Salerno 1947: Barbro Nilsson

When one sees this rug for sale at auctions today, it often carries the note that the pattern was “designed for the chapel in Salerno, Italy.” But which chapel? And why?  Why is easy enough; which one has proved more difficult to answer.

Sweden was neutral during World War II, so military deaths during the war years were relatively few. But on November 18, 1947, a few years after World War II ended, Sweden’s Air Force suffered a serious loss when a Bristol 179 freighter plane crashed in late afternoon in heavy fog. The site of the crash was north of Salerno, in the Monti Latteri region. This plane carried 25 young Swedish pilots, returning from flying planes to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). The pilots’ delivery of 16 Swedish B-17 bombers to Abyssinia had been part of an ongoing Swedish commitment to help that country build and train their own air force. All but 4 flyers were killed in the crash. This sudden non-wartime loss of all these dedicated young men was an emotional blow to the Swedish nation.

Saab B-17 planes like those delivered to Ethiopia, photo from SAF article

The crash site was in an uninhabited forested region, a three-hour hike from the nearest town. That town, Scala, is located up switchbacking roads from Ravello, which is itself  about 12 miles up from Salerno, situated on Italy’s northwest coast. The first to reach the crash were local shepherds and woodsmen. Discovering that most of the plane’s passengers had been killed on impact, they cared for five survivors, who were injured, cold, and in shock, in a local forester’s hut.

Thoughout the night and into next day, local people from Scala gathered to help. The gravely wounded survivors, as well as the mangled bodies of their companions, were carried three hours down the mountain by young men using improvised stretchers, made with poles hacked from tree branches and lashed together. Many of the wounded and the dead were covered tenderly with sheepskins for the descent. Other local men had the grisly job of collecting body parts. And the women of Scala gathered up all of the scattered possessions they could find and carried them down to the Ravello police station.

The Rome correspondent for Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper arrived on the scene, and his reports communicated how shocking the crash was to the small town of Scala, and how conscientiously the entire town responded to the need. As the Stockholm evening paper, the Aftonbladet, reported the next day, “The 317 inhabitants of Scala are good, hardworking people, and despite having worked all day, they started immediately and were selflessly available. There has not been a single inhabitant of this village, young or old, man, woman or child, who has not carried on the shoulders, from the place of the accident up there on the mountains, a heavy burden.”

Young men from Scala helping with the retrieval of bodies of Swedish pilots. Contemporary newspaper photograph reprinted in SAF article, courtesy of Angelo Tajani

In Scala on November 19, the day following the crash, twenty simple coffins provided by the nearby town of Amalfi, stood outside the local baroque church. Doctors had arrived and arranged to transport the five survivors down to the Ospedale Civile in Salerno. One of the wounded died a few days later, leaving only four survivors. The Swedish envoy to Italy, stationed in Rome, had arrived, and other reporters as well. They noted how sadly and deferentially the people of Scala responded on seeing them. Donkey carts stopped, caps were doffed, children bowed, and there were murmurs of condolence for the relatives of the dead.

Duomo of San Lorenzo, medieval church of Scala, image from Wikicommons

In Sweden, the gratitude to the people of these Italian towns— both to Scala, and to Salerno— was immediate. The Swedish Air Force established and apparently continues to maintain, a kindergarten in Scala, and at the time it also contributed a sum to thank the rescuers for their efforts.

The government also commissioned the Märta Måås Fjetterström workshop to design a commemorative rug. Swedish newspaper reports from the time make it clear that this was intended for the chapel of the hospital where the survivors had been cared for, rather than for either the church in Scala or the cathedral in Salerno. Barbaro Nilsson, who was appointed to head the Märta Måås-Fjeterström weaving atelier after the founder’s death in 1941, had designed rugs for many Swedish churches, so this was a familiar format for her and for the MMF studio. This tragedy may have also resonated with Nilsson on a personal level, since her own teenage son was just a little younger than the pilots killed.

