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'The Venus Fixers: The Untold Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II'

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The Venus Fixers: The Untold Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II


Ilaria Dagnini Brey


April 2009


Published by Macmillan, whose description is set out below together with a review by Marilyn Henry of 14 January 2010:

"In 1943, with the world convulsed by war and a Fascist defeat in Europe far from certain, a few visionaries—civilians and soldiers alike—saw past questions of life and death to realize that victory wasn’t the only thing at stake. So was the priceless cultural heritage of thousands of years.

In the midst of the conflict, the Allied Forces appointed the monuments officers—a motley group of art historians, curators, architects, and artists—to ensure that the great masterworks of European art and architecture were not looted or bombed into oblivion. The journalist Ilaria Dagnini Brey focuses her spellbinding account on the monuments officers of Italy, quickly dubbed “the Venus Fixers” by bemused troops.

Working on the front lines in conditions of great deprivation and danger, these unlikely soldiers stripped the great galleries of their incomparable holdings and sent them into safety by any means they could; when trucks could not be requisitioned or “borrowed,” a Tiepolo altarpiece might make its midnight journey across the countryside balanced in the front basket of a bicycle. They blocked a Nazi convoy of two hundred stolen paintings—including Danae, Titian’s voluptuous masterpiece, an intended birthday present for Hermann Göring.They worked with skeptical army strategists to make sure air raids didn’t take out the heart of an ancient city, and patched up Renaissance palazzi and ancient churches whose lead roofs were sometimes melted away by the savagery of the attacks, exposing their frescoed interiors to the harsh Tuscan winters and blistering summers. Sometimes they failed. But to an astonishing degree, they succeeded, and anyone who marvels at Italy’s artistic riches today is witnessing their handiwork.

In the course of her research, Brey gained unprecedented access to private archives and primary sources, and the result is a book at once thorough and grandly entertaining—a revelatory take on a little-known chapter of World War II history. The Venus Fixers is an adventure story with the gorgeous tints of a Botticelli landscape as its backdrop."

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN: 978-0-374-28309-4, ISBN-10: 0-374-28309-5. 

Reviews shown on the publisher's website include the following:

“Art and war come together in this superbly researched history that reveals how Italy’s Renaissance masterpieces were caught in the crossfire of World War II. Ilaria Dagnini Brey recounts how many of these works almost miraculously survived, and who we have to thank for saving them—a somewhat unlikely crew of art historians, scholars, and architects. She shows how their quiet courage stood between some of the world’s greatest treasures and a fate almost unbearable to contemplate.” —Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

The Venus Fixers is an extraordinary story—tragic, poignant, and inspiring by turn. A must-read for anyone who recognizes that the mute victims of any country’s war are frequently its works of art, it brings to light a little-known and entirely absorbing aspect of World War II.” —Caroline P. Murphy, author of Murder of a Medici Princess

“Ilaria Dagnini Brey expertly recounts the race to protect masterpieces of art and architecture caught on the battlefront. Fascinating and brilliantly researched, The Venus Fixers is a story of Botticellis hidden in castles, the monuments officers’ heroism, and the art’s often narrow escape, played out against air strikes and looting, leveled churches and shattered frescoes.” —Cynthia Saltzman, author of Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures

“In this finely written and researched first book, full of anecdotes that will fascinate all art lovers, Ilaria Dagnini Brey adds wonderful insight and detail to the gripping story of the miraculous preservation of many of the world’s most treasured masterpieces during the Allied campaign in Italy. The heroes are the curators of Italy’s patrimony and the fabled monuments men attached to the Allied invasion forces, and Ms. Brey does them proud.” —Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War

Review by Marilyn Henry 'The Art of War' from the Jerusalem Post 14 January 2010 below:

As American troops fought the Nazis, US commanders were given an unprecedented military assignment: Defeat fascism without destroying European monuments and the continent's cultural heritage. Military needs would always trump cultural preservation, but monuments and artworks were to be protected, where possible, from war damage, ransacking and military requisition.

This was a tall order filled by an unusual assortment of painters, sculptors, architects, historians and curators who begged, borrowed or scrounged the means to protect monuments in the Allied military's path, repair those that had been damaged by war and find caches of looted property. These were the "monuments men," members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, a minuscule part of the US military. Along with British counterparts, they were officers of low rank and "superior" education who were charged with the preservation of Europe's great treasures.

