"Historical treasure. Do not enter.”
Why, I wondered as a young student in Florence, was this tattered sign attached to the door of a Renaissance palazzo? Not until years later did I learn that it had been posted by the Monuments Men, a small group of men and women, mainly American and British soldiers, tasked with saving the vast treasure house of Italian art as the Allies clawed their way up the Italian peninsula, from Anzio to the Alps, in 1944.
Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy rescues the important work of that improbable little band of museum directors, curators, art historians, and artists from the murky corner of history into which it had slipped. This month, their story will reach an international audience as a star-studded movie, adapted from Edsel’s 2009 book The Monuments Men and directed by and starring George Clooney, opens in cinemas.
Edsel first encountered the Monuments Men serendipitously. After a successful career in the oil-drilling business, he retired early and moved to Florence, where he bought and rehabilitated a villa on the slopes of Bellosguardo, overlooking the city. There, while crossing the Ponte Vecchio, he began to wonder how “so many of Europe’s great works of art survived . . . and who saved them.” He then learned about the work of the Monuments Men from Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa (1994), the definitive study of Nazi looting and the subject of an excellent documentary of the same name.
Edsel has since dedicated his life to telling the story of the Monuments Men. To ensure that his cause would be sustained, he established the Monuments Men Foundation, which in 2007 received a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in a moving East Room ceremony that reunited four surviving members of the band of brothers.
Their story begins when, just after the invasion of Sicily by the British and American armies in 1943, the State Department formed a working group with the cumbersome title of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe—now better known as the Roberts Commission, after its chairman, Supreme Court justice Owen Roberts. Members included a number of distinguished museum directors and high-ranking government officials. Its mission was “to furnish museum officials and art historians to the General Staff of the Army, so far as is consistent with military necessity,” to protect “works of cultural value” in Europe.
The Roberts Commission was concerned about potential damage to Europe’s artistic treasures not only from ground combat, but particularly from the increasing Allied aerial bombardment in Italy and other European countries. There was also a diplomatic objective to the committee’s efforts intended to counter German propaganda depicting the invading Allied armies as barbaric defilers of European life and culture. In 1944, the Germans made much of the controversial bombing of the ancient Abbey of Monte Cassino by American aircraft; yet before the bombardment began, 15 cases of art that had been sent to the Abbey for safekeeping were on their way to Hermann Göring as a birthday present.
But this was, comparatively speaking, petty theft. From the invasion of Poland onward, it was the Germans who had brutally and systematically looted art on a scale unsurpassed in history. As official Nazi policy, millions of paintings (especially those from Jewish dealers and collectors), sculptures, libraries, and just about anything else of cultural value that could be uprooted were sent by the trainload to the Reich for the collections of Nazi overlords. Göring, Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and scores of other high-up Nazi officials were worshippers of Kultur, which makes one wonder about its role as a civilizing force.
To give teeth to the Roberts Commission’s charge, General Eisenhower issued a directive, in December 1943, making the military hierarchy responsible for the protection of cultural monuments in Italy. These, Eisenhower wrote, were an important part of Western civilization. (But if there were a choice between destroying a building and saving a soldier’s life, then “the building must go.”) He added that monuments should be destroyed only for “military necessity,” not “military convenience.” His directive ended with an order to the “higher commanders to determine through A.M.G. Officers [the Monuments Men] the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us.”