When Hitler’s armies occupied Italy in 1943, they also seized control of mankind’s greatest cultural treasures. As they had done throughout Europe, the Nazis could now plunder the masterpieces of the Renaissance, the treasures of the Vatican, and the antiquities of the Roman Empire.
On the eve of the Allied invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower empowered a new kind of soldier to protect these historic riches. In May 1944 two unlikely American heroes—artist Deane Keller and scholar Fred Hartt—embarked from Naples on the treasure hunt of a lifetime, tracking billions of dollars of missing art, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Titian, Caravaggio, and Botticelli.
With the German army retreating up the Italian peninsula, orders came from the highest levels of the Nazi government to transport truckloads of art north across the border into the Reich. Standing in the way was General Karl Wolff, a top-level Nazi officer. As German forces blew up the magnificent bridges of Florence, General Wolff commandeered the great collections of the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace, later risking his life to negotiate a secret Nazi surrender with American spymaster Allen Dulles.
Wall Street Journal
On April 24, amid the heavy fighting of the Syrian civil war, Aleppo's thousand-year-old minaret—a graceful rectilinear tower without parallel in Islamic architecture—was destroyed. Such cultural obliteration is far from unusual on the modern battlefield. As long ago as the Franco-Prussian war, Strasbourg's Museum of Fine Arts, a building housing important medieval manuscripts and Roman artifacts, burned down after indiscriminate Prussian shelling. More recently, the Mostar Bridge, that unique work of Ottoman engineering that had stood since the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, was intentionally blown apart by Croatian tank fire.
It was in World War II, however, that threats to cultural heritage became a central fact of war. Even before the conflict began, the Nazis had destroyed hundreds of historic synagogues with brutal abandon. The Allies, with their reliance on air power, ended up reducing to rubble numerous medieval buildings and churches in Italy, France and Germany. Above all were the art-looting operations by which the Germans and the Soviets methodically plundered hundreds of masterpieces from the territories they conquered. Among the enduring ironies of these totalitarian dictatorships was the extent to which the most destructive forces on the continent also coveted its artistic heritage.
Robert M. Edsel, a businessman turned art sleuth, has spent much of the past 15 years studying the fate of artworks displaced during World War II. His 2009 book, "The Monuments Men," focused on the special Allied units that were deployed late in the war to protect and recover art. (It is soon to be a movie directed by and starring George Clooney.) "Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures From the Nazis" is his detailed retelling of the Allied re-conquest of Italy (1943-45) from the vantage point of the Monuments Men and their efforts to "minimize damage to Europe's single greatest concentration of art, architecture, and history from the ravages of a world war."
Italy's treasures were at great risk during much of the latter half of the war. The retreating Germans detonated nearly all of Florence's historic bridges over the Arno, including the 16th-century Ponte Santa Trinita, considered one of the world's most elegant. There were some glaring episodes of looting, as well as more official actions to remove art collections further north to keep them under Nazi control. Upon entering a city, Allied forces often had to determine first where art had been hidden by the Italians and then whether the Germans had beat them to those hiding places.
Edsel (The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, 2009, etc.) continues his work chronicling the small band of artists and art historians who tracked down and saved Europe’s artistic heritage, this time focusing on Italy.
During World War II, Hitler and Göring led the greatest looting operation of the 20th century. Nazi Germany justified its practice of absorbing art treasures of Western Europe and Russia as spoils of war—but Italy was an ally. After the destruction of Naples by the fleeing Germans, the leader of the Kunstschutz, the “art protection” unit, was ordered to Italy to guard her works of art. Instead, art was removed from carefully arranged hiding places in the countryside and taken to the north for “protection.” The author focuses on the work of art professor Dean Keller and art historian Fred Hartt of the American Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. These two men, who had overwhelming passion for Italy and her enormous artistic heritage, chased into cities before the fires of war had barely cooled, designating which areas were to be protected until secured. It was only through Keller’s work with a team of army engineers, fresco specialists and Italian military that we are able today to see the frescoes of Pisa’s Camposanto, blown off the walls by Allied bombs. Both men worked their way up the peninsula from Sicily, but their concentration was in Tuscany. Curiously enough, they were aided by Gen. Karl Wolff, the SS leader in Italy—whether it was his love of art or self-protection as the end of the war loomed is a matter for debate.
