During the Second World War, the military destruction and the Nazi ideology put the cultural and artistic patrimony of all Europe at risk. The artistic richness of Florence developed in Adolf Hitler the desire of building a personal artistic centre in Linz: the Führermuseum. Therefore, he ordered the raid of the major pieces of art and the purge from the museums of those he considered “degenerated” works. In front of the destruction of artistic goods and raids carried out by the German troops, there were men who understood the risk the world was running and risked their lives for the love of art: the Monuments Men.
“L’arte e la letteratura sono l’emanazione morale della civiltà, la spirituale irradiazione dei popoli” (Art and literature are the moral emanation of civilization, the spiritual irradiation of the peoples)
– Giosuè Carducci
THE FORMATION OF THE “MONUMENTS MEN”
In 1949 some museum directors, curators, art experts and students organised themselves in different groups. Dr. Paul Sachs, director of Fogg Museum and his expert in safeguard of artistic goods George Stour, founded “American Defense – Hardvard Group”; Francins Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, tries to contact President Roosevelt via the officials.
In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt meets Prime Minister Churchill in Casablanca, where they decide to enter Europe from Italy. The officials of the American army contact the Harvard Group and ask to be supplied with lists of people expert in the field of the safeguard of artistic goods. In the meanwhile, the group American Council of Learned Societies, designates a committee to face the safeguard of European art.
All these groups united and, on the 23rd of June 1943, Roosevelt approves the foundation of the programme Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives: the Monuments Men.
THE FINDINGS OF THE MONUMENTS MEN
The monuments men drew up lists of cultural goods in the war areas, which inspected trying to repair or prevent future damages and they looked for stolen or lost pieces. At the end of the war, they found more than a thousand storages containing pieces of art stolen from Germany, Italy and Austria.
Luckily, in France, the art historian Rose Valland secretly collected detailed information on the raids operation of the group ERR in the museum of Jeu de Paume. Thanks to these documents, the Monuments Men managed to reach the castle of Neuschwanstein in 1945, where they found stolen pieces and the catalogues of ERR, very useful for the finding of further artistic treasures.
However, the greatest and most important discovery was in the mine of Altausse in Austria, where the Monuments Men found more than 6,500 pieces of art. Among the most important pieces that had been rediscovered there are The astronomer and the artist’s study of Vermeer, the Madonna with the Baby of Michelangelo and an altarpiece of Van Eyck.
Many of these men risked their own lives to make so that the European artistic patrimony remained as intact as possible. Probably, without them, today, we would not be able to admire anymore some of the greatest marvels ever realised and many stories would have been lost.
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