome during World War II: Museo della Liberazione

[TW: this article discusses intergenerational trauma]

July 19 1943, Pope Pio XII among the victims of the 1st bombing of Rome from Museo della Liberazione
July 19 1943, Pope Pio XII among the victims of the 1st bombing of Rome from Museo della Liberazione

On June 4 1944, Rome became the first European city liberated from Nazi German occupation. U.S. troops led by General Clark marched through the Roman streets to crowds of cheering Italians. That day, millions gathered into Saint Peter’s square to hear Pope Pius the XII pray for salvation amid the destruction, and that same day, the people of Rome broke into the Sicherheitspolizei headquarters on Via Tasso, which was used as a prison for Jews and Italian resistance fighters, freeing everyone who had not been taken by the retreating German troops.

78 years after Rome’s liberation, I found myself in that very same building by chance. I had planned to visit Castel Gandolfo for the day with a friend, and had been waiting at Roma Termini for our train. After 10 minutes, we were left with a canceled train, no plan in a hot train station, and an entire day ahead of us. 

We decided to go to Museo della Liberazione, a museum I had always been curious to visit.  Walking along Via Tasso, a quiet street between two larger roads, I was surprised by how small the museum was because from the outside it was just a row home in the middle of the street. We could have passed it by if it were not for the sign out front. Entrance was free, and it had four stories of rooms with artifacts and information.

View of Via Tasso from the window inside the museum
View of Via Tasso from the window inside the museum

It had never occurred to me until stepping into this museum that Rome had been bombed several times during World War II. It took me a moment to let that sink in. On the first floor, a video played showing the destruction caused throughout the city. In contrast, it also showed footage from the day of its liberation. What was powerful and transforming to me was seeing the city in a completely different light, many areas of the city that had been bombed were almost unrecognizable to the Rome I’m familiar with today. The video had footage of the events, but I didn’t know too much of the political history in Italy. After the film, I had a conversation with an Italian man that had also come to visit the museum that day. From him I learned that we were there on the anniversary of the liberation of Rome. It was eye-opening to hear about the politics during fascism, particularly between Northern and Southern Italy as well as the impact of the war on him and his family. Until now, I had no grasp of how much the war had affected the Italian people, and how the impact of the events of World War II were still felt even to this day.

As we walked through the museum, we were walking through the tiny cells in which prisoners had been kept hostage. In total, about 2,000 people went through Via Tasso in its two years of occupation by the Sicherheitspolizei.  Each cell was dedicated to the memories of people that had been killed, or various aspects of the war that were an important part of the collective memory of the resistance against fascism.

One of the spaces that felt most uplifting was the room about the female resistance fighters and the various ways they were able to fight against the fascist police. From the museum: One of the women, “Maria Baccante, was a part of the “Bandiera Rossa.” She had the task of carrying weapons, hiding escaped prisoners, maintaining links with the partisans of Monte Borragine and throwing four-pointed nails. In order to find her, the police tried in an unsuccessful attempt to round up all the women in her quarter named Maria. After the war, she was hired by a chemical manufacturing company and remained at the forefront of worker’s rights.”

Page from Il Messaggero featuring Vittorio Emmanuele, the last king of Italy, and Pietro Badoglio the prime minister.
Page from Il Messaggero featuring Vittorio Emmanuele, the last king of Italy, and Pietro Badoglio the prime minister.

The war brought on a collective trauma, and one of the more striking and conflicting things I learned from the museum is how in a twisted way the war also brought a form of modernity to Italy. Under Mussolini’s totalitarian regime, methods of communication were developed, such as the creation of newspapers, bolstering of the public radio, and creation of Cinecittà, the experimental Italian national film school, all aiding in propaganda for the regime. 

Two paintings by George de Canino of Franco Cesana and Settimia Spizzichino.
Two paintings by George de Canino of Franco Cesana and Settimia Spizzichino.

The most difficult and heartbreaking part of the museum was the top floor, where it showed physical evidence of the deportation of Roman Jews, and fascist racial laws. I was struck as well by the two paintings on the wall by George de Canino representing Franco Cesana, who had fallen in battle, and Settimia Spizzichino, who was one of 17 Roman Jews to survive Auschwitz.

How can a community move on from something like this? In school I briefly remember learning about how Italy had been one of the “Axis” powers allied with Germany, but what I had never learned until visiting this museum was the strength and courage of the Italian people standing up against fascism, the effects of the war on the city of Rome, as well as a more complex viewpoint of World War II than just what I had been taught in the U.S. The chance to see this museum that honors the memory of the resistance in Italy has given me an entirely new perspective on Rome, Italy, and its people. If you’re in Rome and have time on your hands, I  recommend paying the Museo della Liberazione a visit.

Imagery and information taken from the Museo della Liberazione and its pamphlet.

Read about Ana’s experience with Jewish culture in Rome

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