Wednesday, January 6, 2010
The Venus Fixers
Anyone who loves Italian art and cares about our shared cultural heritage needs to read Ilaria Dagnini Brey's "The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II." Italian-born journalist Brey follows first the attempt by the Italians to protect artworks in the face of oncoming war -- everything from bricking up "David" to hiding paintings in Tuscan villas -- then the valiant efforts of the "Monuments Men" to keep them safe during and after the Allied invasion. The Monuments Men were a band of artists, art historians, architects, archaeologists, archivists, etc. who served in the British and American armies and used their expertise to look after monuments and artworks in time of war. Brey focuses on those who served in Italy: we learn about Yale art professor Deane Keller, who had the artworks of western Tuscany as his responsibility, and for me a familiar name was art history professor Frederick Hartt, whose landmark "Italian Renaissance Art" textbook I knew from university but I had no idea he'd served as a Monuments Man. So too John Ward-Perkins, a prominent Romanist in his day: again, I know his work but enjoyed reading about his Italian service. As a card-carrying professional art historian, I couldn't help but feel proud as I read this book; it was like learning one's great-uncles or second cousins or whatever had been war heroes.
There are heartstopping moments in this book -- the American bombing of the Florence railyards for example, which through the skill of the pilots and the maps provided by the Monuments Men left the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella, and everything else unscathed. There are also heartrending moments: the Nazi bombardment of the Florentine bridges, the Allied bombardment of the monastery of Monte Cassino, the accidental near-destruction of the frescoes of the Camposanto in Pisa. Not being a specialist in Renaissance art, much of the story was new to me, save what I'd seen in the documentary "The Rape of Europa." Although I *knew* Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and any number of treasures are safe now in their museum homes, Brey kept me in suspense throughout her account.
In recent years, the effects of World War II on the artistic heritage have gotten increased attention (e.g. Lynn Nicholas' book "The Rape of Europa" and the excellent documentary of the same name, plus the books of Robert Edsel, including his newest, "Monuments Men"--which I now HAVE to read). There are lessons for all in studying this time period, especially since artworks and monuments continue to be imperiled every day in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Read this book!!