Trapani! Trapani, don’t you see?” Capt. Edward Croft-Murray exclaimed as the skyline of the Sicilian coastal town first appeared through the porthole of the Allied aircraft. Sitting next to him, Maj. Lionel Fielden, who had been drifting off into daydream for much of the flight from Tunis, opened his eyes to the landscape below. “And there, below us,” Fielden later wrote, “swam through the sea a crescent of sunwashed white houses, lavender hillsides and rust red roofs, and a high campanile whose bells, soft across the water, stole to the mental ear. No country in the world has, for me, the breathtaking beauty of Italy.”
From This Story
It was the fall of 1943. A couple of months earlier, the Sicilian landings of July 10 had marked the beginning of the Allied Italian campaign. The two British officers, who had met and become instant friends during the recently concluded push to drive the Germans from North Africa, were assigned to the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT), which took over control of Italy as the country was being liberated by the Allies. Edward “Teddy” Croft-Murray, who in civilian life was a curator of prints and drawings at the British Museum in London, belonged to the small Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) unit inside AMGOT. Its task—dramatized in George Clooney’s new film, The Monuments Men, celebrating the unit’s exploits—would be to safeguard landmarks and works of art from war damage. Croft-Murray had, Fielden wrote in his memoirs, a “twinkling eye in a large face which was attached to the most untidy imaginable body...the Ancient Monument he called himself. God be praised, I said, for someone like this.”
Fielden’s enthusiasm wasn’t shared by all in the Allied armies. AMGOT officers, who were considerably older than the average G.I., were rather unkindly dubbed “Aged Military Gentlemen on Tour” by their own army. The Monuments Officers in particular stood out as an oddity. They were art historians, architects, artists, archaeologists and archivists: a straight civilian lot who had no business, in the eyes of many soldiers, moving around a theater of war telling colonels and generals what not to bomb. The unit consisted of two men at the start of operations in Italy; their numbers would reach 27 by completion of the campaign there. Almost as soon as they set foot in the country they were nicknamed “the Venus Fixers.”
The idea of safeguarding European art from damage was unprecedented in modern warfare. The brainchild of experts associated with American museums, the concept was embraced by President Roosevelt, who established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. The commission assisted the War Department by providing maps of European cities and towns where significant monuments and religious sites were highlighted, to be used by bombing crews and commanders when planning operations. In Britain, Prime Minister Churchill approved a parallel committee in the spring of 1944. Like all sections of the Allied military government, the MFAA would be composed nearly equally of American and British officers. The commission selected a few enlisted men to serve in Italy with the Allied armies—MFAA ranks would increase to more than 80 as the war progressed across Europe and reached France, Austria and Germany—and charged them to report on and bring first aid to damaged buildings and art treasures, and indoctrinate troops on the cultural heritage of Italy.
As soon as the first Monuments Officers reached Sicily, the implications of such a mandate proved as difficult as its scope was vast. The Italian campaign, predicted to be swift by Allied commanders, turned into a 22-month slog. The whole of Italy became a battlefield. In the path of the Allied armies, as troops slowly made their ascent from Sicily to the Alps, lay many beautiful cities, ancient little towns and innumerable masterpieces. As General Mark Clark declared with frustration, fighting in Italy amounted to conducting war “in a goddamn museum.”
The Venus Fixers fought to preserve that museum while dodging German mines and Allied bombs, armed with highly unconventional weapons: Baedeker guides, insatiable curiosity and sturdy legs. Although their transportation was far from adequate throughout the entire campaign, by the end of it they would canvass the Italian peninsula from east to west and north to south and initiate repair work on 700 historic buildings. Their mission in Italy was an art lover’s nightmare and dream all in one.
In Sicily, Monuments Officers encountered utter destruction in the main coastal towns, while the interior of the island, and its ancient Greek temples, were unscathed. Palermo had suffered greatly from the intense Allied raids that had preceded the landings; “spectral” and “ghostly” are terms that recur persistently in the Venus Fixers’ early reports on the city’s Baroque churches. For the first time in Sicily, MFAA officers had the disheartening experience of walking along a church aisle knee-deep in rubble, stepping carefully among dismembered marble statues and peering with a heavy heart at a large swath of the deep blue Sicilian sky where once had soared a richly decorated dome.
Croft-Murray joined Capt. Mason Hammond, a professor of Latin at Harvard; and Lt. Perry Cott, an assistant curator at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Hammond, behind the wheel of a decrepit 1930s Balilla sedan nicknamed “Hammond’s Peril,” surveyed towns, villages and hamlets. He and his fellow officers realized that rain and the scorching Sicilian sun could only exacerbate the bombing damage inflicted on monuments. They found ideal partners in local fine-arts officials, the Italian soprintendenti. Knowledgeable and dedicated, though discouraged and penniless after three years of war, they welcomed the Monuments Officers as saviors. The sophisticated, humorous Hammond and Croft-Murray, with his infectious love of art, became the Italians’ instant allies.
Their cooperation was based on a division of labor: The soprintendenti knew what each monument required to be salvaged; the Venus Fixers could provide resources in the form of building materials, fuel and transportation. Together they started a first-aid program that focused on replacing windows and temporarily covering roofs in churches and palaces before the onset of winter. The workers employed in the rehabilitation of buildings were mainly local craftsmen: stone-cutters, masons and carpenters, generally selected by soprintendenti with the approval of Monuments Officers.
Nothing could have prepared them for the shock of Naples. “Never saw so much rain in my life,” Monuments Officer Capt. Deane Keller remarked. When the Allies entered the city on October 1, 1943, Naples had been subjected to more than 100 air raids. With no electricity or running water and very little food, Naples was dark, starved and ravaged. “I’ve never been so cold...chiefly because I’ve never been in any place without heat before,” Keller wrote, by candlelight, to his wife. “Have walked miles and seen beauty and distress.” Keller, a professor of painting and drawing at Yale, was struck by the contrast between the splendor of the city’s art and the suffering of its population. To his toddler son he wrote: “Little boys over here do not have bikes. They are too poor. Some do not have shoes. Isn’t it too bad?”
Naples was a serious challenge for the Venus Fixers. They had arrived to rescue churches, museums and artworks in a city rife with illness, where prostitution was rampant and a large section of the populace near starvation. The Fixers’ credibility was also implicitly questioned by members of their own army, who aggressively requisitioned the few historic buildings left standing after the bombing, even if that meant whitewashing a frescoed room in the Royal Palace to be used as an officers’ club, or stacking crates against Pompeian mosaics when the celebrated Archaeological Museum was turned into a medical-supplies depot.
In December 1943, after repeated reports of Allied soldiers’ vandalism reached Supreme Headquarters, General Eisenhower addressed a letter to all Allied commanders. He warned his men not to use “the term ‘military necessity’...where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even personal convenience.” Military necessity, Eisenhower insisted, should not “cloak slackness or indifference.” The communiqué confirmed the Venus Fixers’ conviction that, after feeding the emaciated Neapolitans, the effort to begin restoring their centuries-old art was one sure path to regeneration of the city’s frayed social and emotional fabric.
As for the lingering, sneering skepticism of some of their comrades, they countered it with self-deprecating humor. “To conceal what was euphemistically referred to as my ‘lack of regimental background,’” Monuments Officer and English architect Basil Marriott wrote years later, “I grew a formidable moustache which sometimes put strangers, and even myself, off the scent, but the cloven hoof generally tended to show through my desert boots, I gathered.”