With almost 3,000 years of existence, it is sometimes difficult to separate Rome’s ancient and modern history, intertwined inexorably through time. The impact of World War II on the Eternal City is a vivid example, particularly the Fall of Rome 1943.
Seventy-five years ago (8 September 1943), after initially having been allied with Germany in World War II, Italy finally came to its senses and decided to put an end to its foray into Fascism. As Allied troops landed in Sicily and began to prepare for an invasion of the mainland, King Vittorio Emanuele III removed Mussolini from power, and the country surrendered to the Allies. The Germans, however, had other plans. They moved quickly to occupy Italy’s cities, including Rome, which they would hold and torment (together with the remnants of Fascist sympathizers) until the American Fifth Army finally entered the city nine months later (on 4 June 1944).
It seems an appropriate day to wander through the city to sites that were most affected by the conflict. Fortunately, both Allied and Axis troops exercised restraint when it came to Rome, neither wanting to destroy thousands of years of human endeavor. However, two notable sites bore the brunt of the conflict.
On 19 July 1943, shortly before the fall of Mussolini, Allied bombers targeted the city’s central rail yards, close to the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls). Almost 3,000 civilians were killed or injured in the sortie. A stray bomb caved in the roof of the nave of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, destroying the Cosmati mosaic floor, considered one of the most beautiful in Rome.
The bombing also targeted the gas works on Via Ostiense near the Porta San Paolo, damaging the Pyramid of Cestius (12 BC) and the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio. Subsequently, as Roman partisans and civilians prepared to take a stand against the advancing German forces, the area around Porta San Paolo was the site of some of the city’s fiercest fighting.
THE BASILICA OF SAN LORENZO FUORI LE MURA
This basilica is probably the least well-known of Rome’s seven great pilgrimage churches. It is dedicated to St. Lawrence who was martyred in 258 CE by allegedly being roasted alive. His last words purportedly were, “This side is done, turn me over and have a bite.” Of course, this could be yet another urban legend, but it seems an inevitable irony that he is the patron saint of chefs and cooks!
Emperor Constantine I built the first oratory on this site in the 4th century CE. The Byzantines reconstructed it in the 6th century CE. The bell tower or campanile and the cloister date to the 12th century. The church is unusual in that it consists of two back to back churches.
Even though the Basilica was repaired after the Allied bombing, much of what you see today is as it was in the 13th century. There is no transept. Twenty-two granite Ionic columns support the architrave.
Steps lead to the raised chancel, which incorporates the 6th-century church. The floor, which was damaged by the Allied bombing and which has carefully been restored, is paved with Cosmatesque mosaics.
A two-story 12th-century cloister overlooks a garden on the south side of the church. You enter through a door in the south nave aisle which leads through the sacristy to another door marked “Chiostro.” (There are photographs of the damaged Basilica in the sacristy). A shell fragment from an Allied bomb remains in the cloister.
CIMITERO VERANO (Verano Cemetery)
Emperor Lucius Verus (130-169 CE) once owned the estate where the cemetery is located. Giuseppe Valadier, Napoleon’s architect, designed the cemetery (Rome’s largest) in 1807. Many of Rome’s notables — politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers — and countless others are buried here. In 1943, the Allied bombing damaged part of the cemetery, which has since been restored.
Today, the San Lorenzo neighborhood is home to Rome’s Sapienza University and is a throbbing, vibrant community of artists and students, none of whom were alive when the area was bombed.
THE BATTLE FOR PORTA SAN PAOLO (St. Paul’s Gate)
Porta San Paolo is one of the southern gates in the 3rd century Aurelian Walls that surrounded the city during the reign of Emperor Aurelian who built them to protect the Romans from the Barbarians.
Named initially Porta Ostiensis because it was the entrance gate into the city at the start of the road connecting Rome to Ostia, subsequently, it was renamed because it led to the Basilica of St. Paolo Fuori le Mura (Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls).
In Roman times the area between the gate and the Tiber River housed food and wine supplies, which arrived from Ostia. Today, it is known as Testaccio, once Rome’s meat-packing district, today one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods.
Today, the gate sits by itself in the middle of traffic. Just to the west is the Egyptian-style Pyramid of Cestius (a Roman praetor who built it as his tomb in 12 BCE.)
The Protestant Cemetery (officially known as the Cimitero Acattolico per gli Stranieri), with its tall cypress and pine trees, lies beyond the Pyramid and Porta San Paolo. The 18th-century English poets, Keats and Shelley, are buried here.
After the surrender of Italy on 3 September 1943, Italian partisans and civilians fought to keep German troops out of the city, with the fiercest battle taking place in this neighborhood. However, the well-armed Nazi troops were too much for the Italians. Some 597 Italian men and women died trying to defend the city over the course of two days.
There are no traces left of the conflict. A few plaques on the Porta San Paolo memorialize the men and women who valiantly gave their lives. To the east of the Gate where the main battle was fought, the run-down Parco Della Resistenza dell’ 8 settembre (The Park of the Resistance of 8 September) is now used by dog walkers and mothers pushing strollers.
The memories of World War II are fading as few people alive today experienced them first-hand. All we have left are the stories of a horrible time in history. Yet there are lessons here for future generations. In the words of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Pay attention, people.
For additional articles regarding Rome during World War II, see also Rome’s Fosse Ardeatine.