Art Law: Selected Problems - Seminar

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Sir Harold Nicolson, Bombing Works of Art

["Marginal Comment," Spectator, February 25, 1944]

During the past few weeks there has been much discussion, in the Press and elsewhere, of the problem whether military necessity can justify the destruction of buildings of religious, historical or artistic importance. Those who regard the mortal as more important than the immortal fail to separate external values from momentary hopes and affections: whereas those who consider art to be more important than individual lives are unable to distinguish between what is desirable and what is practical. I am not among those who feel that religious sites are as such, of more importance than human lives, since religion is not concerned with material or temporal things; nor should I hesitate, were I a military commander, to reduce some purely historical building to rubble if I felt that by so doing I could gain a tactical advantage or diminish the danger to which my men were exposed. Works of major artistic value fall, however, into a completely different category. It is to my mind absolutely desirable that such works should be preserved from destruction, even if their preservation entails the sacrifice of human lives. I should assuredly be prepared to be shot against a wall if I were certain that by such a sacrifice I could preserve the Giotto frescoes; nor should I hesitate for an instant (were such a decision ever open to me) to save St. Markís even if I were aware that by so doing I should bring death to my sons. I should know that in a hundred years from now it would matter not at all if I or my children and survived: whereas it would matter seriously and permanently if the Piazza at Venice had been reduced to dust and ashes either by the Americans or ourselves. My attitude would be governed by a principle which is surely incontrovertible. The irreplaceable is more important than the replaceable, and the loss of even the most valued human life is ultimately less disastrous than the loss of something which in no circumstances can ever be created again.

I consider the above to be a logical statement of a desirable aim. I am aware, however, that my logic is not unassailable and that the desirable must always be governed and controlled by the practicable. Were I pressed, for instance, to define what I meant by "a work of major artistic value" I might discover that what I really meant were those objects and buildings which I happened to like myself. Is the Torre Mangia at Siena, for instance, more important (when it comes to paying for it in human lives) than the Oratory of San Bernadino at Perugia? It would be very easy for a trained logician to shake my premises under this heading. What again do I mean by "human lives"? Do I mean ten men, or thirty men, or thirty thousand, or three million? Do I mean the abstention from some purely local engagement or the prolongation of the whole war? Here again I should find myself in difficulties. If I were willing to give my life for the Giotto frescoes would I also give my life for those of Sodoma? Certainly not. But if not, then my logic is reduced to a mere statement of personal predilection. And let the barrage thunder therefore, undeterred by highbrow whimpers, from Assisi to Perugia.

I know, moreover, that those of us who feel deeply and desperately about such matters constitute but an infinitesimal minority of the British, American and Russian peoples. Nor is it any use blaming the proletariats. It would be unreasonable to suppose that a Russian who has watched the church of Novgorod flaming round its golden domes, who has picked his way across the charred parquets of Peterhof, should have any feeling at all for the Palazzo del Te at Mantua. It is not sensible to reprove a doughboy from Iowa for caring nothing about Or San Michele. Nor should I hope to convince the mothers of Kettering or Luton that their sons should be exposed to a higher percentage of danger in order to preserve for posterity the balustrades and fountains of the Villa díEste. We must face the fact that the British public are not merely unaware of aesthetic values, but are actually prejudiced against them. To the ordinary British citizen the artistic treasures of Italy represent, either nothing at all, or else the curious pleasures of the idle rich. It is impossible to persuade such people that Vicenza or Venice are a part of their own cultural heritage. They smoke-cloud of class rancour drifts across their eyes and they would dismiss as reactionary, even as ultramontane, those who urged our commanders to spare Berniniís Colonade. Thus an aim which to a minority appears obviously, absolutely and eternally desirable, appears to the majority as some pampered pose. And since it is to the majority that our rulers must lend an ear, we of the minority must recognize that the desirable in this matter is in practice unattainable.

Our anger would to some slight extent be mitigated did we feel convinced, first that the allied statesmen and commanders were conscious of the importance of the issues involved, and secondly that the Italian front was likely to prove decisive. We are not so convinced. The dusty answers returned from time to time by the Secretary of State for War are not encouraging. It is not sufficient comfort to us to know that an elderly archaeologist has gone out to Italy to "do what he can." Were I a Catholic and one who felt sensitive to the religious associations of St. Peterís it would be almost intolerable for me to reflect how different, how very different, would be the attitude of the Government were it not Rome, but Mecca, or even the shrine of the Imam Reza at Meshed that was involved. The India Office and the Foreign Office would combine in panic to prevent the outrage to Moslem [sic] opinion which would be caused by any violation of the Holy Places of Islam; but since only Christian sensibilities are wounded by the threat to St. Peterís our anxiety can be dismissed as sectarian. If Perugiaís Collegio del Cambio were the London Stock Exchange, if San Domenico were Canterbury Cathedral, or San Lorenzo York Minster, the Government would be forced to show greater solicitude. But as it is , neither the people of this country nor their Government pause for one moment to consider what the world will think of them a hundred years from now.

It would be some comfort to me also did I feel convinced that the prosecution of the Italian campaign, to a ghastly conclusion would decisively shorten the war. I am strategically illiterate but even to my innocent mind it seems improbable that upon so narrow a peninsular front sufficient armies can be engaged on either side to force a conclusive military decision. I recognize the important advantages which we have gained by securing Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica as well a wide base upon the Italian mainland. I recognize the serious strategic and political importance of Rome and the Campagna. But when I watch the sledge-hammer methods of our armies in Italy, when I realize that within a few months this devastating bull-dozer may be crunching into Tuscany, my mind turns sick with apprehension. I think of Siena, Volterra, Rimini, Ravenna, Verona, Padua and Venice. I think of the small towns, the farms and convents of Tuscany and Etruria. And I am sickened by the thought that two thousand years of artistic genius may be sacrificed to a side-show.

It is indeed a catastrophe that the most destructive war that Europe has ever witnessed should have descended upon the loveliest things that Europe ever made. It is a reproach to democratic education that the peoples of Britain and America should be either indifferent, or actually hostile, to these supreme expressions of human intelligence. It is a reflection upon our leaders that they have shown but a perfunctory awareness of their real responsibilities. And it will be a source of distress to our grandchildren that we, who might have stood firm as the trustees of Europeís heritage, should have turned our faces aside. To hope for a change of heart among the people or their rulers is, however, to hope for something which is quite impracticable: all we can do is to induce in them a slight uneasy and recurrent sense of shame.


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Last modified: Thursday, January 24, 2002 05:42 PM by Terry Martin.