Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey - A Review

In 1943, the Allies appointed the Monuments Officers, a group of art historians, curators, architects, and artists, to ensure that the masterpieces of European art and architecture were not looted or bombed into oblivion. The officers of Italy shored up tottering palaces and cathedrals, safeguarded Michangelos and Giottos, and even blocked a Nazi convoy of stolen paintings bound for Goring’s birthday celebration. Sometimes they failed, but to an astonishing degree they succeeded. (from the back jacket)

The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War IIThe Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey is the remarkable tale of a small group of men who were attached to the British and American Armies for the purpose of preserving and restoring the art and monuments of Sicily and Italy. The task was daunting. Every village had a church or monument or piazza in need of preservation. The cities of Naples and Florence were mother lodes of artwork and monuments sitting in the midst of an active theater of operations. But in some cases, before they could make damage assessments, the Venus Fixers had to find the artwork first.

To protect the artwork, paintings and sculptures were taken out of the cities and moved into the country to thickly walled churches or medieval fortresses where they would be safe. Or would they?

Giorgione's The Tempest
The illusion that the backwater village of Sassocorvaro would never be reached by the war was short lived. Rotondi immediately drove to Sassocorvaro and filled his car with as many masterpieces as he could stuff in the trunk; he wrapped some more in blankets and laid them across the backseat… He hoped that in case of German inspection, in the dark of night, they might pass for his children… His plan was to drive the paintings back to Urbino and temporarily hide them in the basement of the Ducal Palace. Upon reaching the town gate, he was met by his wife, who had rushed to alert him that SS squads were in town. Husband and wife then drove their charge, including four of Giovanni Bellini’s exquisite Madonnas, Giorgione’s Tempest, and Mantegna’s St. George, to the house they had been renting outside Urbino.

This was happening all over Italy. Some pieces of art were stored in the neutral Vatican City, others behind false walls, or in wine cellars and basements. Boticelli’s Primavera, measuring six feet in height and nine in width, was left in the care of two farmers near the castle of Montegufoni, a property of the British Sitwell family. When Major Linklater, one of the Venus Fixers, arrived at Montegufoni he noticed several paintings stacked two and three deep against the wall:

Now that his eyes were beginning to adjust to the shuttered dimness of the room, [the paintings] looked like good copies, indeed very good copies, of old masters. They were remarkably good… As the thought was slowly dawning on Linklater that he might be in the actual presence of some authentic masterpieces of Italian art, Vaughan-Thomas burst into the room screaming, “There are hundreds of pictures, Giottos and Boticellis; the whole house is teaming with them!”

Boticelli's Primavera
But there were thousands of pieces of art that the Venus Fixers would not find in Italy. They had been loaded up in trucks and moved north into Austria for the personal use of Herman Goring where they would remain until the end of the war. Some of the pillaged pieces included: Titian’s Danae, Raphael’s Madonna of Divine Love, Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation, and bronzes from Pompeii, all would be cataloged by the Venus Fixers.

Lippi's Annunciation
While reading The Venus Fixers, it was hard to take it all in. It was harrowing to read of Allied bombs falling on Mantegna’s frescos in Padua or on the baptistry in Pisa or the Germans shelling the Piazza Signorini in Florence even after they had abandoned the city and after having blown up every bridge crossing the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. But once the Germans had decided that they would contest every mile of Italy, such destruction was inevitable.

In the hopes of minimizing such damage, on December 29, 1943, General Eisenhower issued a command to his commanders in the field:

Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.

If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that… Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.

Total Allied casualties in the Italian campaign were 59,151 killed, 30,849 missing, and 230,000 wounded, and although it is tragic to think of the art that disappeared during the fight up the Italian peninsula, considering these losses, it is amazing that is wasn’t much worse.

American Military Cemetery Outside Florence
Although I found The Venus Fixers to be a pretty dry read, I was in awe of Brey’s ability to document where much of the artwork of Italy was during the course of the war, despite some pieces having been moved numerous times. In a country teeming with artwork that is quite an accomplishment.


  1. Mary -- I remember walking around Padua in 1971. There were two small (I Believe) Romanesque chapels quite near to each other. One had been bombed into smithereens -- and the other held the frescos of Giotto's Life of Christ. I am not a Christian; but, that, to me, was a type of miracle.

  2. There were a lot of miracles in Italy during the war, including the Baptistry in Pisa. I still shudder at the thought of La Tempesta bumping around the countryside avoiding the Germans. Thanks for commenting.

  3. This sounds absolutely incredible.

    I've been to Rome and seen many famous paintings and I've been to Florence (Firrenza)and visited the Medici Palaces and the Offizi. Incredidible! I could have stayed there for the rest of my life.

  4. This is exactly the type of history that I enjoy reading about, where humans gather to save something worth saving. I don't care for political or military plans, but give me a fight for art and I'm enthralled.

    I'm sorry you felt it a bit of a dry read, Mary. Might have to go to the library for this one, save my book bucks for something else.

    Thanks for the sample!

  5. Lucy, The author successfully tracked down thousands of pieces of art, but in writing about it, the middle of the book felt like I was reading a catalog. I also wished that she had opened the story a little bit to the Italians, or better yet (from an American's pov), to the Italian-Americans who were clawing their way up Italy's boot. What did they think about all this? But, as I said, it's a great resource.

  6. I watched a documentary on this topic some time ago and I remember being stunned by how dedicated the commanding officer in one particular Italian city was in his efforts to protect, preserve and restore the city's priceless treasures. Thank God for Eisenhower's attitude on the issue, as it would've been far easier for the military to simply bulldoze their way through the country with utter indifference to the damage they would be inflicting.

    I know one Italian-American soldier in particular who was in Italy at the time as a translator. The impression he has given me was that the majority of the soldiers he served with understood little to nothing of Italy's rich heritage. He spoke warmly of the men he served with, but it struck me that he was the one constantly reminding them that they couldn't climb up on statues or ancient buildings to pose for pictures. My friend said there was some grumbling about the caution they had to take in their military activities in order to protect certain buildings which the soldiers thought were worthless given the bombing they had already sustained.

    My point being, I suspect without direct orders regarding the protection of Italian art, very few in the military would've understood the need for caution over convenience, particularly given how tired they all were at that point in the war.

  7. Giorecs, You make an excellent point. When the soldiers thought the Germans were using Monte Cassino as a sniper's lair, they were all for bombing the heck out of it, which they did. It must have been very difficult, esp. with street fighting. I doubt anyone was thinking of Michelangelo when the bullets were flying.