Book Reviews - Autumn 2009

Art in the Time of War

A prescient and courageous few safeguarded Italy’s patrimony

By Susannah Rutherglen | September 1, 2009


The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II, by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Disasters of recent years have demonstrated all too well that war destroys not only lives but also monuments of civilization: the legacy of buildings, artifacts, and documents on which our shared humanity is founded. In Iraq, human casualties continue to rise along with the toll of looted and ravaged museums and archaeological sites. Present and past are breeched simultaneously; promising young generations and an ages-old cultural inheritance are sacrificed. As we contemplate Iraq’s future and confront looming predicaments in the Middle East and elsewhere, an illuminating book by journalist Ilaria Dagnini Brey suggests that what has happened might have been avoided—and might be prevented in conflicts yet to come.

Brey’s subject is not Mesopotamia but Italy, the mountainous peninsula that witnessed brutal fighting during the Second World War. From the Iron Age, when the Etruscan civilization emerged there, to the time of the Roman Empire and the era of medieval and early modern city-states, the region has served as a rich depository of history and art. The extraordinary paintings, sculptures, and architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance and beyond were products of Italy’s past, nourished by the ancient remains surrounding their makers. This cumulative cultural endowment has always been at risk of destruction, whether by foreign invaders or rival regimes eyeing each other from their hilltop towers. The violence of World War II, however, was unprecedented and unexpected.

Italy signed a military alliance with Germany in May of 1939. Its official entrance into war in June of the following year, Brey notes, marked “the culmination of nearly two decades of Fascist ideology that had fostered a sense of unity and national pride by tracing Italy’s lineage directly to ancient Rome’s civilization and its empire.” Yet, ironically, war directly endangered the very objects of that civilization and its descendants. In the summer of 1943, after years of punishing air raids across Italy, the Allies invaded the island of Sicily. Mussolini’s government surrendered, and German troops swiftly withdrew to the mainland, the Americans and British following close behind. The nation had become a theater of battle, and its millennia of artistic treasures were at grave risk.

Within the massive scale of the Italian conflict, Brey locates the story of a few people—scholars, superintendents, military commanders, and soldiers—who recognized the danger. Acting decisively, despite the constraints of bureaucracy and the confusion of combat, they managed to save most of the country’s antiquities and works of art from substantial harm. Equal parts military history, art history, thriller, and memoir, this astonishing narrative has been largely neglected in histories of the Second World War; perhaps because it is about what didn’t happen, an account of prevention and safeguarding rather than one of spectacular ruin. In Brey’s precise telling, however, it becomes an absorbing drama, a heroic mission that unfolds both within and against the grand strategies of a global war.

Brey’s tale begins during the uneasy years leading up to the Italian invasion, as native museum keepers devised frantic plans to evacuate paintings and sculptures from major city centers. Between the fall of 1942 and the summer of 1943, the contents of Florence’s museums and churches were sent to the countryside. With a poetic sense of the past slumbering in the settings of her study, Brey describes how the city’s artworks, like “pilgrims of old days, or city dwellers in flight from the plague,” took shelter in secluded rural locations, including “the monastery of Camaldoli, deep in a forest of centuries-old fir trees in the Casentino, where Lorenzo the Magnificent loved to take long summer walks with poets and philosophers.”

Many of these pastoral safe havens, however, would soon be cut off from communication with Florence, as soldiers camped among their easel pictures and statuary. To protect the artifacts kept there, in addition to the immovable buildings and bridges that had been left behind in cities and villages across the peninsula, Italians needed the help of the same militaries soon to occupy their country.

While the German army would make token efforts to avoid bombarding key historic areas, its primary artistic agenda was to steal paintings, particularly those favored by Hitler and his lieutenants. It was left to Allied forces to devise a conservation strategy. As early as 1942, American scholars and curators had proposed the creation of a governmental and military agency for this purpose. The idea was approved by President Roosevelt, and Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts was chosen to chair the effort. In cooperation with other Allied powers, the Roberts Commission established the Monuments Officers—or “Venus Fixers,” as they became affectionately known—and quickly recruited uniformed art historians, artists, architects, and archaeologists to the cause of preservation.

Among the initiative’s earliest accomplishments was the creation of hundreds of maps and lists identifying cultural sites to be avoided during hostilities. Often eccentric, they contained artistic and historical details of arguable relevance to pilots or combat troops. Yet they facilitated, for example, the targeted bombing of Florence in March of 1944, a campaign that successfully destroyed the Campo di Marte marshalling yards while sparing the city’s cathedral and numerous other monuments.

Military intelligence as well as on-the-ground support were required to salvage Italy’s treasures in the midst of a chaotic invasion. Across Italy, the Venus Fixers placed “out of bounds” signs around churches and castles; conserved damaged sites for later reconstruction; gathered and disseminated crucial information; and forestalled looting and vandalism. Wry anecdotes offer a glimpse of their audacious approach to the job. Monuments Officer Deane Keller, for instance, traveled the mine-pocked terrain for 12 hours a day in a jeep with no top and no springs, which went by the name “Me ne frego” (I don’t give a damn).

Working from a variety of sources, including unpublished manuscripts, records, and diaries, Brey provides keen character sketches of the courageous, unconventional soldiers who took on field-conservation responsibilities. The impassioned Lieutenant Fred Hartt, who, as one colleague said, “breathed and lived Tuscan art for the U.S. Army,” later wrote a memoir of his service and was made an honorary citizen of Florence. Ernest De Wald, an art history professor before the war, supplemented his duties by publishing erudite sightseeing guides for the GIs stationed in Rome and Florence. “A less military-looking lot can hardly ever have been seen,” observed one radio broad­­caster of these highly educated, low-ranking soldiers, whose mission was misunderstood and ridi­culed even as it was ultimately accepted and advanced by their comrades.

The Venus Fixers’ efforts were not an unqual­ified success: over the course of the war, Allied bombs annihilated Andrea Mantegna’s epochal series of frescoes at the church of the Eremitani in Padua, as well as the historic abbey of Monte Cassino near Rome. Yet the degree of devastation that might have been wrought—but was not—is evident throughout Italy today, in the thousands of beautiful objects seemingly untouched by the cataclysm that swept through the country over half a century ago. Equally important, Brey suggests, the Monuments Officers affected the course of the war itself, by improving the morale of bedraggled Italians who rejoiced to see their patrimony spared. As Giambologna’s 16th-century equestrian statue of Grand Duke Cosimo I slowly made its way back from its hiding place to its home in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in February of 1945, cries were heard of “Bentornato, Cosimo” (Welcome back, Cosimo). For Florentines whose world had been rent asunder by the occupation, life and art went together, the survival of one inextricable from the preservation of the other.

This is among the acute lessons of Brey’s elegant and compelling history, which is equally a blueprint for the safeguarding of human heritage in future struggles. While the nature and tactics of war have changed radically since 1945, the need to protect cultural monuments remains unchanged, as does the potential to send a powerful message of peace and reconciliation through their care in the midst of conflict. The story of the Venus Fixers offers hope that, with foresight, organized commitments by civilian, executive, and military authorities, and courageous deeds set in motion by apparently ordinary people, the ancient inheritance of our civilization might outlast the shortsighted battles of the moment.

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