HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We at Jungle Reds have so much in common. Rhys just got back from Italy, and the rest of us long to be there. Today, the terrific Sarah Wisseman takes us there—but not to the Italy most of us ever get to see. Sarah knows the secret places. The hiding places. And –just as fascinating—what might be hidden there.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
Stolen art, exploring under Rome, and Italian food, what could be better?
I’ll take any excuse to revisit Italy. I first traveled there as an archaeology graduate student in 1975 and fell in love with all things Italian. Trastevere (“across the Tiber”) is my favorite neighborhood: cobbled streets, ocher and salmon and butternut buildings, and amazing pizza and pasta. Then there’s the Palatine Hill with its ruins of wealthy Roman homes, the dank and fascinating catacombs, and the Colosseum full of stray cats…
The movies The Monuments Men and The Woman in Gold gave me my excuse. Suppose you are a wealthy, Jewish art owner living in Rome during World War II and you’ve just heard Hitler’s art brigade is about to raid your apartment? Where would you stash your art collection in a hurry?
Hopefully, you have a neighbor or family member with another apartment or a country house available. You wouldn’t choose a dank, underground location for priceless paintings—not unless you were desperate and thought you could retrieve the art work before dampness and critters destroyed it.
In my latest mystery, Catacomb, someone succeeds so well in hiding valuable art under the city of Rome that the Monuments Men—the intrepid group of curators and scholars recruited by the Allies to recover Nazi-looted art—miss it.
It would be easy to miss a few crates stuffed in a cavity under Rome. The city stands on a fragile bed of limestone riddled with sinkholes and fissures. Not only are there hundreds of kilometers of Jewish and Christian catacombs (burial tunnels and chambers), but there are also ancient sewers, aqueducts, and quarries intersecting with modern subway tunnels. Even the Sotterranei di Roma, a team of expert geologists and spelunkers who collaborate with archaeologists, haven’t explored or mapped them all. And the ones they have found are crumbling to bits and subject to frequent flooding.
I loved doing the research for this book, especially finding stories I could incorporate in my novel. One was the saga of Cornelius Gurlitt, a Munich art dealer who kept a stunning collection of looted art in his Munich apartment until the Carabinieri finally uncovered it four years ago. Another source described a young woman flirting with a Nazi officer while her friends rescued stolen art destined for Hitler’s coffers in Berlin. The sad part is that, despite the best efforts of people all over Europe, over 2,000 of those artworks stolen during World War II are still missing today.
Well, you don’t have to be living in 1940s Europe to need a place to hide people or valuables. In my hometown, tunnels under our downtown streets were once used to escape from Prohibition agents.
Do you have any unexpected hideaways where you live?
HANK: There are rooms behind the walls of the tunnels in Boston, very cool. The State House has them—and –my favorite—there are unused MBTA tunnels, just like the ones in New York. WHO knows hat might be there. What if..that’s where the Gardner Museum photos are hidden. Hm. Big hmmm. Dibs on that book. Off to write a synopsis.
But yeah, do you have any unexpected hideaways where you live?
Art conservator Flora Garibaldi is just getting the hang of her new job restoring paintings in Rome, Italy. Then her policeman boyfriend, Vittorio Bernini, asks her to join a risky search under Rome for a lost trove of Nazi-looted art worth millions. Along with an international team of art experts, they face the daunting task of locating art in miles of underground tunnels.
After they discover evidence of recent digging underground, one of Vittorio’s Carabinieri colleagues is murdered. Flora and Vittorio find themselves up against a group of ruthless art thieves who will do anything to prevent the discovery of the art and its return to its rightful Jewish owners.
Sarah Wisseman is a retired archaeologist. Her experiences working on excavations and in museums inspired two contemporary series, the Lisa Donahue Archaeological Mysteries and the Flora Garibaldi Art History Mysteries. Her settings are places where she has lived or traveled (Israel, Italy, Egypt, Massachusetts, and Illinois) and her favorite museum used to be housed in a creepy old attic at the University of Illinois. www.sarahwisseman.com