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Monuments Men: The Crafty Artist-Warriors of World War II (PHOTOS) SUBTITLE: A group of scholar-soldiers had one of the most important jobs of the war:

A group of scholar-soldiers had one of the most important jobs of the war: protect Europe’s greatest art and cultural monuments from the carnage of battle. Robert Edsel tells the story of the Monuments Men at work in his new book, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis

Deane Keller Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University

Civico Archivio Fotografico, Milano

The Last Supper Nearly Destroyed

In the summer of 1943, Allied leaders believed that stepping up bombing attacks on Milan and other northern cities would be instrumental in forcing an Italian surrender. During the August 15-16, 1943 raid, an Allied bomb barely missed hitting the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church in Milan and came close to destroying Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The bomb landed in the courtyard named Cloister of the Dead (indicated by the rectangle), destroying the covered arcade and causing massive damage to the surrounding buildings. The obliteration of the east wall of the refectory (denoted with a straight line) caused the roof to collapse. In 1940, local art officials concerned about this very possibility, had installed sandbags, pine scaffolding, and metal bracing on both sides of the north wall. Only this precaution prevented Leonardo’s masterpiece from collapsing. These spliced photos, taken from the rooftop of the church, are the earliest known images taken.

[Civico Archivio Fotografico, Milano]

Arianna and Elisa Magrini and Edizioni Polistampa, Firenze

Hitler Tours the Uffizi in Florence

Hitler visited Florence on May 9, 1938, and spent almost two hours studying works of art in the Pitti Palace, Vasari Corridor, and Uffizi Gallery. Others shown are Joseph Goebbels (the short man behind Hitler); Friedrich Kriegbaum; Benito Mussolini; and Giovanni Poggi (with hat in hand). As an aspiring student of painting and architecture, Hitler had been rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, but his interest endured. His visit to Florence inspired plans to build an extraordinary museum—the Gemäldegalerie Linz, commonly referred to as the Führermuseum—that would contain what Hitler considered to be some of the world’s most important art.

[Arianna and Elisa Magrini and Edizioni Polistampa, Firenze]

Frederick Hartt Papers, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gallery Archives

Monuments Man Lt. Fred Hartt

The Monuments Men were a group of middle-aged scholar-soldiers, some of whom were artists and teachers, faced with a seemingly impossible task: minimize damage to Europe’s 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.

Prior to the war, Frederick Hartt was an art historian—a rising star in his field. He worked as an assistant and cataloguer at Yale University Art Gallery before his commission into the U.S. Army in 1942, at the age of 29. Hartt was a go-getter, sometimes impulsive and idealistic to the point of being naïve, but his passionate love of Italy and its great cultural treasures made him an invaluable asset to the short-handed Monuments Men group.  

[Frederick Hartt Papers, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gallery Archives]

Monuments Man Capt. Deane Keller

Keller was a 42-year-old portrait painter and associate professor of drawing and painting at Yale. Keller, like many of the 47 other Monuments Men who served in the Mediterranean Theater, volunteered so he could serve his country and put his extraordinary knowledge of Italy to use. He left behind his beloved wife, Kathy, and young son, Dino. Introverted, sensitive, and extremely hardworking, Keller often felt alone and isolated in the army. He was attached to U.S. Fifth Army, often entering towns just behind front-line troops amidst gunfire and exploding mines. Keller believed that saving Italy’s culture enabled the Allies to earn the trust of the Italian people.

National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

The Ruins of the Abbey of Monte Cassino

The decision to bomb the Abbey of Monte Cassino proved to be the first major test of General Eisenhower’s directive to “respect… monuments so far as war allows.” Ultimately, the Allied bombers destroyed the Abbey on February 15, 1944 dropping 493 tons of explosives, but the result was bitterly disappointing: the battle for Cassino continued for three more months. Monuments officer Capt. Roger Ellis (in the lead) and Maj. Ernest DeWald accompanied Captain Turner, of the British File Unit, for the two-mile ascent up a narrow path, which had just been cleared of mines by Polish engineers, to inspect the remains of the Abbey. This photograph was taken on May 27, 1944, just nine days after the battle ended.

[National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD]

Florentine Bridges Destroyed

Amidst contradictory orders from Hitler and Wehrmacht High Command, Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring ordered the mining of bridges and their adjacent streets in Florence. Six of Florence’s seven major bridges were destroyed in early August 1944, in what proved to be a failed effort to delay Allied troops from crossing the Arno River. Only the Ponte Vecchio was spared, but at the expense of medieval buildings and towers on both ends of the bridge that were demolished to block passage.

Deane Keller Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University

Deane Keller with Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’

Monuments officer Captain Deane Keller visited the Florentine museum repository at Montegufoni during the winter of 1944–45. Fred Hartt made the shocking discovery in early August 1944, which included Botticelli’s world-famous masterpiece, Primavera, just one of the 246 paintings that had been stored at Montegufoni for safekeeping by Italian officials. Even more disturbing was the disappearance of some 700 paintings and sculpture from the Uffizi, Pitti, and Bargelo museums, emptied by retreating German forces. From that moment, the Monuments Men began their work as art detectives, tracking every clue to determine the locations of the missing masterpieces.

[Deane Keller Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University]

National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Germans Unloading Florentine Masterpieces

Open-top trucks hastily loaded with some of the Florentine treasures, including this painting from the Uffizi—Luca Signorelli’s Crucifixion—began arriving in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige on August 13, 1944. German soldiers transported the uncrated paintings over hundreds of miles of poor-quality roads with little more protection than straw. Worried the art would be transported into the Reich, Italian officials desperately tried to regain control of their treasures, to no avail. The location of the German hiding places eluded the Monuments Men until the last two weeks of the war.

[National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD]

Walter Frentz

General Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff

Wolff was supreme leader of all SS troops and police in Italy. For six years he had worked in Hitler’s headquarters as Chief of the Personal Staff to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. After Italy’s capitulation in September 1943, Wolff became the de facto leader of Mussolini’s Social Republic. He often capitalized on his persuasive personality and the personal favor of Hitler. Wolff used the missing Florentine treasures as a pawn in his efforts to save his life by negotiating the surrender of all German troops in Italy with American OSS spymaster Allen Dulles.

[ullstein bild—Walter Frentz]

National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Return of Florentine Treasures

The triumphant return of the Florentine treasures took place on July 22, 1945. It had taken nearly two months to inventory, pack, and ship the art, worth an estimated $5 billion. This truck first passed before the review stand under the Loggia di Lanza, before stopping in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, where, seven years earlier, thousands of Florentines had greeted the arrival of Hitler. Allied officials formally turned over the treasures to Florentine officials amidst a crowd of thousands.

[National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD]