Saturday, April 7, 2012

WW II G.I.s protect and preserve Italy's art treasures

I too was struck by the relatively novel sight of African American soldiers in this photo from Iliaria Dagnini Brey's The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II. From the National Archives, it depicts a group at work in the Temple of Neptune at Paestrum. In a guest post for the Archives blog, she describes her emotions on finding it:
"What struck me most about the photograph was the combination of the military and the religious element in it—soldiers in a shrine, albeit an ancient one—and the resulting peaceful atmosphere of the image. The soldiers are intently at work and look almost like school students during study hall. The massive Dorian columns of the Greek temple seem almost protective of their quiet activity…. Noticing some African-Americans in this group, I remembered Mussolini’s odious description of the Allied armies that fought in Italy during World War II: “Hottentots, Sudanese, mercenary Indians, American negroes and other zoological specimens.” I knew instantly that I wanted this photograph for my book…. It is a potent image of continuity between the past and the present, which was what the the Venus Fixers fought for."
I was intrigued to find that Frederick Hartt, the author of a hefty tome on art history assigned my first year of college, was instrumental in getting the ball rolling on preservation efforts (the book describes him weeping over the destruction of a chapel painted by Mantegna). The prized Florentine statue of Primavera at left was in fragments after a particularly vicious German attack; its head was not recovered until the Arno was dredged in 1961.
Benjamin Moser 's description of his response to the book in Harpers resonated with me:
I love a Van Eyck in a salt mine. I savor a discussion on the fate of the Czartoryski Raphael or the Amber Room. I was one of maybe ten people who read all three recent books about the Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren. So when Ilaria Dagnini Brey's The Venus Fixers turned up in my P.O. box, there was never any question of resisting.... It's a thrilling adventure, full of scheming aesthetes and exploding Mantegnas, even for readers not predisposed to excitement about this kind of thing. The story begins shortly before the Allied landings in Sicily in 1943, when alarm over the widespread destruction of Europe's cultural heritage moved President Franklin Roosevelt to establish a commission to preserve as many artistic monuments as possible, an initiative, one general said, that was "without historical precedent in any military campaign." The first step was to draw up extensive lists of treasures that troops might meet along the way, and then to gather experts in the preservation of paintings, libraries, archives, and architecture, men with military rank who would accompany the advancing armies.
An Italian marble worker repairs the statue of an angel in Palermo.
It's a rewarding story on so many levels—especially details like the repatriation of Titian's Danae and other great painting stolen by the Goring division for its Reichmarschall, who had a penchant for nudes.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone who's interested in art history or Italy or the untold stories of World War II will find this book absolutely fascinating. The author's research is very impressive. What I especially enjoyed is the way her deep feeling for the art itself, and the beautiful towns and cities that gave birth to it, shine through in her narrative. I suspect that the "Venus Fixers" themselves must have felt the same way, and Brey makes us feel as if we are witnessing the drama through their eyes. Highly recommended.