The Real Monuments Men

Nestled within the Italian Alps, in the small village of San Leonardo, behind the doors of an abandoned jail cell, sat some of the world’s most cherished pieces of art. Together with a nearby repository in Campo Tures, it was estimated that the hidden artwork was worth about 500 million dollars. That was in 1945. Today, that value would be closer to $6.5 billion.

Roughly 70 years after finding the hidden art, the major motion picture, The Monuments Men, is set to debut in theaters nationwide. The movie tells the story of the men and women from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Section of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. Made up of art historians, museum curators, archivists, and architects, these “Monuments Men,” as they came to be called, were assigned to protect Europe’s cultural heritage. As World War II engulfed the continent, that task became exceedingly difficult.

American GIs hand-carry paintings down the steps of the Neuschwanstein castle under the supervision of Capt. James Rorimer. NARA photo: 239-RC-14-5

In order to adequately complete their mission, Monuments Men assumed a number of responsibilities. MFA&A personnel identified cultural landmarks, and instructed Allied forces to avoid bombing those locations whenever possible. Monuments Men were also sent into demolished cities to assess the damage and initiate restoration projects. Most notably, however, the Monuments Men were tasked with finding the millions of artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazi party.

Hitler himself was an amateur artist with dreams of building a great museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. The Führermuseum was to be filled with art from all around Europe. Much of this art would be confiscated from personal collections, purchased illegally, or simply taken from other museums.

As the extraordinary price tag mentioned at the beginning of this blog may have hinted, the Nazis were not taking amateur sketches either. The stolen art included works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Degas, and countless others.

German loot in a church at Ellingen, Germany. Discovered by the U.S. Third Army. NARA photo: RG-111-SC-204899

Artwork stolen from Florence posed an especially difficult challenge for the Monuments Men. While many Italian repositories moved their collections to the Vatican for safekeeping, the Florentine museums opted to move their holdings to villas on the outskirts of Tuscany.

In 1944, German officers told Giovonni Poggi, the superintendent of the Florence Galleries, that the paintings were not safe due to approaching combat. While some artwork was subsequently moved to Florence, other paintings simply went missing. As it turned out, the paintings were not in any excessive danger when the Germans took them. This was a lie supported by German officers and leaders of the Kunstschutz, a German program dedicated to the protection of art.

By the spring of 1945, however, Hitler’s dream of the Führermuseum looked bleak. German surrender loomed near and the process of reclaiming stolen artwork had already begun. Monuments Men discovered caches of stolen artwork deep within mines and caves. Millions of gold bars were found in the Merkers salt mine, while over 6,500 Italian paintings were found in the mines of Alt Aussee in Austria. This did not, however, include the missing Florentine works.

Merkers salt mine. NARA photo: RG 239-PA-6(34)(2)

It was not until Germany officially surrendered on May 7, 1945 that the Monuments Men learned of repositories at San Leonardo and Campo Tures. Tipped off by Dr. Pietro Zampeti, the Director of Galeries in Modena, the Monuments Men reached the town of San Leonardo on May 12.

A few weeks after finding the missing art, thousands of Italians celebrated as trucks full of Florentine paintings returned home. Just a few months earlier, German bombs had decimated the city. Although the paintings were crated up and sealed from the public, the return of the art symbolized an end to the war and a beginning of a rebuilding process.

Six trucks with part of the Florentine art treasure that was taken to Bolsano by retreating Germans arrives at Piazzo Dei Signoria, Florence, Italy, passing by American, English and Italian officials. NARA photo: 111-SC-210319

The video below, Paintings Taken from Florence by Germans, San Leonardo, Italy  (111-ADC-4563), documents one of the most important Monuments Men, Captain Deane Keller, inspecting the stolen Florentine works. It is part of the United States Army Signal Corps series, “Moving Images Relating to Military Activities, compiled 1947 – 1964″ (RG 111 ADC). It is one of several films NARA holds which record the activities of the Monuments Men. Some notable paintings that appear in the footage are Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve (6:37) and Luca Signorelli’s  The Crucifixion with St. Mary Magdalen (5:18). The most severely damaged painting was Frans Floris’s Adam and Eve, which was split down the side (4:28).

Despite the millions of items the Monuments Men recovered, thousands of works are still missing today. Many of these paintings and artifacts were likely destroyed, while many more sit in the houses of unsuspecting individuals. Amongst other significant works, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man has not been recovered. Experts have valued this painting at 100 million dollars, with paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, and Cézanne not far behind. As the search for these works continues, the legacy of the Monuments Men lives on. Their long-awaited publicity is well deserved.

For more information about individual Monuments Men, check out the series on the Text Message. For more information about the missing Italian art check out Robert M. Edsel’s book, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis.