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the venus fixers

The Efforts to Save Art Treasures From the Ravages of World War II
by hilary parkinson

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
Ilaria Dagnini Brey

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.

In your acknowledgements, you note that the book began as Did the British, American, and Italian archives each have their
research into the destruction of the Ovetari Chapel during World own culture and attitudes, or would you say that whenever you
War II, but then shifted to the story of the monuments officers. go, researchers are the same?
Were there any documents or records that sparked your interest If writing the story of the Venus Fixers in Italy was the goal of
and made you feel this was the direction to go? my efforts, working in so many different archives was the journey
I will never forget the day when I came across a letter written by that led me to that goal, and it was a fascinating one. To a degree,
American Lt. Frederick Hartt to Ernest De Wald, the director of I think that every archive has its own distinct personality, and that
the Subcommission for the Protection of Monuments and Fine Arts personality, especially in the case of smaller ones, may come down
and Archives during World War II. I was working in the Rare Books to the individual archivist or librarian who assisted me.
and Manuscripts Division of the Firestone Library of Princeton I was an Italian researcher, with no affiliation to any institution
University, reading De Wald’s papers. I was researching the destruc- or publication, and all my published work to date was in Italian. Yet
tion of the Ovetari Chapel at the time, and Hartt’s handwritten letter once I described the purpose of my research, I was received graciously
described his reaction on witnessing the explosion only a few hours and given complete assistance at all the American archives and librar-
after the air raid on Padua. The document was extraordinary for me, ies that I visited. I spent weeks on end at the National Archives in
a firsthand account of the artistic tragedy I was investigating. College Park, and once I managed the commute—I remember wait-
But it was the urgency of Hartt’s words that struck me the most. ing, in freezing temperatures, for buses that seemingly never came
Fred Hartt, a photo interpreter at the time, was pleading with De or rushing to make the last shuttle back into town—it was ideal: I
Wald to become a monuments officer. I already knew of the existence loved the light in the reading room, and the view over the trees gave
within the Allied Armies of the Subcommission for the Protection of me a sense of intimacy within nature, yet I could get all the help I
Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, or MFAA, but I had never ex- needed at any time.
perienced firsthand its officers’ passionate dedication to my country’s The National Archives of Great Britain—still called the Public
art. I became intrigued by these men, their backgrounds, personali- Record Office when I worked there—was equally friendly and well-
ties, and individual contributions, and slowly began to realize that organized, if a bit more spartan. The atmosphere at the Photo Library
it was their story that I wanted to tell in a book. of the Imperial War Museum in London, with its open stacks and fat
albums of old war photographs, brought me back in time, although
You made use of several archives in your research: the National the assistance and technology there were impeccable.
Archives in Washington, D.C.; the Archivio di Stato in Florence; Access to Italian archives was more complicated. We Italians tend
the National Archives in London; and other collections of not to take people at their word, and, as a result, I found that bu-
papers at Yale, Princeton, and the British School in Rome. reaucratic hurdles often stood in my way. But difficulty of entry was

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compensated by surprising discoveries. examples of Fascist propaganda in re-
By discovery—which didn’t, by any sponse to real or fabricated news of
means, happen only in Italy—I mean Allied destruction. A series of articles
the sudden turning up of a document in national newspapers, for instance,
that I didn’t suspect existed and that that commented with words and pic-
answered a question I had been asking tures on Allied air raids over Italy were
myself for a while, or that confirmed titled L’opera dei liberatori, “the libera-
that the path I was following was the tors’ work.” Fascist propaganda was
right one. I believe it is these moments never very subtle.
that not only refuel a researcher’s ener-
gy and purpose but, most of all, make You read many letters from the
these strange, solitary pilgrimages we Venus Fixers. Was it strange to read
embark on well worth enduring. about the experience of Americans
and British officers in your home-
The monuments officers focused land? Did you feel that you came to
mostly on the buildings, paint- know them personally?
ings, and sculptures. But docu- For the seven years of my research
ments suffered the ravages of war. the Venus Fixers were very good
Manuscripts were left in the street company. I grew fonder and fonder
or used as wrapping paper for fish of them as my research progressed,
and cheese. After seven years of although like every long-time rela-
research in archives, do you find tionship, we had our ups and downs.
this as distressing as the smashed I loved Basil Marriott’s cultivated wit
churches? Do you think the monu- and Roger Ellis’s bonhomie, while
ments officers should have focused Deane Keller’s occasional grumpiness
more on the Italian archives? sometimes irritated me. It took me a
I do find the burning of the better while to realize how important Fred
part of the Naples archives by German soldiers almost as distressing as Hartt’s work in Florence and Tuscany had been. Most of all, I loved
the destruction of Monte Cassino. The monuments officers did what these men’s love for my country. Through their descriptions I got to
they could to salvage archives, but there were few of them in their know an Italy I had never seen, since I was born well after the end
ranks, and their priorities were stringent. Roger Ellis, a British archi- of the war. Through the ravages of the Italian campaign they saw my
vist and monuments officer, described himself as a “jack of all trades,” country’s innocence and almost magical beauty and conveyed their
having to divide his time and work between monuments and archives. reaction to it in their letters with vivid immediacy. I know it may
The protection of archives and libraries was often trickier than that sound odd, but at times I felt jealous of their experience.
of monuments, since paper seemed humble and worthless to many
civilians and soldiers alike. Still, the monuments officers were able Your chapter on the fate of the bridges over the Arno in Florence
to locate many archives that the Italian Fine Arts officials had taken is shocking. Few tourists would guess that city was in terrible
out of towns and into abbeys, castles, or villas in the countryside shape in 1944. As a child growing up in Padua, were you aware
and return them to their sites. They also found Mussolini’s “ordinary of the extent of the damage during the war, or were you surprised
archive” in the Viminale Palace in Rome, where the dictator’s men, as an adult by the descriptions and images of destruction?
in their hasty retreat to the north of Italy, had left it. The political I grew up knowing very little of the destruction that my country
significance of this discovery certainly helped “raise the stock” of the suffered during World War II. I knew nothing of the blowing-up
monuments officers in the eyes of their fellow army men. of the bridges in Florence, and seeing the photographs of the de-
struction for the first time a few years ago in Fred Hartt’s memoir,
In your book, you mention that the Germans used propaganda Florentine Art Under Fire, was shocking. By asking around, I soon
leaflets to tell the Italians that the Allies would steal their art. Did realized that this ignorance is shared by most people of my genera-
you ever come across any of the originals? tion. But from my childhood I remember vividly two photographs
I was not able to see any of the German originals, although I of the destruction of the Ovetari Chapel in Padua, my hometown.
did see Allied transcriptions of Radio Berlin’s broadcasts accusing Those pictures are still displayed inside the church, and it was my
the Allies of shipping large amounts of artworks from the port of curiosity to find out more about what happened that led me to writ-
Palermo to New York, destined for sale. And I did come across many ing the story of the Venus Fixers.

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