Robert M. Edsel has made a career out of telling the story of American soldiers who spent World War II tracking down works of art the Germans stole from the countries they had conquered and returning them to their rightful owners. He has written two best-selling books: The Monuments Men and Saving Italy, and traveled across the United States giving programs calling attention to the work these men did saving masterpieces from destruction in the closing days of World War II. The former book was adapted for a motion picture following the men of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) section of the United States Army in Western Europe after D-Day (June 6, 1944). However, they were not the first men from that section to land on the European continent. Actually the soldiers assigned to the MFAA landed with Allies in Sicily and Italy in 1943.
The the story of the MFAA goes back almost two years before the invasion of mainland Europe when the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By that time Europeans and Britons had been suffering through two years of war and most American were wondering when other shoe was going to drop, despite Roosevelt’s promise to keep the country out the European war. After the Japanese attack, Hitler declared war on the the United States. The directors of a number art museums in the United States decided on a plan to save valuable works of art in case the country was bombed or invaded. Museums on the coasts would sent works of art to institutions in the Mid-West, or at least further inland. For example, the brand new Nation Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. sent some paintings to the Biltmore House in Asheville. At the same time that group lobbied the government for a group to rescue the art works of Europe the Allies invaded occupied countries.
In Europe, museum directors in countries in countries threatened by Germany had already stashed away valuable works of art so the invading Germans wouldn’t be able to find them. But Germans didn’t stop at raiding just museums, they also stole from private collections, mostly from wealthy Jewish owners who were sent to the gas chambers. The Nazis then hid the stolen art treasures in various place in the fatherland making the Monuments Men’s job more difficult, especially after Hitler’s order in the closing days of the war to destroy the German’s ill gotten gain so the Allies couldn’t lay hands on them. Edsel’s books are like fiction thrillers as the Monuments Men race to find the treasures the Germans had hidden away before Hitler’s minions followed their master’s order.
In Italy, the problem was even more complex, especially after the Italians withdrew from the war once Allies threatened invasion of their country. Most of Italy’s big cities were in the northern third of the country and were legitimate bombing targets. Eisenhower wanted to declare Rome an open city, but Winston Churchill refused. Rome, Milan, Florence were important transportation centers as well as housing priceless art treasures. Rome with its Roman ruins, Milan with Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” and Florence’s churches, and bridges were threatened with destruction. The Roman ruins were spared. The “Last Supper” had a close shave after an errant Allied bomb came close. One of Florence’s priceless bridges was destroyed under orders from German General Albert Kesselring. Luckily the Italians had already saved their most valuable statues by bricking them up to protect them damage from the fighting.
Prior his best-sellers, Edsel published a coffee table sized book called Rescuing Da Vinci, which tells the story of the Monuments Men primarily in pictures. In addition to Edsel’s programs and books, there is a Moments Men website, which lists artworks that have yet to be found.