From newspaper reports, the design of the rug, “Salerno,” was presented to the hospital in April 1948 by the Swedish envoy to Italy, Christian Gunther, and was received by several hospital staff members, with the understanding that the rug itself would be delivered sometime later by Gunther along with the Mayor of Scala and others.

“Salerno” as Barbro Nilsson designed it, was a blue and white flat-weave (roläkan) rug, with small elements of purple, dark brown, and yellow. Although early in her career, Nilsson wove tapestries and rugs with figures in them, these were all designed by others. In the rugs she herself designed, she drew abstractly from nature itself. This rug designed for the hospital chapel is unusual for Nilsson in both its symmetry and also in the fact that a small figure repeated throughout has been said to represent, albeit abstractly, small airplanes, perhaps lined up in rows like the B-17 planes shown in the photograph above. Whether this was really Nilsson’s own idea or not, I don’t know. It is certainly easy to see the rug as reflecting the local landscape, with the blue representing the sea and the line of triangular elements as metaphorical mountains. But in any case, the serene composition of these elements make of this tragedy, something very lovely.

Barbro Nilsson, Salerno blå, detail of flatweave rolakän rug, showing small figure arranged in rows. This example 251 x1 96.5 cm, sold at Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm in Modern and Nordic Design Auction S210 11/16/16
Barbro Nilsson, Salerno blue flatweave, rolakän rug, designed 1948. This example 251 x1 96.5 cm, sold at Bukowskis Auction house, item 124,  in Modern and Nordic Design Auction S210, Stockholm, 11/16/16

As with nearly all of the rugs designed by the MMF atelier, this design was subsequently commissioned and woven in other colors—red, grey, tan, brown,  green— and sizes. These were for important Swedish clients: the Scandinavian Bank in Malmö, the Swedish Embassy in Brussels, Belgium, the Sweden-American Line headquarters in Gothenburg, and the textile manufacturer, H.J. Soderbergh in Uppsala. The tan version, called “Kristiansted,” was woven for a private residence in that city.

The tan rug shown above is the Salerno grä (gray) or “Kristianstad”.  This example, 327x 211 cm sold at Bukowskis Modern and Nordic Auction, 591. item # 526, 5/3/16.  The green version, 307 x222 cm  was sold at the Uppsala Auktionskammare, 6/15/16

Early on, the Salerno rug seems to have also been woven in an alternate form, still as a flat-weave rug, but without the jagged white interior section. In that case is identified as Salerno with simple border (“Salerno med enkel bärd”). It too was made in a number of colors, including blue. Below is an image of this simplified version, in red:

Barbro Nilsson, Salerno, flatweave rug, described as “cold red with simple border” (röd kall med enkel bärd), 315 x 217 cm sold at Bukowskis Modern and Nordic auction 591, item #527.

But the relationship between Sweden and Scala and Sweden and Salerno does not end with the gift of this rug. Swedish newspapers of April of 1950 report on the departure of some 75 Swedish flying cadets, instructors and technical support staff to Italy, and on succeeding days, include photos of these Swedish cadets parading in front of the Scala church. The article reports that they were greeted there by the mayor, the Swedish envoy, Gunther, and presumably most of the town, to dedicate a plaque with the names of the lost flyers of 1947. A brass band from Amalfi played variations on a Swedish song.

Swedish Air Force Cadets march in front of Scala’s Duomo, 1950. Photo from Svenska Dagbladets 4/15/1950 (vintage press photo, sold on ebay).

In November, 1954, a disastrous coastal flood in Amalfi and Salerno reawakened Swedish gratitude for the earlier support of these Italian communities. Swedish newspapers in the following weeks make repeated requests for donations of funding and children’s clothing with the appeal, “Save a child—Salerno help”.

