War has always left death and destruction in its wake, but advances in weapons technology and transportation made World War II particularly horrific. Whole cities were flattened and burned by the air forces of Allied and Axis countries. Civilians died in staggering numbers. Understandably, the fate of centuries of art was of little concern to many people who were trying to survive, but a few Allied leaders thought that saving art could foster goodwill, peace, and prosperity in the post-war world. The great paintings and sculptures symbolized shared cultural achievements and were the pride of their nations. With the support of President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower, a branch of the U.S. Army known as Monuments Men were ordered to do what they could to save masterworks of art and architecture. They faced a very great challenge when Allied forces began a campaign to liberate Italy. Robert M. Edsel tells the story in Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis.
If the words "Monuments Men" seems familiar to you, you have either heard of Edsel's previous book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History or the upcoming movie of the same name starring Matt Damon and George Clooney, which is based on Edsel’s book. Saving Italy is a continuation of that story, focusing on efforts to protect the art of Naples, Venice, Rome, Pisa, and Florence. The complicating factor was that the Germans were allies of the Italians and could not steal art as blatantly there as in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, despite Mussolini’s disregard for art. At times there were partisan Italians, Allied agents, and two factions from the German military vying to gain control of displaced paintings, sculptures, pottery, jewelry, and rare books.
Saving Italy is filled with fascinating characters, including dueling American art experts Deane Keller and Fred Hartt, conflicted Nazi S.S. Commander General Karl Wolf, and the unflappable American spymaster Allen Dulles. The fate of paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli, and many other masters was in their hands.
I listened to Saving Italy read skillfully by Edoardo Ballerini and found it an exciting read from which I learned much about World War II in Italy.
Edsel, Robert M. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis. Norton, 2013. 454p. ISBN 9780393082418.
Recorded Books, 2013. 10 compact discs. ISBN 9781470371296.