Four Questions for Tom Christianson
"War & Art: USA in Italy" WWI exhibit goes up in Pentagon
By Ashleigh Shaw
The Pentagon, home to the U.S. Department of Defense, is in many ways, a city-like community all unto itself. The Pentagon structure is huge, considered the largest low-rise office building in the world, with some 25,000 people working there ever day. Over the past dozen or so years, there has been a significant effort to build the sense of community among the people in the Pentagon -- by using its endless hallways as exhibit space, in order to tell stories from the Defense Department's remarkable history. The latest Pentagon hallway exhibit has a World War I theme, and centers on the story of America's activities in Italy during the war. The exhibit was curated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and presented through the Embassy of Italy. . We spoke to Defense Department Historian Tom Christianson about the exhibit, and the stories it tells.
Tell us about the "War & Art: USA in Italy" exhibit currently at the Pentagon.
The subtitle to the exhibit: Destruction and Protection of the Italian Cultural Heritage During World War One is a clear indication of the exhibit’s purpose of protecting art and culture during the war. As early as 1915 work began to protect art due to an early bombing of the northern Italian city of Padova (Padua). The famous ancient Bronze horses were removed from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.
The government decided to sandbag cultural sites to protect the artistic treasures of Northern Italy. These included the Doge’s Palace in Venice and the Arches of the Scaligeri in Verona, along with many other cultural and artistic monuments. Italian authorities removed paintings of famous artists like Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese and shipped them to Rome for safekeeping until the war ended.
This exhibit is presented through the Embassy of Italy. Tell us about the relationship between Italy and the United States during World War I.
Italy entered World War One on the side of the Allies in 1915 and the US entered the war in 1917. There was a strong connection between the US and Italy as the US had experienced a great wave of Italian immigration in the decades just before the outbreak of war.
Many US soldiers who fought either came from Italy shortly before the war, or were children of parents who had immigrated. Italian was a first or second language to the 332nd Regiment, the US combat unit that served in Italy from July 1918 until the end of the war in November 1918. This unit was specifically sent to Italy to build Italian morale and assure the Italians that the US was on their side.
What was the American role in Italy during the Great War?
It is important to note that alongside the 332nd Regiment the US sent more than 500 air cadets along with an industrial base that helped the Italians manufacture aircraft toward the end of the war. The 332nd conducted combat operations north of Venice in the last weeks of the war, resulting in an overwhelming Italian victory and causing the Austrians to drop out of the war.
What else can people expect to see when visiting the exhibit?
The display in the Pentagon also demonstrates the close integration of American forces and those of Italy. Finally, the display highlights the early career of an American literary icon, Earnest Hemingway. Hemingway was wounded as an ambulance driver during the war and used his Italian wartime experiences and the backdrop of World War One to write his classic novel, Farewell to Arms.
Ashleigh Shaw is an Autumn 2017 Intern at the United States World War One Centennial Commission