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Fabio Maniscalco, a Life Protecting the Beauty of Humanity

“Gold Inside” a book about the Neapolitan archeologist who sacrificed himself to safeguard cultural heritage in war zones 

fabio maniscalco

Fabio Maniscalco nel 1996 a Sarajevo all'interno del comando della Brigata Garibaldi, nell'ex ospedale pediatrico Zetra

In 1996, archeologist Fabio Maniscalco left voluntarily with the Italian army on a peace mission for a war torn Bosnia. There he organized what would later become the model for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict areas. On the eve of the conference on this topic at the United Nations, we interviewed Laura Sudiro, co-author of the book on the generous life of a courageous Italian


Perhaps you already know Italy is the country that, over the last few years, has sought to create public awareness worldwide for safeguarding cultural heritage in war zones. Maybe you know this because of a recent debate on the necessity of creating a special task force, the UN Blue Helmets for Culture, that could be deployed to protect a country’s cultural heritage during times of conflict. It was Italy that pushed for a resolution from the United Nations. In so doing, the Italian government has taken claim for the valour and experience our armed forces have in this area. Yet what almost no Italian actually knew, until the publication of a good book that we’ll tell you about in this interview, is the fact that much of this “awareness” of the Italian armed forces to defend the cultural heritage that is at risk in war zones, is also—or shall we say largely —due to the pioneering work of a Neapolitan archeologist, Fabio Maniscalco.

oro dentro

The book cover

Laura Sudiro is co-author with Giovanni Rispoli of Oro dentro. Un archeologo in trincea: Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Medio Oriente, Skira editore, 2016 (Gold Inside. An Archeologist in the Trenches: Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Middle East). This book, earning its rightful critical success in the treatment of a biography using a very original style, is about the Neapolitan researcher and archeologist who, twenty years ago, participates as an official volunteer of the Italian army who was then engaged in a peace keeping mission in a civil war torn Bosnia. There Maniscalco was committed to putting to effect, at least by the Italian armed forces, an article of the 1954 Hague International Convention, which had, until then, been ignored by all: Article 7 that sees every army has a special unit to protect cultural heritage. He would continue to put this article to effect in his subsequent missions, up to the tragic epilogue of his life.

A few months ago, the Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington organized a concert with the Band of Carabinieri Italy’s national military police boasts a specialized force for the recovery of stolen cultural heritage.  The concert in Washington was part of the “Protecting our Heritage” programme and was dedicated to all those who risked their life to preserve world cultural heritage sites for future generations. Together with American officials who during World War II contributed to saving our heritage (the Monuments Men of George Clooney’s movie of the same name), it was here they remembered custodian-martyr of Palmira Khaled al-Asaad and Fabio Maniscalco.

However before the publication of Sudiro and Rispoli’s book, the heroic figure of the researcher and archeologist had been forgotten. Now finally it seems that the institutions are realizing the very important missions conducted by Maniscalco and his sacrifice. In fact, the Neapolitan archeologist whose life is narrated by Sudiro and Rispoli using the literary style of the “novel,” died in 2008 because of his exposure to depleted uranium, leaving endless published work  on this field and tragically also the effect of his family. Oro dentro by its title describes the generous and heroic life of a great Italian among the righteous. Until, unfortunately, his tragic end. During these current efforts at the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations, Italy is organizing a special conference on safekeeping and protection strategies of cultural and artistic heritage in war zones, a conference that La Voce will report to you. A conference in the Glass Palace that if Professor Maniscalco were still alive, he would have been a key figure—of this, we are sure.

After having read the book on the life of Fabio Maniscalco, here is an interview with Oro dentro’s co-author, Laura Sudiro, journalist and specialized writer of archeology.

Laura Sudiro

Laura Sudiro

When and why did you and Giovanni Rispoli decide to write on the life of Fabio Maniscalco?

