Mostly whimsical reflections on life
A government hellbent on exterminating a people would have no qualms extinguishing the artistic light of a civilization it deemed foreign and impure.
Thanks to Hollywood, we now know about the band of mostly art historians who underwent basic training and the treachery of taking back what Hitler’s goons stole.
Before George Clooney and Matt Damon enlightened us in the movie “The Monuments Men,” it took a restless, rich oilman from Texas to ferret out the story and bring to light the heroism of these improbable soldiers against savagery.
Robert Edsel had an epiphany as he sauntered across the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge over the Arno River in Florence, Italy to survive after a Nazi retreat. As he marveled at the covered medieval bridge, his mind drifted to wondering how so much fine art survived the wrath and genocidal urges of the Germans.
His wonderment, and millions of his own money, led to him to write “Rescuing Da Vinci” and co-produce a documentary, “The Rape of Europa.” As he did his research, Edsel discovered the band of men and women commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt and General Dwight Eisenhower to save art treasures that helped define and advance modern Western civilization.
This wasn’t an ordinary salvage operation. Monuments Men found Hitler’s art stash in an Austrian salt mine, a fairy tale castle chock full of works stolen from prominent French Jews and the sculpture Madonna and Child by Michelangelo tucked away in a Belgian church.
NPR’s Rita Braver interviewed one of only six Monuments Men still living. Harry Ettlinger, a German-born American who was 20 years old when he was assigned to the group recounted how he uncovered Rembrandt’s self-portrait.
Deane Keller, another of the Monuments Men, toiled to restore the Camposanto in Pisa, Italy. He was buried there after his death in 1992.
John Skilton scavenged lumber to build a temporary ceiling that protected the “Allegory of the Planets and Continents,” a ceiling fresco in the Residenz palace in Wurzburg, Germany, from further damage by bad weather. Today the palace has a small shrine dedicated to Skilton.
For his work uncovering the Monuments Men, Edsel was given the 2007 National Humanities Award. Congress recognized his work and the work of the Monuments Men in resolutions passed by both the House and Senate.
Even if the faces are different from the original Monuments Men, their feats of unsung heroism will no longer go unnoticed or unappreciated.