The 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|
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!”
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|