Robert Edsel for The Daily Beast: WWII’s Guardians of the Lost Art: The Artist Warriors Who Protected Italy’s Cultural Artifacts

May 16th, 2013

The Daily Beast
May 16, 2013
By Robert Edsel

Italy has long been identified by its cultural treasures; Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is but one. Its ancient cities—Rome, Syracuse, and Pompeii; jewel-box towns—Venice, San Gimignano, and Urbino; places of worship—St. Peter’s Basilica, Florence’s Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore), and Padua’s Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel; and iconic monuments—the Colosseum, Leaning Tower, and Ponte Vecchio, have been so studied and admired through literature, verse, and image that they have become the shared heritage of all mankind.
Deane Keller with Botticelli’s Primavera.1368720624809.cached

As events in Milan demonstrated, World War II and the new technology of aerial bombardment—in particular, incendiary weapons—posed history’s most lethal threat to that heritage. When the Allies landed in Sicily on the night of July 9–10, 1943, another threat emerged: ground warfare. The Germans were determined to concede not an inch of Italian soil. How many more monuments, churches, libraries, and immovable works of art lay in the path of war? Even then, as the bombing of The Last Supper illustrated, the Western Allies were not immune from mistakes in judgment and execution.

War is many things, but above all, it is messy. Rarely does it unfold as planned. Prime Minister Winston Churchill once observed: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.” Ethical dilemmas arise. Loyalties are tested, but loyalties to whom? Country, cause, or self ? The effort to protect Italy’s cultural treasures during war lived up to Churchill’s admonition.

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