The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Most had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.
These men not only had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, but then joined the front lines to do something about it.
The Monuments Men had a mandate from President Roosevelt and the support of General Eisenhower, but no vehicles, gasoline, typewriters, or authority.
In a race against time to save the world’s greatest cultural treasures from destruction at the hands of Nazi fanatics, each man gathered scraps and hints to construct his own treasure map using records recovered from bombed cathedrals and museums, the secret notes and journals of Rose Valland, a French museum employee who secretly tracked Nazi plunder through the rail yards of Paris, and even a tip from a dentist during a root canal.
These unlikely heroes, mostly middle-aged family men, walked away from successful careers into the epicenter of the war, risking—and some losing—their lives. Like other members of the Greatest Generation, they embodied the courageous spirit that enabled the best of humanity to
defeat the worst.
This is their story. Soon to be a feature film from Sony Pictures.
Wall Street Journal
The way Robert Edsel tells the story, it all began in 1997 on the Ponte Vecchio. He'd recently sold his oil-and-gas exploration business for $37 million, and moved to Florence with no grand plan except to find a grand passion.
"I'd always been interested in art and architecture, but I'd never had any courses. And I thought, 'Well, I'm in Florence and there are all these art-history professors, so I should go around and learn about the subject.' I was reading about 10 books a week because I had the time," said Mr. Edsel, 56, who's tall and lean (a former nationally ranked tennis player, he still logs regular court time with his good friend Rod Laver) and has a shock of white hair that he keeps futilely shoving back from his forehead. But what you mostly notice is the intensity. That and the apologetically long answers to any and all questions.
At one point in his tutorial, Mr. Edsel became immersed in "The Rape of Europa," a chronicle of the Nazis' looting and theft. "I remember standing on the Ponte Vecchio. I knew I wasn't a World War II historian, but I knew enough to know that Europe had been beaten to pieces," he said, sitting at a conference table in his downtown office here. "So if the continent was in shambles, how did all these works of art survive? They didn't have legs. They didn't go hide on their own. So I started asking people in Florence, and they all said 'that's an amazing question.'"
The onetime oil man has been drilling for answers ever since, first with "Rescuing Da Vinci" (2006), a book of photographs, and then with "The Monuments Men" (2009), an account of a special Allied force—museum directors, curators and conservators—who risked their lives to keep the world's masterpieces from falling into enemy hands.
A film adaptation of "Monuments Men," co-written, produced and directed by George Clooney, who also stars with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, is due out in December; Mr. Edsel is confident that the movie will give a nice lift to the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, the nonprofit he established half a dozen years ago to safeguard the legacy of his "protagonists" and to help complete their mission of returning stolen treasures to their owners.
And now Mr. Edsel has a new book, "Saving Italy," a companion volume of sorts to "The Monuments Men." His original plan was to tell both stories between a single set of covers, "but when I was writing 'Monuments Men' and it got to 500, 600, 700 pages it was clear that something had to go.
Read more ...
The Washington Post
We tend in these permissive times to embrace an expansive and often sentimental definition of heroism, in the process elevating to heroic status men and women whose actions, however admirable, remarkable and courageous, fall short of the self-sacrificial. Were the Allied (mostly American) soldiers who rescued works of art stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II really heroes, as Robert M. Edsel claims in "The Monuments Men," or were they good men -- aided by one resourceful, determined French woman -- who were simply, in the best sense of the phrase, just doing their jobs?"
As part of his twisted vision of the future, Adolf Hitler planned to construct the world's finest museum — the eponymous Führermuseum — in his hometown of Linz, Austria. By stocking it with the world's greatest works of art, he hoped to showcase the superiority of Aryan artists over their supposedly "degenerate" Jewish counterparts. Within months of invading Poland in 1939, Nazi troops began seizing selected pieces — including paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt and Vermeer — from churches, museums and private art collections. The artworks were then hidden in mines and remote castles for safekeeping until the war ended. This gripping history of the soldiers who worked during the war to track down and save imperiled masterworks of European art seized by the Nazi’s, is very good reading. Edsel’s account takes the more general tale told in Lynn Nicholas’ excellent The Rape of Europa and makes it more personal and dramatic. A fascinating topic and well told to boot.
