This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The Efforts to Save Art Treasures From the Ravages of World War II
by hilary parkinson
the venus fixers
as the allies moved into italy and the germans retreated during World War ii, the country’s buildings, sculpture, paintings, and manuscripts suffered through bombing raids and bullets along with the italian people. The Last Supper was behind sandbags, and Michelango’s David was bricked up. Paintings were moved out of museums and secured in castles—but this did not keep them safe from a shifting front line, theft, or art-destroying temperature. The Venus Fixers tells the story of the monuments officers who traveled though italy with the allied troops, recording the devastation and attempting to prevent and mitigate the loss of centuries of art. This ilaria dagnini Brey’s first book. she was born in Padua, italy. she is a journalist and translator who lives in new York city with her husband, carter Brey, principal cellist of the new York Philharmonic, and their two children.
Did the British, American, and Italian archives each have their own culture and attitudes, or would you say that whenever you go, researchers are the same? if writing the story of the venus fixers in italy was the goal of my efforts, working in so many different archives was the journey that led me to that goal, and it was a fascinating one. To a degree, i think that every archive has its own distinct personality, and that personality, especially in the case of smaller ones, may come down to the individual archivist or librarian who assisted me. i was an italian researcher, with no affiliation to any institution or publication, and all my published work to date was in italian. Yet once i described the purpose of my research, i was received graciously and given complete assistance at all the american archives and libraries that i visited. i spent weeks on end at the national archives in college Park, and once i managed the commute—i remember waiting, in freezing temperatures, for buses that seemingly never came or rushing to make the last shuttle back into town—it was ideal: i loved the light in the reading room, and the view over the trees gave me a sense of intimacy within nature, yet i could get all the help i needed at any time. The national archives of great Britain—still called the Public record office when i worked there—was equally friendly and wellorganized, if a bit more spartan. The atmosphere at the Photo library of the imperial War Museum in london, with its open stacks and fat albums of old war photographs, brought me back in time, although the assistance and technology there were impeccable. access to italian archives was more complicated. We italians tend not to take people at their word, and, as a result, i found that bureaucratic hurdles often stood in my way. But difficulty of entry was
In your acknowledgements, you note that the book began as research into the destruction of the Ovetari Chapel during World War II, but then shifted to the story of the monuments officers. Were there any documents or records that sparked your interest and made you feel this was the direction to go? i will never forget the day when i came across a letter written by american lt. frederick hartt to ernest de Wald, the director of the subcommission for the Protection of Monuments and fine arts and archives during World War ii. i was working in the rare Books and Manuscripts division of the firestone library of Princeton University, reading de Wald’s papers. i was researching the destruction of the ovetari chapel at the time, and hartt’s handwritten letter described his reaction on witnessing the explosion only a few hours after the air raid on Padua. The document was extraordinary for me, a firsthand account of the artistic tragedy i was investigating. But it was the urgency of hartt’s words that struck me the most. fred hartt, a photo interpreter at the time, was pleading with de Wald to become a monuments officer. i already knew of the existence within the allied armies of the subcommission for the Protection of Monuments, fine arts and archives, or Mfaa, but i had never experienced firsthand its officers’ passionate dedication to my country’s art. i became intrigued by these men, their backgrounds, personalities, and individual contributions, and slowly began to realize that it was their story that i wanted to tell in a book. You made use of several archives in your research: the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; the Archivio di Stato in Florence; the National Archives in London; and other collections of papers at Yale, Princeton, and the British School in Rome.
Ilaria Dagnini Brey
compensated by surprising discoveries. By discovery—which didn’t, by any means, happen only in italy—i mean the sudden turning up of a document that i didn’t suspect existed and that answered a question i had been asking myself for a while, or that confirmed that the path i was following was the right one. i believe it is these moments that not only refuel a researcher’s energy and purpose but, most of all, make these strange, solitary pilgrimages we embark on well worth enduring. The monuments officers focused mostly on the buildings, paintings, and sculptures. But documents suffered the ravages of war. Manuscripts were left in the street or used as wrapping paper for fish and cheese. After seven years of research in archives, do you find this as distressing as the smashed churches? Do you think the monuments officers should have focused more on the Italian archives? i do find the burning of the better part of the naples archives by german soldiers almost as distressing as the destruction of Monte cassino. The monuments officers did what they could to salvage archives, but there were few of them in their ranks, and their priorities were stringent. roger ellis, a British archivist and monuments officer, described himself as a “jack of all trades,” having to divide his time and work between monuments and archives. The protection of archives and libraries was often trickier than that of monuments, since paper seemed humble and worthless to many civilians and soldiers alike. still, the monuments officers were able to locate many archives that the italian fine arts officials had taken out of towns and into abbeys, castles, or villas in the countryside and return them to their sites. They also found Mussolini’s “ordinary archive” in the viminale Palace in rome, where the dictator’s men, in their hasty retreat to the north of italy, had left it. The political significance of this discovery certainly helped “raise the stock” of the monuments officers in the eyes of their fellow army men. In your book, you mention that the Germans used propaganda leaflets to tell the Italians that the Allies would steal their art. Did you ever come across any of the originals? i was not able to see any of the german originals, although i did see allied transcriptions of radio Berlin’s broadcasts accusing the allies of shipping large amounts of artworks from the port of Palermo to new York, destined for sale. and i did come across many
examples of fascist propaganda in response to real or fabricated news of allied destruction. a series of articles in national newspapers, for instance, that commented with words and pictures on allied air raids over italy were titled L’opera dei liberatori, “the liberators’ work.” fascist propaganda was never very subtle. You read many letters from the Venus Fixers. Was it strange to read about the experience of Americans and British officers in your homeland? Did you feel that you came to know them personally? for the seven years of my research the venus fixers were very good company. i grew fonder and fonder of them as my research progressed, although like every long-time relationship, we had our ups and downs. i loved Basil Marriott’s cultivated wit and roger ellis’s bonhomie, while deane Keller’s occasional grumpiness sometimes irritated me. it took me a while to realize how important fred hartt’s work in florence and Tuscany had been. Most of all, i loved these men’s love for my country. Through their descriptions i got to know an italy i had never seen, since i was born well after the end of the war. Through the ravages of the italian campaign they saw my country’s innocence and almost magical beauty and conveyed their reaction to it in their letters with vivid immediacy. i know it may sound odd, but at times i felt jealous of their experience. Your chapter on the fate of the bridges over the Arno in Florence is shocking. Few tourists would guess that city was in terrible shape in 1944. As a child growing up in Padua, were you aware of the extent of the damage during the war, or were you surprised as an adult by the descriptions and images of destruction? i grew up knowing very little of the destruction that my country suffered during World War ii. i knew nothing of the blowing-up of the bridges in florence, and seeing the photographs of the destruction for the first time a few years ago in fred hartt’s memoir, Florentine Art Under Fire, was shocking. By asking around, i soon realized that this ignorance is shared by most people of my generation. But from my childhood i remember vividly two photographs of the destruction of the ovetari chapel in Padua, my hometown. Those pictures are still displayed inside the church, and it was my curiosity to find out more about what happened that led me to writing the story of the venus fixers.
The Venus Fixers
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.