Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel

This book was one of the selections I read for the Kimbell Museum’s book club. The group had a lively discussion; this is an important book and very dense. The discussion didn’t cover every issue I would have like it to do, but time is always a consideration.

I must confess that I was crying much of the time I was reading this book due to the intensity of the writing and the story Edsel was telling. I was fortunate enough to have been able to visit Florence and Siena a few years ago. If you have been to the Uffizzi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Santa Maria Novella Basilica, or any of the other notable sites in Florence or have been to Rome, Pisa, or Milan, you will appreciate the work the Monuments Men did during World War II to save the art and architecture so elemental to Western Civilization. If these men and women had not acted to save the paintings, sculptures, and buildings, the West – the world – would have been a very different, much culturally poorer place.

The “Monuments Men,” were a group of approximately 345 men and women from thirteen nations who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies during World War II. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Together they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.

Saving Italy focuses on two Monuments Men, artist Deane Keller and scholar Fred Hartt, as they struggle to protect and save some of the world’s masterpieces, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David.

When Hitler’s armies occupied Italy in 1943, they also seized control of Western civilization’s greatest cultural treasures. As they had done throughout Europe, the Nazis plundered 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 created the Monuments Men to protect these historic riches. In May 1944, Keller and Hartt began the treasure hunt of a lifetime, tracking billions of dollars of missing art, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Titian, Caravaggio, and Botticelli.
Robert M. Edsel, who lives in Dallas and has praised the Kimbell Museum, has also written Rescuing Da Vinci and The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. He is the co-producer of the documentary film, The Rape of Europa, and Founder and President of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Academy Award winner George Clooney will direct and star in a film based on The Monuments Men, which is set for theatrical release in December 2013.

Eisenhower is to be credited with establishing the Monuments Men. Their efforts to save such important cultural icons bring to mind the lack of foresight and planning to protect the art and artifacts that were looted and destroyed when we invaded Iraq. In my opinion, there was little thought involved at all when we began that war. Also, the conflict in Syria is jeopardizing that country’s cultural treasures. Similar situations exist in other parts of the world. Our collective history should be protected for future generations.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in art preservation, World War II, and the lessons we need to take from history.

Note: As of 10/23/13 –
‘The Monuments Men’ Delayed to 2014
George Clooney won’t have a chance to charm Oscar voters this year after all. His World War II drama The Monuments Men has been pushed back to 2014, the actor said Tuesday. Originally slated to be released on December 18, the move makes it ineligible for the 2014 Academy Awards. Clooney said the film’s visual effects could not be completed in time for the December release date. “If any of the effects looked cheesy, the whole movie would be cheesy,” Clooney told the Los Angeles Times. Clooney directed and stars in the film, which tells the story of artists, museum curators, and academics attempting to rescue paintings from the Nazis.
From the Los Angeles Times

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