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How the Italian Renaissance was saved from ravages of war

It was late winter of 1944 in Tuscany. American fliers, navigators and bombardiers in Sardinia crammed into briefing rooms as they did most mornings.

Today, they were told, they would smash the main marshaling yards supplying the ammunition, equipment and supplies to the Nazis opposing the U.S. Fifth Army at Anzio and Monte Cassino.

What was different on this day were the wall-sized map of Italy and the blowup of the target area. The Santa Maria Novella railroad yard in the heart of Florence was surrounded by dozens of white boxes. Some had photos superimposed on the map. These specially marked areas, including one right across the street from the railroad terminal, must not be touched.

As one commander put it: “Approximately ten percent of the world’s art treasurers are located right here. … We’ve got to be very careful.” He may have underestimated.

Movable art – paintings, smaller sculptures, even some bronze doors – can be carted away and stored in caves or other out-of-the-way places, but in old Florence, the Renaissance city is the art.

Within easy walking distance of the railroad station is the famed Duomo, a cathedral with its magnificent Brunelleschi dome, the baptistery with its three sets of bronze doors, and Giotto’s elegant Campanile or bell tower.

A few blocks south and you’re at Uffizi, the world-class picture gallery built as an office building by the Medicis, and the two-story bridge, Ponte Vecchio, where hundreds of years ago, as today, jewelers sold gold and silver from small shops right on the bridge. And across the narrow Arno River is the priceless Pitti Palace.

In the other direction, still an easy walk, is the Accademia, the home of Michelangelo’s “David,” the most expensive piece of marble in the world. Too heavy to move, it was entombed in brick to protect it from everything but a direct hit.

Then there’s the Cloister of San Marco and its priceless frescoes, the tower of Palazzo Vecchio at Piazza della Signoria, the tower of Santa Croce and the famed Bargello. And right across the piazza from the railroad terminal is the 13th century Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, with its huge wooden Brunelleschi crucifix, fresco cycles by Lippi and Ghirlandaio, and its most treasured “Trinity” fresco.

Every church, every public building in this compact area no larger than downtown Buffalo contains priceless frescoes, mosaics, bronze ornaments and who knows how many Renaissance masterpieces hidden in the basement or rectory. Once destroyed, they would be lost to mankind forever.

To everyone’s amazement, 78 B-26 Marauders dropped 145 tons of bombs on Florence’s two rail yards that day, with not a single bomb landing outside the target area. Newsreels showed the bombers flying low over the Arno River with the wingtips almost touching the 15th century dome of the Duomo.

This is just one of the exciting episodes that make “Saving Italy” such a riveting read for anyone interested in World War II, the inner politics of the Third Reich and the twisted mind of Adolf Hitler, and most important, Florence and its irreplaceable artwork.

As the war progressed, Florence did not escape unscathed, but due to Monument Men like Yale portrait painter Deane Keller and Yale art historian Fred Hartt, most of the city’s treasurers survived to be viewed in wonder by future generations.

It is said Hitler clung to a fantasy of a vacation villa in Italy after the war. That may have saved the Ponte Vecchio from destruction when all the other Arno bridges were blown to slow the Allied advance.

Certainly, Hitler’s eye for art made saving – or stealing – much of Italy’s art a priority of the SS. Even that was double-edged. Hitler considered certain artists to be “degenerate” and had their works destroyed. Among them were Van Goghs, Renoirs, Monets and Picassos. But Renaissance art was spared.

Author Edsel, whose earlier book, “Monument Men,” was a best-seller, tries to weave his tale around this elite group of men assigned to save the western world’s art treasures from the devastation of modern warfare. This does not always succeed because the Monument Men were too loosely formed and too widespread for any one of them to sustain a protagonist role.

Besides, Florence, even with its great loss of ancient towers and buildings along the Arno, some designed by Michelangelo, was the exception. So was Rome which through herculean efforts of the Vatican was proclaimed an “open city” by the Nazis and the Allies. According to General Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Hitler himself declared: “There must not be a battle of Rome.”

Other Italian cities were not as fortunate. Milan was destroyed. Leonardo da Vinci’s mural “The Last Supper” was saved by what many called a miracle. Pisa was flattened, with only the small area containing its Duomo, the baptistery and the Leaning Tower spared. Even there, Pisa’s masterpiece, the Composanto, a fully frescoed enclosed cemetery, described as “the most beautiful cemetery in the world,” was reduced to a pile of rubble, so badly damaged it still is being restored today.

Naples never has recovered from the war. The Nazis, determined to make Naples an example of what would happen if the Italians did not continue to fight on the side of the Axis, laid waste to the entire city, including the University of Naples, where Thomas Aquinas had once served on the faculty. The Nazis burned the university’s collection of 13th century manuscripts to make their point.

In the end, it is the “Florentine Treasurers” – 11,000 pieces of art – that become the protagonist in Edsel’s saga.

Initially, the Italians removed most of the movable art from public buildings and galleries to safe places in the Tuscan hills. The SS, on orders of Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goring, stole the art from the palaces and homes of private collectors, many of them Jewish families. In some cases, works were “purchased” for a pittance so they could be presented to Hitler as gifts. He would not accept stolen artwork.

Then, as the Allied forces advanced up the peninsula, the cache of Florentine art was moved in canvas-covered trucks by the Nazis to two secret locations in southern Austria, just south of the Brenner Pass. Other Italian art made its way to the salt mines of Salzburg, near where Hitler hoped to establish the greatest art collection in the world.

With the monument men, notably Keller and Hartt in hot pursuit, often advancing with frontline troops, the Florentine art became a bargaining chip for Nazi generals who could see the handwriting on the wall.

In the closing days of the war, as top Nazi commanders plotted their personal survival plans, the locations of the art became known. But its condition remained in serious question. Much of it was poorly crated and ill-stored. Some smaller works were stolen by enterprising underlings hoping to salvage something from this terrible war.

Edsel offers a vivid description of the incongruous image of Professor Hartt, in GI fatigues, entering a dark, damp tunnel in San Leonardo and finding Caravaggio’s “Bacchus” propped against a stone wall. Paintings by Rubens, Titian and Dossi were crammed together nearby.

Then there was the similar discovery in a locked garage in Campo Tures which contained Donatello’s “St. George” and works of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And finally, there is the image of 700 pieces of art re-crated and moved in a single train of 13 boxcars for a triumphant re-entry into Florence via one of the rail yards – “The Field of Martyrs” – destroyed earlier by Allied bombs.

In typical Army fashion, Capt. Keller, the quiet Yale artist in charge of the operation, was ordered to sign off on a value of the train’s contents. He low-balled it: $500 million in 1945 dollars. That’s $6.5 billion today.

Dollars aside, the train carried a large percentage of the art you see today in the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, the Bargello and Palazzo Vecchio. In the words of the modern-day commercial: Priceless.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. He has traveled extensively throughout Italy.

Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis

By Robert M. Edsel


454 pages, $28.95