The book, which was recently made into a film starring George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon, tells the story of a relatively unknown group of allied soldiers who worked to save much of Europe’s culture and identity during World War Two.“They were curators, art historians, artists themselves, who had had life made, who had established careers, most had families, many had kids,” Edsel said.“They had every reason in the world to not volunteer for military service, but they felt they had an important contribution to make to the winning of this war, to be a new kind of soldier, charged with saving, rather than destroying.”Eventually comprised of roughly 350 men from 13 different countries, the Monuments, Archives and Fine Arts Program was instituted by Dwight D. Eisenhower six months prior to D-Day.Tasked originally with designating culturally important buildings to protect from allied bombings, the group’s mission expanded to locating, recovering and returning tens of thousands of stolen works of art.As the Nazis conquered much of Europe, they looted museums, homes and churches, stockpiling an immense collection of priceless paintings, sacred texts and objects. Some were designated to be part of a grand museum planned by Hitler himself, while others were taken by top ranking German officers or sold to finance the war machine.As the Nazis were pushed back across Europe, they scrambled to move, conceal and even destroy entire collections to keep them out of the hands of the Allies.In several instances, allied soldiers uncovered pieces of art that were left behind in the frenzy to relocate more important ones. Many were left exposed to the elements, while others were never unpacked from the protective coverings used to protect them when they were stolen from their original homes.The story of the iconic “Last Supper,” in particular, is a testament to the craftsmanship and durability of many of the centuries-old works of art.Da Vinci’s masterpiece was housed in a church that was partially destroyed by allied aerial bombing. The painting was exposed to the elements and sat covered in rubble before being rescued.Massive collections were uncovered in storehouses, castles and even mines. In one instance, a stash was uncovered inside a partially collapsed salt mine that included famous paintings, sculptures and a trove of gold worth more than $5 billion in today’s money.
Robert M. Edsel, historian and author of the book, “Monuments Men” illustrated the connection between Old Dominion University and the preservation of art and cultural heritage in his presentation on Feb. 20, which saw the North Café filled to capacity as attendees were shuffled into adjacent overflow rooms.