Although the monuments men were virtually unknown for a half-century after World War II, two new books tell the story of the mission and the men who fulfilled it. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, covers the wartime and immediate postwar work of the monuments men in Northern Europe. Ilaria Dagnini Brey has written The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II. Both books are ambitious, beautifully written and compelling history. (Edsel took some liberties by recreating dialogue, which was not too troubling.)

Edsel has painted vivid pictures of the monument men's courage, skill and moxie as they began their mission in the middle of the war. He also gives one of the most detailed accounts in English of France's formidable Rose Valland, who worked in Paris's Jeu de Palme museum during the Nazi occupation and bravely kept track of the artworks that had been looted. The monuments men briefly helped repatriate artworks found in the US Occupation Zones immediately after the war.

The number of objects was staggering. In western Germany alone, the Allies had discovered more than 1,000 repositories and caches of cultural properties - millions of works of art and cultural objects, including Torah scrolls, church bells, ceremonial religious items, archives, manuscripts, books, wine, gold, diamonds - and an insect collection.

Neither Edsel nor Brey shies away from revealing the frustration, fatigue and loneliness of the monuments men. Working alone or in pairs, they faced herculean challenges, at times amid enemy fire, with inadequate or unreliable support from the military, which reasonably put its battle plans and the welfare of its men above the welfare of monuments. Yet, to the monuments men's credit, they persevered.

"From my point of view, this is not a bad job," George Stout, formerly of Harvard's Fogg Museum, wrote to a colleague in October 1944. "During the last three weeks I've been in harness with an Englishman who's gone terribly sour and says we're wasting our time. I don't know what he expected. Some strange romantic adventure, personal glory or great authority, perhaps. He doesn't convince me. We can't count the result but I'm satisfied, not with what I've done but with what the job stands for."

In Italy, political disarray and changing military conditions imperiled monuments and artworks. Monuments men attempted to salvage works they could not easily protect and became known as the "Venus fixers." (This moniker apparently began as something of a joke, but subsequently was worn with pride.) Brey tells of one of the men, Frederick Hartt, an Allied officer who, in addition to rescuing Florentine art, had helped save churches and palazzi in Sicily from the threats of weather, vandalism and theft. Hartt wrote they had saved them "from slipping from history into oblivion."

Edsel has done something similar for the monuments men. Long before the publication of his book, he was seeking - and winning - recognition for their wartime work. Men like Hartt, Stout and James Rorimer returned to important careers in American cultural and art historical circles. When Hartt died in 1991, The New York Times reported that he had been a widely published scholar of Renaissance art and listed the American universities at which he taught. But it overlooked his work in Italy.

FOR ALL the public discussion on Nazi-era looting in the last dozen years, and demands for information regarding the provenance of artworks, systematic research of plunder and acquisitions seems to be sorely lacking. There are few comprehensive and easily accessible sources that identify and trace the fates of objects that were confiscated or displaced during World War II.

Nancy H. Yeide, the head of curatorial records at the US National Gallery of Art, has made a profound contribution to the historical record by cataloging the art collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and a self-styled Renaissance man. With images and provenance information on some 1,800 works Goering acquired, Yeide's book Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection dramatically illustrates the extent to which Goering was indeed the Nazi master plunderer. Yeide's work on Goering was not an academic exercise. While researching Goering's artworks, she located a Francois Boucher painting that had been looted from the Paris art dealer Andre Seligmann in 1940. The painting, which had been donated to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 1993, was returned to Seligmann's heirs in 2004.

With its archival and scholarly depth, Yeide's book is important to historians, museums and art professionals. Unfortunately, a book of this heft was quite expensive to publish, and its price tag puts it beyond individual reach. But it should be essential for collections in universities and libraries.

None of these books is about Jewish cultural losses, although these losses are briefly touched on in Edsel's book. However, these volumes are welcomed additions to the small batch of books on Holocaust-era looting. They are valuable in their own rights and for keeping attention focused on the magnitude and unresolved issues of Nazi looting.

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