“I’ve always believed that it is the who choose us, not vice versa. And that nothing happens by chance. There is a fine thread that binds events, that causes lives to intersect. My experience with Fabio Maniscalco was this. I did not have the pleasure of meeting him because when I learned about him and about his extraordinary existence, he had already passed about a year prior. I came across his name in documents that I was consulting while preparing my marine archeology thesis, a subject area in which Fabio was a specialist. I was struck by his voluminous publications—not only those related to the protection of submerged archeological heritage but also those related to the legislation of cultural heritage in crisis areas and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict—and I asked my thesis director, Francesco Paolo Arata, about this very eclectic and prolific author. It was Prof. Arata himself who told me in general terms the story of Fabio: his missions to long-suffering countries of war of the ’90s and beginning of the years 2000; his commitment to safeguard the cultural heritage of those places, his battle with cancer—an adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, caused by exposure to the pollution during the Balkan war—to which he succumbed February 1st, 2008, at the young age of 42.

I was deeply moved and decided to find out more. I found many articles on the web, almost all focused on the final phase of this life, his illness, his nomination as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. But nothing more. Naples, his beloved Naples, seemed to have forgotten him. There weren’t even comments of the Army for which he had served in the late ’90s. There wasn’t a rationalized contribution about his value of his scientific and humanitarian legacy. A person like this, destined to be forgotten: that was absurd. In that moment I understood that I had in my hands a story that needed to be told. To fill in the gaps. A demand for justice. The rest came by itself: the first (striking) meeting in Naples with his wife, Mariarosaria Ruggiero, and their children Ludovico e Micol who at that time were small (five and three years old), the idea for the book, a novelized biography, confided to Giovanni Rispoli, my colleague and friend, the decision to write it together. Despite the difficulty with the research and a lengthy gestation, I never doubted the goodness of my intuition. And now a year after the publication of Oro dentro I continue to tell myself: it was worth it.”

Is the safeguarding of beauty, culture, art and archeological heritage for you, as it was for Fabio, an obligatory route to achieve peace in any crisis area?

“Our book closes with this statement, a rhetorical question – ‘Beauty will save the world’ – that Dostoevsky in The Idiot entrusts to the protagonist of the novel, Prince Myskin. That beauty could have a similar power is something about which we are firmly convinced, as was Fabio. But we also believe, like Salvatore Settis, that beauty will save the world only if the world is able to safeguard that beauty. A world that fosters beauty is per sé a world that repudiates any type of conflict. Fabio thoroughly understood this. It’s been twenty years now. He understood the extend to which damnatio memoriae, the destruction of cultural heritage of a people, was a weapon that was not only underrated, but an especially appalling violence because it’s capable of sparking a collective eradication process. It was precisely for this reason that Fabio attributed a considerable worth to education, training and cooperation. Teaching people to recognize and respect one another’s artistic expression, even that of the “enemy,” was for him an extraordinarily effective means to protect cultural heritage universally. And this also contributes to achieve, even through this, a world of peace.”

The United Nations have recently approved the project to establish Cultural Blue Helmets. This objective was advanced by Italy, with Minister Franceschini who had pushed hard for this project. How much of this achievement of this specialized task force by the UN is due to Maniscalco’s work from the ’90s with the Italian army in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo? How much of the credit by the Italian government and the international community has been attributed to the Neapolitan archeologist who was taken too soon?

fabio maniscalco hebron

Fabio Maniscalco with Prof Osama Hamdan of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, as they display the protective banner on the façade of a historical building in Hebron

