When, in the spring of 1944, Fred Stokes — played by George Clooney in the recent film “The Monuments Men” — made his case in front of President Franklin Roosevelt for the need to protect European art, the monuments officers had been on the ground in Europe for eight months. But the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) outfit of the Allied Military Government had already cut its teeth protecting Italian art and monuments during the Italian campaign the previous year. The unit was the same as the one featured in the movie, but the individuals serving in it were very different, and so was the nature of their work.
Following the Allied armies in 1943 as they slowly fought their way up the Italian peninsula, from Sicily to the Alps, the monuments officers had tracked down several hundred looted artworks. In the process, they also rushed to bring first aid to scores of ancient monuments, from churches to museums and palazzi, that had been hit by bombs or artillery fire. They did so under the constant threat of air raids and land mines. They never saw combat — even the younger ones among them were past fighting age — nor did they venture behind enemy lines (and certainly not on a bicycle, as occurs in the movie). But they did work as close as possible to the front line, so that their interventions on injured monuments could be as timely as possible. If so much beautiful architecture still stands in Italy today, it is thanks to the work of the monuments officers, whom their own army teasingly dubbed “the Venus Fixers.”
The efforts of the Venus Fixers were often directed at containing the damage inflicted by their own army. Deemed a “military necessity” by Allied commanders, the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, whose skeletal ruins Stokes shows in a slide to the president in the movie, was carried out despite the presence of the monuments men in Italy at the time.
It is a complicated story, but it is its complexity that makes it such a fascinating human drama. In contrast to the film version of the story, in reality not all Germans were bad — at least not in the early years of the conflict. In fact, the German consul of Florence, Gerhard Wolf (who did not belong to the Nazi party), strenuously opposed the German mining of Florentine bridges. He was called back to Germany in the middle of July 1944, and one night in August all of Florence’s old bridges, except the Ponte Vecchio, were destroyed by the retreating German army.
Save for the token presence of a British officer and a French artist, the outfit in the film is an all-American operation. In reality, the MFAA group in Italy was composed in almost equal parts of British and American officers. The relationship and interaction of these officers — who came from very different cultures but were united by a deep love of art — was characterized by wit, self-deprecating humor and sophistication. Furthermore, they did not operate in a vacuum, as is often the impression the movie gives. After taking their first steps in war-ravaged Palermo and later Naples, the officers partnered with Italian fine-arts officials who could offer precious knowledge of the territory and its treasures. With sterling Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, they even secured the assistance of an Italian art historian with a “lurid Fascist past.” He was too good to be dismissed, they thought, and kept him on, leaving to the future government of postwar Italy the responsibility to judge his sins.
The monuments men’s crowning achievement, the recovery of 600 Florentine artworks looted by the Nazis in the summer of 1944, rivals the discovery at Altaussee portrayed in the movie. There, too, it was teamwork that led them to the cache of stolen art. Karl Wolff, the murderous head of the SS in Italy who had been negotiating a secret surrender with the Allies, revealed the whereabouts of the hundreds of paintings and statues to members of the OSS. Italian partisan cells, the first to happen onto their hideouts, became art protectors for a day. Finally, the monuments men organized the works’ repatriation to Florence in the summer of 1945. Once again, the real story is far more intriguing than its simplified Hollywood version.