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Troops encountered ruin across Europe (in Palermo, the bombed-out church of Sant’Ignazio). In that city, recalled war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, “buildings were smashed into the street as far as one could see.” (National Archives 239-RC-90-3)

How the Monuments Men Saved Italy’s Treasures

As Allied Forces fought the Nazis for control of Europe, an unlikely unit of American and British art experts waged a shadow campaign

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Hartt settled at Montegufoni. As he waited anxiously for the liberation of Florence, he assessed artworks found in nearby castles and villas. “We often stopped operations just to stand and admire,” recalled Capt. Sheldon Pennoyer, an American painter who had joined Hartt there from Rome. At night, a woman from the village prepared meals that were a happy fusion of army rations and vegetables from the castle’s kitchen garden. “Candle failure was a signal to turn in,” Pennoyer wrote.

On August 4 the first Allied soldiers entered Florence. With its northern neighborhoods still heavily defended by German troops, the city was considered unsafe. Monuments Officer and British archivist Roger Ellis was allowed into Florence for only a few hours—enough to report that all major churches were intact and to peer behind the wall of sandbags protecting Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel and find them unharmed.

This was promising news, but a fortnight later, Hartt returned to a landscape of ruin. Five of the city’s bridges—among them the medieval Ponte alla Carraia and Ponte alle Grazie, and the Renaissance Ponte Santa Trinita—had been mined and destroyed by retreating German forces. Only the Ponte Vecchio had been spared, but the area surrounding it, one-third of the city’s medieval heart, had been razed by the explosions. Hartt made it his mission to salvage what was left of it; Capt. Roderick Enthoven, a bespectacled British architect, valiantly resisted the army engineers who wanted to pull down the damaged Torre degli Amidei. The medieval tower was shored up, restored and stands to this day in Por Santa Maria Street, one of the few extant vestiges of medieval Florence.

For one year, Hartt lived in Florence, a guest of the aristocratic Corsini family in their palazzo on the Arno. He spent his days driving around Tuscany in his quest to rehabilitate its war-scarred historic buildings; for protection against the cutting winds of the Apennines, he wore a heavy winter coat lined with lamb’s wool, a gift from a local farmer. At night, he regaled Princess Lucrezia Corsini and her children with his adventures.

Through the autumn and winter of 1944, he and his fellow Venus Fixers tried to track down a large number of artworks that, unlike the pictures fortuitously found at Montegufoni, had disappeared behind enemy lines. “Stolen,” was how Hartt summed up the German-orchestrated transport of holdings from the Villa of Poggio a Caiano and other Tuscan art depositories in the summer of 1944. Artworks had been looted under orders of the German colonel Alexander Langsdorff.

Eventually, more than 500 paintings and sculptures were uncovered in South Tyrol after the German surrender on May 2, 1945. Loaded on 13 cars of a train that was the first to cross the River Po after the war ended, the Florentine artworks returned home on July 22, 1945. As trucks carrying the treasures slowly rumbled down the streets of Florence, Keller, who had worked for two months to arrange their repatriation, expressed his sense of “Blessed Relief!”

That emotion would be colored by a tinge of melancholy as the Monuments Officers left Italy by late 1945. Eager to return to peacetime, and their families, they rarely spoke about their wartime service. A few stories became family lore. Basil Marriott’s relations recalled that he had helped put the roof back on Palladio’s basilica in Vicenza and return the equestrian sculptures to St. Mark’s Square in Venice. “Is this a soldier’s tale?” one of his nephews would wonder.

Deane Keller resumed his studio-art instruction at Yale as well as his parallel career as a portrait artist—the “Eakins of Yale,” as a colleague described him. Ernest De Wald taught art and archaeology at Princeton and directed the university’s art museum until his retirement in 1960. Teddy Croft-Murray resumed his scholarly pursuits and curatorial duties at the British Museum. At the time of his death, in 1980, he had nearly completed the catalog of the museum’s collection of British drawings.

Frederick Hartt held appointments at various American universities; his History of Italian Renaissance Art, first published in 1969, remains a textbook classic. By a strange twist of fate, Hartt was able to help Florence not once but twice in his lifetime. In the aftermath of the disastrous flood of 1966, he rushed to the devastated city, worked side by side with his good friend from their wartime days, Ugo Procacci, and raised funds in the United States to help restore dozens of damaged artworks. Florence made him an honorary citizen; and while Deane Keller’s ashes are buried in the Camposanto in Pisa, Hartt rests in the Porte Sante cemetery in Florence.

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To this day, a romantic aura surrounds the adventures of the Monuments Officers. Even the humdrum aspect of their work—the retrieval of broken pieces and the patient checking of lists of artworks—had an aspect of derring-do, because what was at stake was nothing less than the survival of Italian civilization. The Monuments Officers were “remarkable people who
refused to let the greatest achievements of the past become casualties of a horrific war,” notes Keith Christiansen, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was “the presence of Allied officers familiar with the cultural heritage of the nation that gave local authorities” as postwar restoration began, says Lynn H. Nicholas, author of the seminal The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.

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The recent discovery of some 1,500 pictures in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, is a painful reminder, nearly 70 years from the end of World War II, that these were a very few men tasked with a colossal job. The men of the arts unit couldn’t avoid the destruction of the Abbey of Montecassino—an instance of “military necessity”—or the pulverization of Mantegna’s Ovetari Chapel in Padua.

But monuments that were given up for lost, including the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, a jewel of Renaissance architecture by Leon Battista Alberti, were restored beautifully after the war, thanks largely to the Venus Fixers’ painstaking retrieval of the church’s smashed walls and decoration. The same can be said of many of the 17th-century palaces of Turin and Genoa and the Baroque churches of Palermo, all carefully reconstructed from heaps of smoking rubble.

The significance of their work isn’t lost on Italian officials to this day. By visiting even the smallest villages and remote hamlets, the Venus Fixers understood what Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, describes as the “pervasive quality of Italian art”: a beauty that doesn’t reside exclusively in major museums but can be found in a narrow Neapolitan alley or a little Umbrian hill town.

If Italian cities today look as beautiful as they do, that is thanks to the Monuments Officers’ campaign. What jubilant Florentines shouted when their artworks re-entered the city expresses what the whole of Italy owes the Venus Fixers: “Grazie!”

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