SAVING ITALY: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures From the Nazis, by Robert M. Edsel. W.W. Norton & Co., 454 pp., $28.95.
Imagine an Italy without da Vinci's "Last Supper," the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Such masterworks survived the ravages of time, but the coming of the Second World War presented new threats to Italy's cultural heritage.
In "Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures From the Nazis," Robert M. Edsel recounts how the country's masterpieces endured years of war and occupation. First aerial bombardment, then savage ground warfare -- as the Allies came ashore and fought their way up the boot against a retreating German army -- threatened some of the most iconic works of Western art. Case in point: During a 1943 bombing raid on Milan, British bombs narrowly missed obliterating "The Last Supper." The Allies' cause may have been sure, but their aim often was less so.
There were other threats to Italian art besides bombs. The Nazis proclaimed themselves the stewards of Europe's cultural patrimony, but this was merely a cynical cover for theft and looting. Hitler, a failed artist, dreamed of a vast museum housing Europe's great works, and senior Nazis such as Hermann Göring were themselves collectors who coveted Italy's masterpieces.
To protect Italian art from both bombs and Nazi greed, the Allies created a special unit of unlikely soldiers -- museum directors, artists, teachers and art historians whose mission, Edsel writes, was to "minimize damage to Europe's single greatest concentration of art, architecture and history from the ravages of war; effect repairs when possible; and locate and return stolen works of art to their rightful owners."
These so-called "Monuments Men" trailed the British and American armies from town to town, city to city. Working from aerial photographs, others in the unit fine-tuned Allied tactics. There were successes: In March of 1944, planes dropped bombs on Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station but spared a historic church, built in 1246, that stood just 426 feet away.
Still, the challenges facing the officers of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section (MFAA) were considerable. Edsel, author of two previous books on European art during World War II, details the experiences of two Monuments Men: Capt. Dean Keller, a painter and professor of art at Yale, and Lt. Fred Hartt, an assistant at the Yale University Art Gallery. Where Keller was judicious and by the book, Hartt was an impetuous rule-breaker. They clashed but were both indispensable to the MFAA's mission.
Keller's finest hour came at Pisa. He had inspected hundreds of towns and driven countless "dusty, potholed, bomb-scarred roads" on his tour of duty, but the state of this central Italian city shocked him. Unlike Florence, which had been given special status by the Allies, Pisa suffered greatly from American artillery fire. The famous Leaning Tower had survived, but the Camposanto, a magnificent 13th century edifice -- its 20,000 square feet of frescoes exceeded those of the Sistine Chapel -- lay in near ruins, its roof obliterated. Keller went to work amid shellfire, calling in engineers, Italian army personnel and fresco specialists, to painstakingly restore the Camposanto and protect it from further ruin.
"Saving Italy" is a teeming work -- its cast includes Monuments Men, Italian Fascists, Nazi generals, secret agents and partisan fighters, all with differing agendas -- by an author passionate about his subject. Edsel's narrative slows at times with multiple subplots and detail.
Slotted into his story is a complex account of secret negotiations between the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) and senior SS General Karl Otto Wolff to surrender German troops on Italian soil. Wolff played a complicated role in the fate of artworks from the Pitti and Ufizzi galleries, which had been placed in country villas by Italian officials. Wolff signed off on their removal to the Alto Adige region, where they were held in a kind of limbo. The Nazis passed this off as safeguarding, but the taking of these works, among them paintings by Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Cranach and Botticelli, "involved subterfuge or threat, and at least one took place at gunpoint," Edsel writes. Fred Hartt helped track them down. Florence, he wrote in a report, "had suffered a robbery ... on a scale to dwarf the depredations of Napoleon."
But for the labors of the Monuments Men, the glories of Italian culture might have suffered a worse fate.