And, sometime later, the plaque to the Swedish airmen dedicated in 1950, seems to have been given a new location. On the road leading out of Scala and uphill slightly toward the paths from which the bodies of the flyers were carried down, is a small overlook with a quiet view over the valley below. The floor of this little terrace is laid with brick, with a border of blue and yellow tiles meant to recall the colors of Sweden’s flag. Here stands a small monument with a sculpture and the plaque with the names of the victims of the crash. They were Swedish by birth, but by accident, they seem to have become part of this town as well.

Google earth streetview. Cropped-screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-43-via-vincenzo-amato-scala-campania-street-view-from-may-2015

So, we now know both the why and the where of this rug.  In 1948 the Salerno rug was designed to commemorate this tragedy, and was offered to those who had cared for the wounded at the Salerno hospital. But this event and the loss of young life seems also to have given the small community of Scala, the first-responders to the event, and the people of Sweden a reciprocal sense of care and gratitude. The history of this rug offers a small reminder that selflessness and kindness in one corner of the word can ameliorate the suffering of those in another corner of the world. It is really that care and that kindness which this rug celebrates.


Bukowskis Auctions, Stockholm.

Chicago Tribune 10/27/54 “217 in Italy die in Floods, Landslides”

email correspondence with Angelo Tajani, author of memoir of growing up in this region, Il Monello di Almalfi. He identified the hospital to which the fliers were taken as the Ospedale Civile, at that time the only hospital in Salerno, a critical piece of this puzzle since contemporary newspaper articles refer only to “the hospital” or “the hospital chapel”, but there are today some nine Salerno hospitals.

Google maps, including “street view” of the town of Scala; general location of the commemorative overlook provided by TripAdvisor in review of Hotel Zi’ntonio in Scala by “John H from Northern Ireland”‘s review of July 31, 2012 (reviewed 11/15/16)

Head, Jeffery, “Texture Hue and Pattern” in catalog for Wright auction, Design Masterworks, Nov 19, 2015 at Wright Auction house, Chicago.

Italian newspaper articles, available online:  Photos of the monument above are from this article; photographer unidentified.

1943 Salerno S.A.F. Official Page, article (in translation), “The Bristol 170 Freighter SE-BNG 12792 Scala” written May 25, 2015, accessed 11/16/16  at

The Nordic Africa Institute, article on Debre Tabor and brief history of Swedish in Ethiopia

Click to access ORTDEB205.pdf

accessed ll/16/16 p25-36

Sten Møller, Viggo. En bok om Barbro Nilsson,  Bokförlaget Trevi, Stockholm (1977).

Swedish newspaper articles: =excerpts from archives

Dagens Nyheter articles by Agne Hamrin in Italy and others in Sweden from these dates:
1947-11-20 (multiple articles, about the crash, death notices, and about the Ethiopian air force)

Aftonbladet quoted in SAF article above

Svenska Dagbladet
1948-04-07, 1948-04-08, and 1948–04-11 These mention the design of the rug and that it is to be donated later to “sjukhuskapellet”, i.e. the hospital chapel


Note: In initial AP reports, the crash was reported the plane as carrying 30 total, with 10 survivors, but these numbers were corrected in subsequent reports. A later report by one of the Italians on the hillside reported finding only five surviving, although one of the surviving pilots recalls that several men were still alive for the first few hours after the crash, but that they died before help arrived.

Uppsala Auktionskammare, Uppsala, Sweden

Wright auction house, Chicago

Wikicommons image of Duomo of Scala:

Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Salerno, 1947” theswedishrugblog (11/20/16);; accessed (day/month/year)






3 thoughts

  1. Anne, such an interesting and touching story and lovely rugs especially the simplified version. Thank you for telling it.


    1. Thank you both for your comments. My dad flew B17s out of Italy during WW2, and my mother was there too in the Red Cross, so this story resonated with me. I also see it as a small counterweight to recent American national isolationist tendencies. Kindness is clearly something understood by every nation and ethnic group.

      Sent from my iPhone



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