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
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.”
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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!”