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!!


Wes said...

Want to learn more about The Monuments Men and their adventures throughout Europe? Check out The Monuments Men by: Robert Edsel

The Morning Joe Show video clip with Doris Kearns Goodwin discussing The Monuments Men (, check these out!

The Greatest Heroine of WWII, Rose Valland -

Passing the Torch: Touching video clip of Robert M. Edsel discussing his last conversation with Lane S. Faison. -

Robert M. Edsel discussing the amazing story of one of nine living Monuments Men, German born Harry Ettlinger. -

Book Page writes, “an account that moves like a Hollywood action adventure…there are heroes to root for, villains to hiss at and an increasingly pressing race against time…Whether you’re a fan of art, military history or stories of real-life heroes, The Monuments Men is a treasure worth the hunt”. I hope your blog will profile these great heroes of civilization and share their story with your readers and supporters.

Thank You,
Wes Brown

Sheramy said...

Hi Wes, Thanks for stopping by. Edsel's new book is definitely on my reading list. Thanks for the great links!!

Wes said...

Thank you for sharing the story of The Monuments Men with your readers!