May 23, 2013
By MATTHEW PRICE
Imagine an Italy without da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Such masterworks survived the ravages of time, but the coming of the Second World War presented new threats to Italy’s cultural heritage.
In “Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures From the Nazis,” Robert M. Edsel recounts how the country’s masterpieces endured years of war and occupation. First aerial bombardment, then savage ground warfare — as the Allies came ashore and fought their way up the boot against a retreating German army — threatened some of the most iconic works of Western art. Case in point: During a 1943 bombing raid on Milan, British bombs narrowly missed obliterating “The Last Supper.” The Allies’ cause may have been sure, but their aim often was less so.
There were other threats to Italian art besides bombs. The Nazis proclaimed themselves the stewards of Europe’s cultural patrimony, but this was merely a cynical cover for theft and looting. Hitler, a failed artist, dreamed of a vast museum housing Europe’s great works, and senior Nazis such as Hermann Göring were themselves collectors who coveted Italy’s masterpieces.
To protect Italian art from both bombs and Nazi greed, the Allies created a special unit of unlikely soldiers — museum directors, artists, teachers and art historians whose mission, Edsel writes, was to “minimize damage to Europe’s single greatest concentration of art, architecture and history from the ravages of war; effect repairs when possible; and locate and return stolen works of art to their rightful owners.”
These so-called “Monuments Men” trailed the British and American armies from town to town, city to city. Working from aerial photographs, others in the unit fine-tuned Allied tactics. There were successes: In March of 1944, planes dropped bombs on Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station but spared a historic church, built in 1246, that stood just 426 feet away.
Still, the challenges facing the officers of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section (MFAA) were considerable. Edsel, author of two previous books on European art during World War II, details the experiences of two Monuments Men: Capt. Dean Keller, a painter and professor of art at Yale, and Lt. Fred Hartt, an assistant at the Yale University Art Gallery. Where Keller was judicious and by the book, Hartt was an impetuous rule-breaker. They clashed but were both indispensable to the MFAA’s mission.