The Italian memorial of Auschwitz

The work

The Memorial was desired, designed and placed in Block 21 of the Auschwitz camp by ANED (National Association of Former Deportees to Nazi Camps) thanks to the collaboration of an exceptional group of intellectuals, and is one of the first multimedia installations in the world.

The History

Set up in Auschwitz in 1979 and inaugurated the following spring, the “Memorial in Honor of Italians Murdered in Nazi Camps” was designed by a group that brought together some of the greatest personalities in Italian culture: architect Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, survivor of Gusen; writer Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz; film director Nelo Risi; painter Mario Pupino Samonà; and musician Luigi Nono. Built by Giordano Quattri’s firm in July-September 1979, it was inaugurated in April 1980.

In 2011, the management of the Auschwitz Museum closed Block 21, considering the Italian national exhibit to be purely artistic and devoid of historical value. The BBPR Memorial must be dismantled and moved, otherwise be destroyed. The attempt to save it in its original location by historians, restorers, architects, art historians and civil society continued until 2014, when the national ANED found a suitable place to host it in Tuscany, in Florence, thanks to the availability of the City of Florence and the Region of Tuscany. The Memorial’s destination site is a city-owned building in District 3, in the former Longinotti industrial area, repurposed with construction work fully financed by the Region; the relocation project is by architect Alberico Belgiojoso.

In 2015, Mibact, the Region of Tuscany, the City of Florence, and Aned signed a protocol to protect and enhance the Memorial in the plurality of its historical, artistic, and civil memory meanings and to return it to public use.

The work has undergone careful restoration by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, financed by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. The work on the Memorial represents a unique case of restoration of a piece of contemporary art, considering both its large size and its multimedia characteristics. The relocation project, in addition to the joint work between the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, the Region of Tuscany, the City of Florence, and Aned, the owner of the work, was also supported by Fondazione CR Firenze, Firenze Fiera, Studio Belgiojoso, Cooperativa Archeologia, Unicoop Firenze, K-Array, and Tempo Reale. In April 2023, the work obtained a declaration of cultural interest from the Superintendence, in accordance with Art. 10, c.3 letter d of the Cultural Heritage Code. The new home of the Italian Auschwitz Memorial, which opened in Florence on May 8, 2019, is now enriched by a museum itinerary on the history of the 20th century that has no parallel in Italy.

“In our project, we have endeavored to recreate, allusively, a nightmarish atmosphere, the nightmare of the deported torn between the near certainty of death and the tenuous hope of survival, by means of a path that pass through the hell of an endless series of coils of a large illustrated helical band, which accompanies the visitor from beginning to end. It is the idea of a unified, obsessive space, realized with a rhythm of alternating zones of light and shadow equidistant from each other, also allowing the vision, through windows of the other “Blocks” of the field, an equally obsessive vision.”

Lodovico Belgiojoso

The project

The project was entrusted to the BBPR studio, the group of Italian architects formed in 1932 by Gian Luigi Banfi (1910 – 1945), Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso (1909 – 2004), Enrico Peressutti (1908 – 1976), and Ernesto Nathan Rogers (1909 – 1969), who had matured their antifascist choice in the late 1930s. During the war Peressutti joined the Justice and Freedom movement, Belgiojoso and Banfi were deported to Gusen, from where only Belgiojoso returned, while Rogers, who was Jewish, was forced into exile.

In August 1975, the group of architects illustrated the first architectural idea for the Memorial, in in which the choice of the spiral propeller serves to make the visitor a part of the work and thus a protagonist of the story represented. In 1978, the Aned Operating Committee for the Memorial, chaired by Gianfranco Maris, commissioned Primo Levi to draft a text as a canvas for the work. The Memorial project is shared by Aned, the Jewish Community of Milan and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and in January 1979 the Operating Committee involved film director Nelo Risi and painter Mario Pupino Samonà in the work, while in 1980, Luigi Nono was granted permanent use of his piece “Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz”, composed in 1966. The work is made possible thanks to contributions from Aned, labor unions, partisan associations and Jewish communities. On April 13, 1980, the Memorial was inaugurated in Auschwitz Block 21: 644 square meters, on which a spiral formed by canvases ranging in length from 900 to 1100 cm stretched for 46 meters.

The multimedia art installation invites a total experience, Mario Pupino Samonà mainly uses the airbrush technique with yellow, red and black colors, with large circles on a white-gray background. But the abstract composition of colors is constantly interspersed with real figures, narrating the history of Italy and the lives of deportees. The visitor, while walking in the Belgiojoso spiral, listens to Nono’s music, reads Levi’s text and looks at Samonà’s canvases.