This morning, I spent some time digging around in the basement of the museum. It was cold. White sheets covered antique mirrors, highboys, skis, a doll stroller. Bare light bulbs hung at the end of each row, casting shallow shadows on the concrete floor. Now, I’m a huge wimp. I’m afraid of ghosts and enclosed spaces. Basements make me think of spiders and crickets and boogiemen (none of which a museum basement would have). And isn’t every piece of old furniture haunted by the hands that once touched it? Paintings? Mirrors?
Still hooked by the story of Odette Samson’s dolls, I was in search of objects made by the Italian internees housed at Fort Missoula during WWII. It felt somehow related: this question of productivity and creativity while imprisoned; a question, too, of what it means to be an enemy and how we get past this idea of “other.”
The permanent exhibition on the first floor contains an intricate model ship made by Umberto Benedetti and a tiny life jacket painted in the colors of the Italian flag. A wooden box mounted on the wall contains another model ship, smaller and more whimsical than Benedetti’s. Locally, Benedetti is probably the most famous of the Italians detained at Fort Missoula. When the U.S. joined WWII, he was working as a cabinetmaker on an Italian ocean liner in the Panama Canal. He, along with 1,200 other Italians who found themselves on American soil (or in American ports) at the outbreak of the war, was sent by train to Fort Missoula, which had previously been used to house Civilian Conservation Corps members. The Italians weren’t soldiers. They were civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: artisans and chefs stuck in New York after the 1939 World’s Fair, for instance, or ship captains. After the internees were released in 1944, many of them opted to come back to the United States as citizens. Benedetti, for example, joined the U.S. army to gain his citizenship and spent the rest of his life in Missoula. The internees called the fort Bella Vista. They played bocce and golf in the summers. They put on plays and orchestral performances for each other and for the town. They made ships and painted. They worked on farms and for the Forest Service. Which is all to say, of course, that despite their confinement, they found a way to live.
Benedetti, we know, loved Missoula. He became a local institution, before his death in 2009. But what about the other internees? What can we find out about these men from their paintings?
Back to the basement! The first three paintings I pulled from the shelves were watercolors done by Francesco Coscia, Second Officer on the Pietro Campanella, which was requisitioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in Panama (*Fun Fact: the Pietro Campanella was renamed Equipoise, after a famous race horse. Many of the ships requisitioned during the war were named after horses, particularly Kentucky Derby winners.). Coscia was held at Fort Missoula from 1941 to 1944, but I couldn’t find very much more about him in our records. My only sources of information were the paintings themselves. So what did they tell me?
Two of the three depict coastal scenes in Italy: rough coastlines and smooth, rippling water; perfect blue skies. Compositionally they’re nearly mirror images. One has two trees on the left side and the ocean to the right; the other has three trees on the right and the ocean to the left. The latter has a more severe coast—bulky rocks that might amount to small cliffs in reality. I’m not a tree expert, but someone, presumably Coscia, has written “Maritime Pines” on the back of one of the paintings. Maritime pines are native to the Mediterranean—a far cry from Montana.
The third Coscia painting, on the other hand, feels like Montana. Unlike the previous two, it has a date, 1943, and a title, Rogue River. I began to wonder if Coscia painted the other during his earlier days at Fort Missoula, when Italy was fresh on his mind. I wondered if he was homesick. If painting the Italian seascape was a way to feel connected not only to Italy but to the ocean – Coscia had been a seaman, after all. And maybe after a few years here, he started to see Montana as beautiful. Or maybe he just got used to it. Or maybe it was easier to paint the world directly in front of him. Maybe he worked on a ranch down in Hamilton or at a lookout in the Bitterroot—there are plenty of small waterfalls in the gulches down there.
After the Coscia watercolors, I unearthed an oil painting by Joe Gianatti—a quiet port, with warm stucco buildings poised just above the water, reflecting in the water, and three small red boats. The texture, thick brushstrokes rising from the canvas, was refreshing after the thinner, colder quality of the watercolors. On the back of the canvas, Gianatti left us with a title of sorts: “Martiquex (France).” And then a lovely and curious inscription, “To Miss Margery Ann Walker, Reciprocating with gratitude and admiration a nice and spontaneous act of generosity. Capt. Joe G. Gianatti / Fort Missoula, April 1943.”
I love nothing better than a good inscription when I’m researching! Who was Margery Ann Walker?! What did she do?! I ran back upstairs to the files, hoping, irrationally, that there was some kind of love story to uncover. There wasn’t. According to Margery’s son, who was in touch with the museum about the provenance of the piece, “My mother, Margery Ann Walker Van Nice, was an art student at the U [University of Montana], and involved with the Missoula art scene. She helped organize a few of the area artists to donate canvases, brushes, oils, watercolors, etc. to help the painters in the Fort arts and crafts shop get started.” I love the idea of a young student putting forth so much effort to provide a creative outlet for the Italians held during the war. It goes back to that central idea that art and expression help us to cross boundaries; to see the enemy not as “other” but as human. The Italian internees and the citizens of Missoula fostered a relationship in other instances as well and many of the Italians worked for Missoulians. One of the Coscia paintings was donated by Jacqueline Moore, the widow of William Moore, who was a border patrol officer at Fort Missoula. Notes on the provenance of the piece indicate that Mrs. Moore and the internees would bake cherry pies and bowl together, along with some of the other wives based at the Fort. Maybe it’s true what Umberto Benedetti claims in one of his autobiographical books: that Fort Missoula was the best of all the detainment campuses in the United States, that the men were treated very well. He says, specifically, “What a beautiful place to live accept there were no girls.” A great line!
The last artist I’ll mention is Rolando Madussi—because this post is already too long, not because there aren’t more paintings to talk about! While Coscia and Gianatti painted the sea, Madussi painted the Italian Alps—bald, rocky mountains foregrounded by grassy slopes and houses plucked straight from fairy tales. One, a gift, was inscribed in Italian. It says (in English): “To Commander Capt. P.S. Saglietto remembering the days spent of our imprisonment. Rolando Madussi, Fort Missoula, (U.S.A.) August 21, 1943.” We don’t know much about Madussi, or at least I don’t. But there’s a thick file about Saglietto in the archives and it includes (drum roll!) a Fort Missoula love story! Saglietto, the captain of the San Guiseppe before it was requisitioned by the U.S. in 1942, became somewhat of a mayor among the internees, liaising between them and the officers at the fort. After the war, he married Wilma Jacobson, who had been the secretary for the Border Patrol Supervisors at Fort Missoula. Like Benedetti, Saglietto opted to remain in the U.S., moving to Baltimore and, in 1947, he founded the Tidewater Commercial Company, which operated steamships. In 1966, the Baltimore Sun reported that Saglietto was awarded the Caveliere Officiale Order of Merit of Republic of Italy, for fostering goodwill between the United States and Italy. It seems like he was a natural-born leader. A pretty incredible life-story (and this is just an outline!) for someone who was detained against his will at our very own Fort!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick survey of paintings done by Italian internees! It barely scratches the surface of what life might have been like at Fort Missoula during the early 1940s, and doesn’t even begin to contemplate the lives of the Japanese aliens held at the camp, but research is like that… no matter how much you learn, there’s always an entire world of information left to uncover. I hope this has piqued your interest and given you something new to investigate.
P.S. For more, visit http://www.fortmissoulamuseum.org/aliendetention.php