Edsel’s knowledge and appreciation of art amplifies this celebration of the unheralded group of men who ensured the safety of Italy’s greatest treasures.
Alongside the Allies’ push north against the Nazis, there was another war fought in WWII Italy, a battle to preserve the country’s rich cultural contribution to Western civilization. With Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic TheLast Supper nearly demolished by a bomb, protecting the nation’s art became an urgent task, requiring hundreds of paintings and sculpture to be hidden throughout the country (Michelangelo’s David was entombed in brick). The group assigned to save the art in Italy was made up of 40 American and British “Monuments Men.” Edsel (who has trod this ground before, in The Monuments Men, 2009) clearly presents the war in Italy as a battle not just to occupy the land but also to preserve the country’s culture. In urgent and precise prose, he puts the reader in the cockpit, the foxhole, and the cramped offices of those charged with saving the artwork. Most of the pilfering and destruction of art treasures was done by the Nazis, of course, but Edsel points out that the Allies were not blameless, either. This is a must-read for WWII buffs and anyone interested in the fight for art history.
Dallas Morning News
Among the tragic victims of war — the dead, the maimed, the dispossessed — the fate of works of art would seem to be our least concern. Is a single painting worth a man’s life? How many archaeological sites have been obliterated, how many museums looted while whole towns and villages perished?
Yet somehow we do care. It is not so much the loss of treasure that we mourn when a library is burned or a museum bombed, though that can be considerable. We mourn the loss of history, culture, memory. Of time itself.
This is a book about that loss and its recovery, by a man who has become more than an expert. Dallas native Robert Edsel made a fortune on oil and gas exploration and in the late 1990s retired to Florence, Italy, where he became intrigued by the story of the treasures looted and lost during World War II. Since then he has dedicated a considerable part of his fortune to telling that story in books and film (Rescuing Da Vinci, The Monuments Men) and creating a foundation to search out those treasures and return them to their rightful owners.
In this thrilling new history, Edsel (The Monuments Men) describes the valiant Allied efforts to safeguard the great cultural treasures of an Italy knee-deep in the violence of WWII. The story focuses on three groups: the British and American scholars who form the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Art and Archive (MFAA) team tasked with finding and protecting priceless stolen artworks; the Vatican clergy and museum directors responsible for the safety of their own collections; and the Nazi leaders who coveted Italy’s Titians, da Vincis, and Botticellis. The cast of colorful characters includes an “introverted, sensitive” Yale art professor, a conflicted former archaeologist turned SS officer, and a Tuscan “Superintendent of Monuments and Galleries” whose job it was to get the great artworks out of Florence (where they risked being destroyed by Allied bombings) and into the countryside. Edsel has compiled an astonishing amount of primary research from European and American sources to tell this fascinating, fast-paced story, and military and art historians, as well as fans of adventurous nonfiction, will appreciate this well-written and informative reminder that war threatens not only the generations who fight it, but also the artistic triumphs of those who came before. 60 illus. & maps. Agent: Michelle Weiner, Creative Artists Agency. (May)
“Saving Italy is an astonishing account of a little known American effort to save Italy’s vast store of priceless monuments and art during World War II. While American warriors were fighting the length of the country, other Americans were courageously working alongside to preserve the irreplaceable best of Italy’s culture. Read it and be proud of those
who were on their own front lines of a cruel war.”
“An amazing story, superbly told. The narrative and research are exceptionally well done. Edsel has done a great service not only to tell the story of the Monuments Men and the work they did in Italy but also to remind mankind what the Germans did. I believe that Saving Italy is a major contribution to the history of World War II.”
Gordon H. "Nick" Mueller
“Robert Edsel weaves a suspenseful tale worthy of an Indiana Jones plot.
He pulls you into a dangerous web of intrigue in which the Vatican, top German SS generals, American OSS operatives and Italian officials are entwined in top-secret negotiations to end the war. A must read for any WWII history enthusiast.”