"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.”
The Monuments Men worked closely with the Army Air Force, helping bomber crews avoid important cultural treasures. (One of my professors, an 18-year-old bombardier at the time, told me how his bombs narrowly missed the Leaning Tower of Pisa.)
Bombing in World War II was notoriously inexact, and despite the Army Air Force’s best efforts, major monuments were damaged throughout the Italian peninsula. But there were also remarkable successes, such as the U.S. attack on the rail yards of Florence, which spared historic churches and buildings located nearby. (Tragically, nothing could save the city’s ancient bridges, which were destroyed on Hitler’s direct orders—except for the Ponte Vecchio, for which he had a soft spot.)
Saving Italy focuses more on salvation than destruction, as it skillfully brings the Monuments Men to life by vividly narrating the often-perilous work of several soldiers, particularly Deane Keller and Frederick Hartt, who struggled to keep many of the treasures of Italian museums, including those of the Vatican and Uffizi, out of German hands.
Before the war, Keller was teaching art at Yale; Hartt was a promising young art historian just beginning his professional career. Both had visited Italy in the 1930s, but nothing prepared them, or the other Monuments Men, for the rigors, privation, and death they encountered in the protracted and brutal Italian campaign. One wonders if present-day denizens of the faculty lounge would be as willing to risk their lives.
As the Allies slowly chewed up the German defenses, Keller and Hartt, aided by several Italian art officials, played an elaborate cat-and-mouse game to keep the looted treasures of museums and private collections from being shipped north of the Alps.
Their nemesis was the suave SS colonel Alexander Langsdorff, head of the Kunstschutz, the “art protection” unit of German forces in Italy. An archaeologist and early adherent of Nazism, he had served as “personal artistic and cultural consultant” to Himmler. Langsdorff was also a member of Himmler’s infamous Ahnenerbe, the pseudo-scientific unit tasked with finding lost Aryan civilizations worldwide. Fortunately, and thanks to the Monuments Men, Langsdorff and his henchmen were arrested before making off with some of Italy’s most significant art.
As the war was ending in Italy, the Allies landed in Normandy and went on to defeat the Third Reich. But the task of the Monuments Men was far from complete: Allied troops pushing through conquered territory and into Germany and Austria uncovered hoards of stolen goods hidden in salt mines, castles, and other secret repositories. With each discovery, the Monuments Men were faced with the enormous job of identifying the looted objects and determining their original owners.
The Russians kept much of what they found, and the recent discovery of a trove of stolen art in a Munich apartment demonstrates that the Monuments Men did not get everything. Unlike past wars, in which the victors kept the spoils, at the end of the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain, in an unparalleled act of democratic beneficence, returned a multitude of objects to their rightful owners.
Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.