Art for art’s sake in wartime Italy

Art for art’s sake in wartime Italy

For the JC April 2024

“He looked me over, assessed my wristwatch, considered my shoes and the likely cost of my hairdo, and tried to decide if I came from a family worth talking to; such is Italy”.

In one crisp sentence, Derek B Miller sets the reader off on a magical mystery tour, revolving around one of the greatest and most important battles of the Second World War, Montecassino.

Miller’s award-winning debut novel, Norwegian by Night, featured an old man and a six-year-old boy, where the old man, the deliciously grumpy Sheldon Horowitz, revives the warcraft skills he thought were moribund, in order to save the child.

In The Curse of Pietro Houdini, there is a similar device —an older man, Pietro, who has a mysterious past — and a somewhat older young person, the central protagonist, 14-year-old Massimo. The pair first encounter each other after the Nazi bombing of Rome in 1943, and Pietro Houdini, a somewhat reluctant rescuer, takes Massimo to the towering building that is the monastery of Monte Cassino, where they find initial shelter among the monks.

But — as with every Miller novel — all is not as it seems. The monastery, hundreds of years old, has become the repository of centuries’ worth of priceless art. And that being the case, the Nazis focus on the art collection which they are determined to loot. Pietro, however, is just as determined to salvage some of the artworks.

Together with Massimo and an unlikely cast of random characters — plus Ferrari, a heroic mule — Pietro Houdini leads a ragtag band out of the monastery as the Allies, led by the Americans, bomb and assault the abbey in their effort to destroy the Nazis who now occupy it.

Houdini is not, of course, the wily Pietro’s real name, but one he has adopted in part homage to the world-famous escape artist. We do discover his real identity eventually — and Massimo also undergoes some name and identity changes.

Montecassino was a famous — or perhaps that should be infamous — battle towards the end of the war, frequently referenced by American veterans, but not necessarily with the same resonance in Britain. It resulted in the destruction of the monastery, which was rebuilt after the war. Many of the artworks stolen by the Nazis — and removed from the monastery in a meticulous German operation in February 1944, with the promise that they would be stored in the Vatican — were recovered by the American Monuments Men in July 1945, hidden in a salt mine, 70 kilometres from Salzburg.

Miller, in this novel, has tried to answer the “what if” question about art which was not recovered. He has forensically re-created both the wholesale Nazi theft and the terror experienced by ordinary Italian citizens, (including Jews) as the Allies pounded the area. And along the way we get a healthy dose of philosophy, resilience and survival techniques — plus a sardonic description of the adult that Massimo becomes, wristwatch, shoes and all, knowing what shaped his adolescence.

We also discover, of course, what exactly was Pietro Houdini’s curse.

The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B Miller is published by Doubleday at £20

  • 7 April, 2024