In a brilliant and well-researched article in the Italian daily, Il Foglio, of 16 April 2011, Paolo Rodari recalled the figure of Hermine Speier. Born in 1898, the Jewish-German archaeologist came to Rome in 1928, and Pope Pius xi brought her to the Vatican in 1934, “to put the photographic archives of our museums in order”. Speier subsequently dedicated to those Vatican Museums the first volume of a basic “Guide to the public collections of classical art in Rome” (Führer durch die offentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom).
Altogether, Speier published four volumes between 1963 and 1972. The books appeared as the fourth edition of the popular work by Wolfgang Helbig (1891, 1899) which had previously been reprinted in 1912-1913 by Walther Amelung, Emil Reisch and Fritz Weege.
Rodari sketches a well-rounded portrait of this “woman who was full of life and vitality”, a new and atypical figure in the world of the Vatican at that time, closed to women, by drawing on the testimony of those who knew her, such as Oriol Schädel, the director of the Libreria Herder German publishing house in Rome, and Gudrun Sailer, journalist of the German programme of Vatican Radio (who recently gave a detailed reconstruction of the life of Speier to the National Geographic Channel’s documentary, “Vatican: Hidden World”).
Speier has also left her mark in Roman memoirs of the 20th century, from Römische Memoiren by Ludwig Pollak (Rome, L’Erma di Bretschnieder, 1994) to Storia della mia vita by Hubert Jedin (Brescia, Morcelliana, 1987). Jedin was the great historian of the Council of Trent, whose closest German friends in Rome were Ludwig Curtius (1874-1954) and Speier.
Jedin wrote of Curtius, who was dismissed by the Nazis from the directorship of the German Archeological Institute in Rome due to its relationship with non-Aryan people: “Curtius was able to remain in Rome as a true ambassador of the most authentic German spirit. Hermine Speier, his former student, originally from Frankfurt, had been fired from the directorship of the extremely large photographic department of the Institute because of her Jewish origins. Through Curtius’ recommendation, she was hired by the Director General of the Vatican Museums, Bartolomeo Nogara, to set up and reorganize a photography section in the Museums. In the beginning, there was no fixed contract but rather, as Speier herself noted, ‘pay by the day’. Despite the fact that Speier sorted out in an exemplary way the chaotic collection of thousands of photographs of museum pieces, ancient and non-ancient, that had piled up over the years, she was forced to take on other jobs in order to make ends meet. So she gave lessons and read aloud to Gaetano De Sanctis, the professor of ancient history who had gone blind. Throughout those years she was a dear and understanding friend in whom I could confide. From the terrace above her apartment near Sant’Onofrio on the Janiculum, one could admire a marvellous view of the city of Rome”.
When, in October 1943, Nazi ferocity lashed out against the Jewish community of Rome, Jedin was relieved to learn that Speier had been moved to the Catacombs of St Priscilla on the Via Salaria, to stay with the nuns there. “The director of the house, Mons. Giulio Belvederi, nephew of the Pontifical Master of Ceremonies Respinghi, arranged for her to go there. The hiding place was extremely safe: in the event that the house were requisitioned, Speier and the other “evaders” could escape through a secret passage into the nearby catacombs, which had served a similar purpose for persecuted Christians centuries before”.
But a solemn and unforgettable moment was approaching. On 13 December 1944, Curtius celebrated his 70th birthday. “Together with Miss Speier”, Jedin wrote, “and with Bruno Wüstenberg and Paul Georg Berndorff, I went to his house early, around 8 a.m. The “Club of Memories” (the group to whom Curtius would later read the first chapters of his memoirs) had prepared as a surprise Mozart’s flute concerto which moved him to tears. Music, he said at the end, is the harmony that is not achieved in nature. At 11:00, I accompanied him to an audience with the Pope, from which he left after twenty minutes very satisfied. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the Director of the Swedish Institute, Erik Sjoqvist, gave a reception in his honour, at which there were around 120 people from 16 different nations. Several people spoke on that occasion: the Director General of the Vatican Museums, Nogara; Mr Jean Rodolphe von Salis from the Red Cross; Paolino Mingazzini for the Italians and Miss Speier, on behalf of his students”.
Curtius thanked them with the motto of the Templars, from Psalm 115, “Non nobis,” remembering “all those to whom he was indebted for his spiritual life, his ‘being like this’. Given the historical moment, Curtius’ party was much more than just homage to a single person; it was an act of recognizing the German spirit, despite all of the atrocities committed by Hitler and his men”.
With the war over and persecution ended, Spinnie (as Speier was called by her German friends) converted to Catholicism. Her family, dispersed between England and the United States, broke all ties with her, but in her sitting room where Dante was read and Johann Joachim Winckelmann discussed, there continued to be a confluence of “the best of the German presence in Rome…. Notables, artists, diplomats, politicians, men of varied culture, and even various bishops and cardinals”. A world which, though mercilessly thinned out, accompanied her in 1989 to her final resting place in the Campo Santo Teutonico, that “nest of swallows in the shadow of the Dome” (as Anton de Waal defined the Campo Santo Teutonico [German Cemetery]) where the “Teutones in pace” await the resurrection.
The story of Speier can be read in different ways and from a variety of perspectives: as a page in the history of intellectual Jewish emigration from Germany, as a remarkable step in the affirmation of a feminine presence in the Vatican, or as an important moment in the work undertaken by the Holy See in the 1930s and 40s to aid a persecuted minority (in this vein, how can one fail to remember the work of Giovanni Mercati, over the same period, in the Vatican Library by welcoming and by helping Jewish scholars ostracized from their countries, under the eye and with the full consent of Pope Ratti?). But it is the story of the archaeologist which, at closer look, appears to be a parable rich in significance: A German Jew, a Classics student, found refuge in the Vatican during the dark night of 20th-century barbarism, and discovered in the shadow of St Peter’s a place in which to preserve and witness to the sense of that humanism which is the highest inheritance of the “most authentic German spirit”. Far from any convenient simplification this meeting of German humanism, Judaism and Christianity is one on which to reflect and meditate.
April 19, 2011