Now cut to John Olbrantz, Hallie Ford's director. He read "The Monuments Men" last Christmas after his wife gave him the book, and he started thinking about Hallie Ford's own connection to a Monuments Man: Mark Sponenburgh, whose name stands above a major gallery of the museum.
Sponenburgh landed in France with the Army's 9th Engineer Battalion in 1944. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and his unit saved a key bridge at Remagen so Allied troops could enter Germany.
After Hitler fell, Sponenburgh was transferred to the Monuments Men.
"He led the first convoy of looted treasures from the Alt Aussee salt mine in Austria to a collecting point in Munich," said Olbrantz .
Sponenburgh went on to a distinguished post-war career teaching art at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. After his retirement, he donated his art collection to Willamette University.
"The Hallie Ford Museum of Art would not exist if not for Mark Sponenburgh and his wonderful gift of European, Asian and American art in 1990," said Olbrantz.
WWII was the most destructive war in history and caused the greatest dislocation of cultural artifacts. Hundreds of thousands of items remain missing. The main burden fell to a few hundred men and women, curators and archivists, artists and art historians from 13 nations. Their task was to save and preserve what they could of Europe's great art, and they were called the Monuments Men. (Coincidentally or not, this book appears only briefly after Ilaria Dagnini Brey's The Venus Fixers: The Untold Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II, Reviews, June 1.) Edsel has presented their achievements in documentaries and photographs. He and Witter (coauthor of the bestselling Dewey) are no less successful here. Focusing on the organization's role in northwest Europe, they describe the Monuments Men from their initial mission to limit combat damage to structures and artifacts to their changed focus of locating missing items. Most had been stolen by the Nazis. In southern Germany alone, over a thousand caches emerged, containing everything from church bells to insect collections. The story is both engaging and inspiring. In the midst of a total war, armies systematically sought to mitigate cultural loss.
Their initial responsibility was to mitigate combat damage, primarily to structures—churches, museums, and other important monuments. As the war progressed and the German border was breached, their focus shifted to locating movable works of art and other cultural items stolen or otherwise missing. Harvard alumni played important roles in creating and staffing the MFAA, among them Paul Sachs ’00, director of the Fogg Art Museum, Mason Hammond ’25 (future Pope professor of the Latin language and literature), Lincoln Kirstein ’30 (future founder of the New York City Ballet), and James Rorimer ’27 (future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). But the hero of this new work is George Stout, A.M. ’29, formerly lecturer on design and conservator at the Fogg. These excerpts from throughout the book (reprinted with permission) focus on his nearly forgotten role.
Dallas Morning News
Edsel says the book gives readers a more personal glimpse into the lives
of the Monuments Men than his past projects. Edsel co-produced a documentary on the subject, The Rape of Europa, which he says offers a scholarly telling of the story. "It does explain about how the Monuments Men were created, but it tells stories about these figures in academic terms," he says. "You have to tell the story in a way that people can
connect with it."
As part of his twisted vision of the future, Adolf Hitler planned to construct the world's finest museum — the eponymous Führermuseum — in his hometown of Linz, Austria. By stocking it with the world's greatest works of art, he hoped to showcase the superiority of Aryan artists over their supposedly "degenerate" Jewish counterparts. Within months of invading Poland in 1939, Nazi troops began seizing selected pieces — including paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt and Vermeer — from churches, museums and private art collections. The artworks were then hidden in mines and remote castles for safekeeping until the war ended.
Monuments Men's discoveries included five rail cars containing 148 crates of stolen paintings. In some of the crates were the holdings of the major art dealers of Paris seized by a special German "cultural conservation program." Two of France's greatest treasures — the Bayeux Tapestry and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa — remained in France during the war, preserved by French museum officials. But, in Hitler's view of the future, they would become treasures of the great German empire. The world's outstanding culture center would be the Fuhrer-museum in Linz, his Austrian hometown, which had became part of the Third Reich when his troops marched into Austria in 1938.