“I’ll reply to your question with two simple words: a lot and nothing. Already in January 1996 Fabio Maniscalco, upon arriving in Sarajevo as an official on a short term, he was placed in the Public information unit – in other words, the press office – of the Garibaldi Brigade, and had the opportunity to develop this idea. The city he found before him and in which he found himself was one that was reduced to rubble, crushed by four years of assault, its symbols – first the historical national library Vijećnica – violated and struck at its core. In this still agitated climate with the Czechs still shooting, he decided he was going to try to convince his superiors of the need to carefully monitor of cultural heritage, mobile and immovable property, of the Bosnian capital as an attempt to save the salvageable. He did so calling their attention to Article 7 of the 1954 Hague Convention, an article that prescribes, point 2, the obligation to “undertake to plan or establish in peace-time, within their armed forces, services or specialist personnel whose purpose will be to secure respect for cultural property and to co-operate with the civilian authorities responsible for safeguarding it.” No army in the world, since the Second World War, has ever applied this article. The Italian Army therefore was the first. The argument should seem irresistible and was crucial. Fabio started monitoring. Alone and experimentally in Sarajevo, then in June 1997, as a team leader of an officially constituted unit with this goal, in Albania, which at the time was suffering a serious political and economic crisis that risked culminating into a civil war. His adventure in the Army, as told in the book, was not long-term. Fabio, strangely, didn’t pass the Army entrance exam required for a permanent post. So he never succeeded in living out his dream: becoming a military officer of art, that is one of the officers of the Protection of Cultural Heritage. Those same officers that accompany officials of Mibact (the Italian ministry responsible for the assets, activities, and tourism), went to create the Cultural Blue Helmets, the task forces recently instituted, long-awaited and fiercely advocated, as Minister Franceschini reminds us. In light .of these recent events we can say that he envisioned not only well but in the long-term.

To answer the second part of your question, it should be noted that the national and international scientific community has recognized the value of Fabio’s work, supporting with hundreds of signature his nomination as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. From the Italian government, on the other hand, and from institutions in general, as I said, nothing. Fabio Maniscalco remains an illustrious unknown, at least from this point of view. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Italy is a distracted country of strong contradictions.”

Blue Helmets around the world often are unable to protect civilians – if we think about Srebrenica or Ruanda or even recently South Sudan –, how can they be successful with cultural assets?

“That’s a good point. I’ll try to reply as I think Fabio would have. The only way to truly protect cultural and artistic heritage worldwide is to focus on prevention. In times of peace, or at least non-crisis times, legislation should be perfected and updated so that there will be protection in times of conflict, crisis and in the case of natural disasters. It is then that they start the monitoring and recognition of historical, artistic and archeological assets, establishing a precise textual and photographic catalogue. When bombings occur or immediately after a natural disaster – earthquakes, floodings – whatever intervention, even if it’s prompt, loses it efficacy. It’s evident. If the Cultural Blue Helmets know how to put in place in those countries in which they are called to operate their mission of preventative prevention of cultural heritage, they will already provide a great service to humanity. Moreover, I believe we cannot underestimate the importance and the utility of training activities, projecting for example specific courses on preventive protection measures and on first responder techniques to assist local police and military forces. As well ad hoc initiatives to inform and increase the awareness of the people on the significance and value of one’s own historical memory and the need to protect it for themselves and future generations.”

Your book is a cross between a novel and a news report of a life narrated by interviews with Maniscaclo’s family, friends and colleagues. For those who knew him well, what was their reaction to your book? Were you satisfied with it or was there something that you feel might be missing?

“Many have told us reading the book they saw once again the Fabio they knew. They felt him living in the pages of our book. They saw those places in which he lived and about which he spoke upon returning from missions. As if they were watching a movie, the movie of his life. Let’s say these comments are more than enough to be satisfied.”

Indeed, an actual film. Fabio Maniscalco’s story would be a great one for the big screen, a story even Italians abroad could be proud.

“Actually, the screenplay is already done. We are looking for a producer.”

Fabio Maniscalco died in 2008, at the age of 43, from a tumor caused by his work in the war zones of the former Jugoslavia. Does this books serves to raise awareness for the rights of those who have suffered and continue suffer the consequences of some bad choices? In the book you talk about Italian soldiers wearing only coveralls and gloves who were completely unprotected from the effects caused by the bombings, weapons that were made of depleted uranium while other NATO soldiers  were informed and protected… Is your book making an impact on this charge?

