The Italian embassy in London is now pursuing a claim for the Benevento Missal, which was looted during World War II and ended up in the British Library. (The Art Newspaper revealed the details of the case last year, No. 105, July-August 2000, pp. 1 and 5.) Meanwhile further evidence has emerged to show that the 12th-century manuscript was taken from a pontifical seminary which had been requisitioned by British troops.
The archbishop of Benevento, Serafino Sprovieri, told us that, following discussions with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Vatican, it has been decided that Italian embassy officials should hold discussions with the British Library over the claim. On 22 November initial exploratory talks took place in London between Italian embassy First Secretary Stefano Dejak and British Library Director of Special Collections, Alice Prochaska. The Archbishop of Benevento has now been invited to London to visit the Library.
The richly illuminated missal disappeared soon after the bombing of Benevento cathedral and its library in September 1943. The following year it was bought by a British army officer, Captain D.G. Ash, who said that he had acquired it from a bookdealer in Naples. Captain Ash sold the missal at Sotheby’s in 1947, when it was bought in good faith by the British Museum Library (which later became the British Library). At the time of the purchase there was no evidence that the manuscript had come from Benevento’s Biblioteca Capitolare.
Archbishop Sprovieri told us that the return of the missal would be a symbolic gesture of reconciliation to help heal the wounds of the war, as well as “bringing the Catholic Church and the Church of England closer together”. He then escorted us to the chapter library, where Monsignore Lauro Maio opened the heavy steel cabinet in which the ancient codices are stored. The librarian showed us the gap where the missal, with the shelfmark no. 29, would once have been.
The Art Newspaper found further evidence that the missal was looted during the war. First of all, there is confirmation that the manuscript was still in the chapter library in 1940. That year the librarian, Monsignore Salvatore De Lucia, published a pamphlet, La Biblioteca Capitolare di Benevento, in which he records that there were three missals containing musical notation. Although he does not name them, the only three had shelfmark numbers 29, 30 and 33, which included the manuscript now in the British Library.
We have also tracked down a rare copy of a wartime diary written by De Lucia and published in 1946, Benevento nel Turbine della Guerra. He records that the first bombs fell just outside the town on 21 August 1943, and three days later he wrapped each of the ancient manuscripts in cloth, and then covered the cabinets in which they were stored with planks and sacks of sand to protect them.
On 12-14 September the cathedral and the archbishop’s palace were bombed and reduced to rubble. The archbishop miraculously survived, and he and the chapter librarian were forced to flee to the neighbouring town of San Angelo in Cupolo. There was then fierce fighting in Benevento, and on 2 October the German troops began to retreat. When De Lucia returned to Benevento on 8 October he found that “the chapter library, by the grace of God, has been saved”, although its roof had been damaged. That day the ancient codices were removed from the cabinet beneath the sandbags, and taken to the archbishop’s seminary.
The Art Newspaper has interviewed the man who helped save the library’s priceless collection of manuscripts. Giovanni Giordano, now aged 79, was secretary to Archbishop Agostino Mancinelli during the war. He told us how he helped move the manuscripts from the library to the seminary, the Pontificio Seminario Regionale Pio IX in the Viale degli Atlantici, which is one kilometre out of town. There was no transport, and in any case the roads were impassable because of the bombing. Mr Giordano recalls carrying the manuscripts in wooden fruit boxes. At the seminary, the boxes were hidden in an attic.
British troops reached Benevento later in October 1943 and requisitioned the seminary for use as a military hospital. The manuscripts were left locked in the attic, since the cathedral authorities hoped they would be as safe there as anywhere in the war-devastated town. The premises were guarded by British troops and it was also thought that as it was a hospital, the large red cross draped over the roof would help protect the building from any further bombing raids.
Although the rest of the manuscripts remained safe and were transferred back to the chapter library after the war, no. 29 had already been acquired by Captain Ash in 1944. It is therefore most likely that it disappeared from the seminary while it was occupied by British troops. In the 1960s the seminary building was sold and is now a training college for the carabinieri.
The loss of the missal was noted after the war, but it was not until 1961 that French scholars G. Benoit-Castelli and René Hesbert identified it as the one in London. Although this news was passed to the archbishop’s office, no action seems to have been taken. The issue was not pursued until 1976, when Professor Virginia Brown informed librarian Monsignore Angelo Ferrara on the whereabouts of the missing manuscript. A year later a legal claim was submitted to the British Library, but it was rejected on two legal grounds: the statute of limitations had expired and the library was prohibited from deaccessioning.
Earlier this year, the UK government set up the Spoliation Advisory Panel and there is now a wish to ensure that legal technicalities do not get in the way of wider issues of justice. The British Library, which is currently researching its collection for items with an uncertain provenance for the 1933-45 period, has all along acted in good faith over the Benevento Missal and is happy to enter into discussions over the Italian claim. Last month Archbishop Sprovieri admitted that “it may be a long road to the finishing line”.