What if the Monuments Men missed a trove of Nazi-looted art under the city of Rome? This is the premise of my newest Flora Garibaldi mystery, Catacomb (March 2016).
Thousands of art works were looted from museums, churches, and private homes all over Europe by Adolf Hitler and his minions. By the end of World War II, much of the art remained stashed in underground tunnels, uninhabited buildings, and salt mines. Recruited by the Allied Forces, a small army of art historians and museum personnel took on the arduous and dangerous task of locating missing art, moving it to safe locations, and beginning the long process of returning the art to original owners.
In Catacomb, Flora is recruited by her policeman boyfriend, Vittorio Bernini, to join the Carabinieri team of officers and art experts to locate the missing art. The only clue they have is that it is “somewhere in the catacombs,” which means searching hundreds of kilometers of tunnels. Flora joins the archivists, trying to pinpoint the names, neighborhoods, and preferred burial places of Jewish art owners living in Rome during the 1940s. Unfortunately, the scanty documentation they find is uncatalogued, un-digitized, and scattered in libraries and archives all over Rome. Vittorio’s team, including archaeologist and museum director Lisa Donahue and conservator Ellen Perkins (heroines of my previous archaeology series) discover that searching the catacombs is not enough: the art could be in other underground places such as ancient Roman quarries and aqueducts, or crumbling niches off modern subway tunnels.
The search turns dangerous when Flora is followed in the first catacomb she visits and then a colleague of Vittorio’s is murdered in a subway station. People outside the Carabinieri are looking for the same art trove, and they appear to have insider knowledge…
My research for this book took me on wonderful tangents, such as creating the diary of a Frenchwoman from a Jewish family of art owners who leaves Paris to marry an Italian. I also used true stories: the Italian diversion of Nazi trucks loaded with art intended for Hitler’s collection in Berlin, and the discovery of vast amounts of art in the apartment of art dealer Cornelius Gurlitt (I moved the apartment from Munich to Rome, and changed the name of the art dealer).
And writing this sequel to Burnt Siena gave me the perfect excuse to revisit Rome, virtually imbibing and eating my way through yet another amazing Italian city.