The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II
by Ilaria Dagnini Brey
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
I've developed some strategies for making my way through the paper forest that grows more lush with each visit to the post office, a profusion of books, galleys, and manuscripts that I instinctually divide into those that, for reasons of personal or professional piety, I feel I must look at; and those that I immediately, unhesitatingly want to look at, usually because they speak to one or another of pet interests.
One such, as it happens, is vanished, faked, or looted art. I love a Van Eyck in a salt mine. I savor a discussion on the fate of the Czartoryski Raphael or the Amber Room. I was one of maybe ten people who read all three recent books about the Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren. So when Ilaria Dagnini Brey's The Venus Fixers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) turned up in my P.O. box, there was never any question of resisting "the untold story of the Allied soldiers who saved Italy's art during World War II."
It's a thrilling adventure, full of scheming aesthetes and exploding Mantegnas, even for readers not predisposed to excitement about this kind of thing. The story begins shortly before the Allied landings in Sicily in 1943, when alarm over the widespread destruction of Europe's cultural heritage moved President Franklin Roosevelt to establish a commission to preserve as many artistic monuments as possible, an initiative, one general said, that was "without historical precedent in any military campaign." The first step was to draw up extensive lists of treasures that troops might meet along the way, and then to gather experts in the preservation of paintings, libraries, archives, and architecture, men with military rank who would accompany the advancing armies.
Despite early American successes in Sicily and the liberation of mercifully unscathed Rome, the German determination to fight for every inch of rough, mountainous Italy made the battle costly in culture as well as in lives. After a series of bloody struggles, the armies neared Florence, and it is the push of Italians, Americans, and Britons to rescue the monuments of the ancient Tuscan capital that forms the focus of Brey's book.
The city of the Medici and Michelangelo had the singular misfortune to be ruled by a Nazi commander who believed that "Florence or Smolensk are exactly the same thing." In a fit of spite, the retreating Germans dynamited all but one of the city's famous bridges, leaving the "Venus Fixers" -- the Allied monuments officers, together with their Italian colleagues -- to pick up the literal pieces, fishing fragments of the destroyed bridges out of the Arno.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.