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

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)
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In Naples, stuck in the rear of operations for months, the Monuments Officers developed a team spirit. While the opposing armies fought furiously along the Volturno River and later around the town of Cassino, the arts unit recovered and stored thousands of fragments of marble, wood and stucco decoration from dozens of shattered churches. These shards would become the building blocks in Italy’s postwar restoration of its art treasures. Each morning, Deane Keller stuffed his pockets with candy and Red Cross-donated cookies to distribute to Neapolitan street urchins, and cigarettes to entice Italian laborers to work.

On March 18, 1944, Mount Vesuvius erupted, adding natural catastrophe to the city’s wartime ordeal. Over five days, a river of lava inundated several villages at the foot of the mountain, but ultimately the wind blew the cloud of volcanic ash away from the city, and Naples was untouched. “We used to watch it at night—Terrific,” an undaunted Captain Keller wrote of the spectacle.

At that time, the battle was still raging around Cassino. Although retreating under Allied pressure, the German Army made excellent strategic use of the Apennines range extending lengthwise from the southern region of Calabria to Liguria in the northwest. Forced to fight on mountainous, heavily defended terrain that rendered reliance on heavy artillery nearly impossible, the Allied armies took nine months to cover the 140 miles separating Naples from Rome. Although Italian morale had plummeted after the initial elation at the Allied landings in Sicily, not all in Rome had lost hope: “Americans, hold in there! We’re coming to your rescue!” declared a graffiti message scrawled on a wall in the neighborhood of Trastevere. If Rome was prostrate, its vernacular, irreverent spirit was not entirely vanquished by three years of harsh war.

General Clark’s jeep rolled down the streets of liberated Rome, from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Capitoline Hill, on June 4, 1944. The Monuments Officers entered a city whose lovely squares, major museums and old palaces were virtually unscathed. The German general Albert Kesselring had relinquished Rome without giving fight, sparing the city’s bridges and avoiding the street-by-street battle that would be the sad lot of Pisa one month later. The arts-unit men were embraced by the city’s intellectual and cultural elite. In Rome, they breathed an atmosphere of relief; once the constant preoccupation with food and fear of bombs, Fascist arrests and Nazi deportations ended, residents couldn’t wait to reopen their museums, theaters and concert halls.

Distinguished and multilingual, Ernest De Wald, a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton and director of the MFAA outfit in Italy, fit right in with the capital’s aristocracy. Palma Bucarelli, the beautiful and visionary director of Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art, introduced Teddy Croft-Murray to her circle of writer and artist friends. “He is loud, gesticulating and constantly smiling—Truly exceptional for an Englishman,” she wrote appreciatively in her diary.

In August 1944, Bucarelli, with her colleague Emilio Lavagnino, helped Perry Cott to organize an exhibition of 48 masterpieces chosen from hundreds of paintings stored in the Vatican for safety until the capital’s liberation. Among these were Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. Located in the Palazzo Venezia, from whose balcony Mussolini had harangued Italians for 20 years, the show was intended as a thank-you to Allied troops fighting in Italy and a showcase of the Monuments Officers’ dedication to safeguarding Italy’s artistic heritage. The Italians who attended were moved at seeing so much beauty that had gone into hiding for years. They began to feel that, perhaps, the end of the war was in sight.


Instead, in the summer of 1944, the Italian campaign entered its most dramatic phase. A few Monuments Officers attached to combat troops followed their army in its push to the north. The front line moved quickly through Umbria and into Tuscany. “This was our dusty rapid advance,” Deane Keller later characterized his ascent through western Tuscany with the American Fifth Army. Captain Keller reckoned that in the summer and winter of 1944 he visited at least 200 towns. Driving a jeep with no top and no shock absorbers, the blond, stocky, 43-year-old American ate army rations by the roadside and often slept in a tent, hardly ever for more than two nights in the same place. But this was the war he had dreamed of during his long months in Naples. “I shall have to explain,” he wrote to his wife, “what I mean by thrilling.”

There was a special excitement to driving into an Italian town as soon as it was liberated. Keller rushed to prevent looting and vandalism, typically the result of what Mason Hammond described as a liberating soldier’s “first flush of enthusiasm” upon entering a newly conquered site. Keller enlisted the help of residents—a local boy or a partisan fighter, a priest or a policeman—to lead him to monuments. “Best to get native guides,” Keller noted, adding that his initial work involved “trying to find keys to buildings, breaking windows to enter...waking up priests, as well as posting Carabinieri as guards and listening to stories of German atrocities.”

When inspecting an abandoned villa or palace, he proceeded with caution: “I never straighten a picture—always have my flashlight,” he reassured his wife, who, back in Hartford, Connecticut, had read about the danger of mines and booby traps.
In Tarquinia, the Etruscan museum had been abandoned during front-line fighting. Its precious objects could have been looted, but weren’t—because Keller posted a guard and a warning sign at its door.

No matter how frantic his pace or how inclement the weather, the beauty of Italy sometimes stopped Keller in his tracks: “This is one thing about Italy,” he wrote, “it has a mystic feeling and a great tranquility.” By the time Keller reached Pisa, site of the Germans’ last stand on the River Arno and the scene for weeks of furious fighting, he had obtained the full support of Gen. Edgar Erskine Hume, chief of the Fifth Army’s civil affairs, in the form of men and materiel, to start a massive intervention before winter’s onset.

In Pisa’s church of Camposanto, the leaden roof, hit by Allied artillery in late July 1944, had caught fire and melted into the interior. Keller organized teams of Italian workmen who for weeks scraped hardened lead off statues and sarcophagi and picked up thousands of fragments from the frescoes that had covered the walls. The work done by the Italians was invaluable, although on one occasion Keller needed to vent: “God how Italians can talk. I guess I get a little impatient, but they talk all at once and it’s the devil to decide one thing.”

On the eastern sector of Tuscany, Lt. Frederick Hartt, an art historian from Yale, advanced with the British Eighth Army. He witnessed the wantonness of the damage: The town of Arezzo, exposed to intense artillery fire, had been devastated, whereas Siena, undefended by the Germans, was unharmed. Aboard his jeep, “Lucky 13,” Hartt often drove dangerously close to the crossfire of the two armies’ artilleries, watching for telltale signs of mines on the road. He knew that the Italian soprintendenti had cached thousands of artworks in castles, villas and monasteries at the beginning of the war, when cities were targeted by air raids and the countryside was safer. In Florence alone, 3,000 crates had been filled with paintings, sculptures, entire libraries and archives—everything that could be moved, including Michelangelo’s statues for the Medici family’s tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo. Now those masterpieces were in the middle of the theater of war.

The tall, excitable Hartt discovered Michelangelo’s sculptures in the garage of the Villa di Torre a Cona, caged in wooden boxes. On August 1, Hartt received word that a trove of paintings from the Uffizi Galleries and Pitti Palace had been found, by chance, in the Castle of Montegufoni. Despite the battle that had raged around the castle for days, the dozens of villagers who had sought shelter inside it, and the scores of soldiers who had bivouacked within its walls, Botticelli’s Primavera, Giotto’s Madonna d’Ognissanti and 263 more pictures were, overall, none the worse for wear.

As the conservator George Stout, who served as a Monuments Officer in France and Germany, declared, “There’s a lot of nonsense talked about the fragility of the ‘old masters.’ By and large, they are a sturdy lot. Otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted this long.” (Stout, who would become director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is portrayed by Clooney in the film. Matt Damon takes the role of Stout’s colleague, James Rorimer, the Harvard-trained art historian assigned to the Monuments Men in France and Germany and appointed head of the Metropolitan Museum in 1955.)



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