Accessible Art History
The Monuments Men
During WWII, there was a concern amongst Allied Nations about the preservation of art and cultural treasures. Hitler and his forces were pillaging and plundering to both finance their efforts and create a grand “Furhermuseum” at the center of the Third Reich empire. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas" on June 23, 1943. It was a group of about 350 people, including art historians and soldiers. They spent the remaining years of the war scouring the continent, looking for Hitler’s secret depositories of stolen work.
After the war ended, the commission’s work did not stop. Art historians, historians, document experts, and governments worked together to identify everything that had been stolen. It was their job to determine where the pieces came from and how to return it to the original owner. Works that belonged to museums and religious buildings were easy to return. But, there were also tons of pieces that were stolen from prominent Jewish families. Records were harder to come by and descendants had to be tracked down. In the meantime, some art slipped through the cracks and was sold to collectors and museums.
Today, the Monuments Men Foundation continues the great work of the original commission. They track down lost and stolen pieces in order to preserve the world’s cultural heritage and returning looted art to the heirs of the rightful owners. On our Instagram this week, we are going to cover pieces that were both lost and found. This blog post is going to explain how the Monuments Men operated and cover a few works they saved from falling into Nazi hands.
There was no guidebook for saving art. The Monuments Men were thrown into the middle of active theaters and had to figure out what to do all on their own. They had to rely upon their individual knowledge of art history and museum practices to help save works. This group was part soldier, part spy and risked their own lives to protect cultural treasures.
Whenever possible, the Monuments Men would procure aerial photographs of cities that were under siege. They would mark important monuments and buildings (such as museums and galleries) to advise pilots where not to drop their bomb loads. They would do their best, but there were some cases where this was simply not possible. When this was the case, the Monuments Men would assess the damage and fix what they could.
Using intel gathered from various sources, the Monuments Men would try and find art caches hidden around Nazi territories. In Germany alone, they were able to find over 1,500 repositories. Five million pieces of art were carefully catalogued, researched, and restored. Whenever possible, the pieces were returned to their original museum or owner. The work is still ongoing and is continued by the Monuments Men foundation.
Two works by Leonardo da Vinci are excellent examples of how the Monuments Men operated in the field, outside of looking for major caches. The first is the famous Mona Lisa. In 1939, it was clear that the Nazis were going to invade France. Directors and curators at the Louvre knew Hitler and his cronies' penchant for stealing art, so they knew it was up to them to protect the treasures held within the museum.
Carefully and quickly, they packed up the masterpieces and loaded them into ambulances. At this point in the war, not even the Nazis would stop an emergency vehicle. The treasures were taken to various estates and houses in the French countryside, away from major cities that were targeted by the Nazis.
Throughout the war, the Monuments Men assisted in keeping the Louvre works, such as the Mona Lisa, from falling into Nazi hands. It was moved at least six times, each one fraught with danger. If they were discovered, not only would the priceless works fall into enemy hands, but their lives would most likely be forfeit. Thankfully, that didn't happen and the Mona Lisa was saved.
The second work is the Last Supper. This one represents how the Monuments Men had to fight against the war itself in order to save cultural icons. The Last Supper has always been a fragile painting. Da Vinci attempted to use a new fresco technique and it started to crumble away during his own life time.
In 1943, the Allies were performing bombing raids on Italy. They wanted to retake the peninsula and were willing to do just about anything to turn the tide. Milan was one of the target cities and Santa Maria delle Grazie (the church were the fresco was painted) was within the bombs' range.
The Monuments Men had to act fast. Because this work was a fresco, moving it to another location wasn't possible. So, they got creative. Steel scaffolding was erected and used as a brace to support the wall. Then, sandbags were placed to help support and absorb the impact. The Monuments Men had only a few types of supplies to work with, but they made the best of it.
Their efforts saved The Last Supper. Allied bombs rained down on Milan and hit Santa Marie delle Grazie. The only wall of the refractory that remained standing was the one that The Last Supper was painted upon.
Thanks to the efforts of the Monuments Men, the world has been able to keep their cultural treasures. Hitler and his forces were responsible for the deaths of over 60 million people and tried to erase our shared heritage. But, the brave 350 men and woman of the Monuments Men group helped to save the priceless works and keep the past alive.