There were many losses of great art and architecture during World War II, and the nearly complete destruction of the Camposanto Pisa was one of the most tragic. Perhaps it is fitting that two of the few brilliant frescoes at Camposanto to survive relatively intact were the rather fierce Triumph of Death and the Last Judgement. The “Monument Men” was a small (only about 400 men) division of the U.S. Army comprised of artists, historians, and professors who fanned out across Europe behind combat troops. Their job was to locate and save the great art treasures, and many arrived while bombs were still falling. Captain Dean Keller from Connecticut was an artist and Yale professor who had studied for three years at the American Academy in Rome. He led a group of Monument Men who concentrated on the art of Italy. Keller was brought to tears when he first came upon the destruction of Camposanto Pisa wrought by an American incendiary bomb.
During his time in Italy, Keller and his team discovered the treasures of the Florence Museum in a cache of looted Nazi art, and returned it to the city in 1945 in a triumphant parade of dozens of U.S. Army trucks. Among the awards he received after the war was the United States Legion of Merit, Member of the British Empire, Crown of Italy Partisan Medal, Order of St. John the Lateran from the Vatican, and the Medal of the Opera from Pisa—all in recognition of his extraordinary wartime efforts to save the treasures of Europe, especially Italy. He worked tirelessly on the restoration of the frescoes at Camposanto during the 1950s, and was further honored by actually being buried in the Monumental Cemetery in Pisa in 2000.
The Camposanto Pisa—also known as the Monumental Cemetery in Pisa—was built in 1278. Camp Santo literally means “holy field,” as the construction centered on shiploads sacred soil that was brought back from Golgotha in Jerusalem during the Fourth Crusade. It served as the cemetery for the wealthy and influential of the city for centuries. It is a large, elegant walled area of lawn surrounded by colonnaded halls that were the original home of the famous frescoes.
The Camposanto Pisa has been fully restored since World War II. Today, you can view the restored fourteenth-century frescoes at Camposanto in the Museuo dell Sinopie, located within the cemetery complex. As in many cities throughout Europe and Japan, some of the destruction of the war was allowed to remain as it was found. One of these damaged frescoes is the Triumph of Death. Once located in various places around the walled cemetery, creating one of the archeological museums of Italy, the 84 remaining Roman sarcophagi (there were once hundreds) are now inside galleries near the walls. The grand arched edifice is quite elegant, and is graced with a Gothic chapel. This is one of three chapels, with the oldest dating to 1360.
The Monumental Cemetery in Pisa is located within an area north of the University and the Arno River, which also passes through Florence. This is the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), that also is home to the ornate Baptistery of St. John, the beautiful Pisa Duomo, and the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. The entire square and all its structures in the heart of the city as a whole is recognized as a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is an admission fee, and you can buy combination tickets allowing entry to all the Pisa attractions in the square.
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