“Let’s say that it has contributed, together with another story that is as strong as that of Fabio’s, to break that wall of silence that was erected on the matter of depleted uranium. Along the time when the book was sent to the publishers, the Appeals Court in Rome reached a historical verdict that established “in terms of unequivocal certainty” – with respect to a soldier who died after his missions in the former Jugoslavia – the causality of pathological tumors and the exposure to the residue of depleted uranium in the Balkans, condemning effectively the Minister of Defense to punitive damages.

After that sentence, others followed along the same lines. The case remains open, and was the first encouraging result for families of the victims, for those who became ill, for everyone who died in what I consider a battle for civilization. I think first of all in this regard of the mission of the Military Observatory directed by Mimmo Leggiero and operated by the anti-war Sardinian unit “Gettiamo le Basi” (literally, let’s lay the foundation) that for some time has spoke out against the activities of the test sites Nato di Capo Frasca, Capo Teulada and Salto di Quirra and the suspected deaths of solders and neighboring resident civilians.

In short, our book added an additional piece to the puzzle, another little drop that will break years of silence, omissions and deception.”

Fabio Maniscalco

Fabio Maniscalco on his wedding day

The Army didn’t confirm Fabio Maniscalco despite his precious work, then the Università Orientale of Naples seemed to have isolated him… Do you believe that someone should apologize for having hindered Maniscalco’s mission? Or is this just part and parcel of the difficulties that in Italy many generations have had trying to establish themselves in a career they love?

“Of the two, only one. Either you accept that Fabio Maniscalco was simply a very unfortunate man, victim of the mala tempora that take a heavy toll on the dreams of recent generations, or it is fair to suppose that in both of his world, the Army and Academia, there are mechanisms at play that I wouldn’t say marginalize the best, as often it happens, but it truly troubles them. Fabio was without a doubt inconvenience. An element that was perhaps destabilizing for military formalism, a disposition that wasn’t very inclined to be dictated by the powers above. He was accustomed to doing his own thing. The logic of compromise wasn’t part of his repertoire, just as a certain complacency was foreign to him, that was lauded and sought-after in certain circles. I’m led to believe that that side of his personality, in a system base on susceptibility and envy, would not have been good for him. In any case, I think that if he hadn’t died, sooner or later he would have received a professorship, something he sought at the Università Orientale of Naples. Late, but it would have happened. He had passion, intelligence, a wealth of publications, certificates of merit received on the field. And a determination, I dare say, that was disarming. All he lacked was time.”

Is there a text from Maniscalco that could help guide the work of the Blue Helmets who are to protect the cultural heritage in crisis areas?

“Indeed there is. One of his last works. The last number, the sixth, of the monographic collection that he created and edited, published by Massa Editore. The volume, a double issue in Italian and English, is called World Heritage and War, and traces with clarity and comprehensively, the guidelines for safeguarding missions of cultural heritage, mobile and immovable, in areas that are at risk for war. It is a manual, easy to read, that supplements a robust information system with immediate practical application. Another one of Fabio Maniscalco’s works. Innovative and also along these lines, unique in its genre.”

If he had lived, what else would he have been able to do?

“Fabio was a pioneer in studies of this nature. Archeology for him was not simply a profession. It was a way in which he was able to be of service. It was civil passion and love. Love for humanity. His total abnegation can be explained only as such. If he had lived, he would have continued to fight on the front line. Against ignorance, against bureaucracy and the unwieldy mechanisms of politics and international organizations.  He would have continued to write, to condemn, to inform. He would have used all the new possibilities available because of the web and social networks to make sure his message would be sent everywhere. Most importantly, he would have continued to travel, to visit those sites, to see with his own eyes the wounds inflicted to the cultural heritage of the people. Theory and practice, study and experimentation were for him inseparable pairings. This is what made him special. It’s his story, a story worthy of being told.”

Translated by Enza Antenos


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