Robert Edsel's Blog

Archive for December, 2013

70th Anniversary of Ike’s Orders – “We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.”

December 29th, 2013 | 12:01 am

In late November 1943, British Monuments adviser Lieutenant Colonel Sir Leonard Woolley inspected Naples and Palermo to investigate reports of damage to historic monuments and looting by Allied troops. He reported back to General Eisenhower’s staff in Algiers in December: 

 “I suggest . . . a General order to the effect that no buildings registered as a historic monument in the short lists printed in the zone Handbook may be used for military purposes without the special permission of a C in C.”

Woolley’s advice, and and similar recommendations from Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy and General Marshall, was taken to heart.

“On December 29, General Eisenhower issued a directive that placed the responsibility of protecting cultural property squarely upon the shoulders of every commander and, in turn, every officer and every soldier. It also, for the first time, introduced the Monuments officers (referenced as “A.M.G. officers”—Allied Military Government) to everyone in uniform.” –Saving Italy


To: All Commanders

Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.

If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.

It is a responsibility of higher commanders to determine through A.M.G. Officers the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us. This information passed to lower echelons through normal channels places the responsibility of all Commanders of complying with the spirit of this letter.


While the first Monuments officers had arrived in the Mediterranean Theater nearly six months earlier, this historic directive finally put a priority on the protection of cultural property during war. Monuments Man Major Ernest DeWald considered the directive from General Eisenhower “the first official ground under our feet on which we can build.” 

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The Met Meeting

December 20th, 2013 | 12:01 am

“Now, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the worst attack ever on U.S. soil, the tension had turned into an almost desperate need to act. An air raid on a major American city seemed likely; an invasion by Japan or Germany, or even both, not out of the question. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Japanese galleries were closed for fear of attacks by angry mobs. At the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, small gold and jeweled items were removed from the display cases so as not to tempt firemen with axes who might enter for an emergency. In New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was closing at dusk for fear of visitors running into things or stealing pictures in a blackout. Every night, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was moving paintings to a sandbagged area, then rehanging them in the morning. The Frick Collection was blacking its windows and skylights so that enemy bombers couldn’t spot it in the middle of Manhattan.” – The Monuments Men

On December 20-21, 1941, museum leaders from across the country met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to discuss plans to protect their collections.

At the meeting, Paul Sachs issued a resolution, stating:

“If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we… must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds.”

In hindsight, we know that a further attack on American soil never occurred. However, this meeting had lasting effects: it served as the birthplace of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. After the Met meeting, Monuments Man George Stout and Harvard Professor Paul Sachs continued to reach out to museum leaders to develop a plan of action for when the Allies would inevitably arrive in Europe, for it had become obvious that it was the cultural treasures of Europe, not America, that would need protection. The Monuments Men were the embodiment the eloquent words Sachs spoke in December 1941.

To learn more about this historic event, read The Monuments Men.  __________________________________________________________________________

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100th anniversary of the recovery of the Mona Lisa

December 10th, 2013 | 1:30 pm

It is the world’s most famous painting, and yet few people know that the Mona Lisa was once stolen. It was Monday, August 21, 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian worker immigrated to Paris, simply walked into the Louvre museum and walked out with the Mona Lisa in his hands. As Peruggia later explained, he was acting out of patriotic motivations, trying to steal back what Napoleon had stolen from his home country. The painting was missing for more than two years before surfacing one hundred years ago today, on December 10, 1913 in Room n.20 of the Hotel Tripoli in Florence, ever since renamed “La Gioconda”, as Italians refer to Leonardo’s painting.

The Mona Lisa after it was recovered on December 10, 1913. (image)

Giovanni Poggi, then Director of the Uffizi Gallery, had a prominent role in the recovery of the Mona Lisa. It was he who came across Leonardo’s stolen painting and convinced Peruggia to return it. After twenty-eight “romantic months” with the painting hanging over his kitchen table, Vincenzo Peruggia had decided to go to Florence to sell the work of art through the antiquarian Alfredo Geri, to whom he had sent a letter signed “Leonardo” stating that “the painting was in his hands” and  requesting 500,000 lire in its return. Geri, accompanied by Poggi, scheduled an appointment in Peruggia’s hotel room; the two art experts immediately recognized the painting as the original work by Leonardo. Peruggia was arrested, while the recovered Mona Lisa was first exhibited in Florence at the Uffizi Gallery, then in Rome at the French Embassy in Palazzo Farnese and at the Borghese Gallery and last, it made its way back to the Louvre.

This was not Poggi’s only contribution as a defender of the arts. An illustrious connoisseur and curator, Poggi was one of the most esteemed superintendents in Italy and during WWII he organized the evacuation of art treasures from the Florence museums to repositories in the Tuscan countryside. This story is featured in Saving Italy.

THE OUTBREAK OF war in 1940 had caused Italian superintendents to transfer collections to areas outside the city centers. Acting with “frenzied lucidity,” Poggi and his team had moved almost six hundred major works to privately owned villas and palaces in the Tuscan countryside in less than two weeks. That number had increased more than eighteenfold—to 11,139 various art objects—within six weeks. Those that couldn’t be moved, usually due to their size and weight, had to be protected in situ, often by employing the most ingenious of methods. Local artisans built a brick tomb around Michelangelo’s towering sculpture of David, and smaller ones for each of his adjacent works, referred to as the Slaves. Poggi hoped that these brick silos would provide protection against bomb fragments or even the collapse of the roof in the event of a direct hit on the building. (Saving Italy, p. 146)

Read more about Giovanni Poggi’s invaluable contribution to the preservation of Florentine masterpieces in Robert Edsel’s Saving Italy – you can purchase here!

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