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.
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.
The program was ended some years after the war and many of the Monuments Men went on to hold important positions in museums and institutions around the country. One man, Everett Leslie, who was tasked with sorting and relocating paintings after the war, went on to teach at ODU.
“I know many of you all knew him,” Edsel said, showing a black and white picture of a young Leslie, tommy gun in hand, posing with Da Vinci’s “Woman with an Ermine” painting.
The research and investigations into the Monument’s Men and the countless works of art that were never recovered are ongoing. Edsel describes it as a “race against time.”
His efforts have been aided by tips from the children and grandchildren of many World War Two veterans that have contacted the Monument’s Men Foundation.
“All the information is out there,” Edsel said. “It’s why the visibility of the film and the story is so important. It lets people know that we do want to know this information… it’s important for us to finish telling the story.”
The importance the story, according to Edsel, is the same as any other lesson from history; to ensure that mistakes aren’t repeated.
Using recent examples of the looting and destruction of important works of art in modern conflicts, he said, “In the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was very painful to see the cultural treasures of that country being ransacked in the weeks that followed the invasion, and really a failure on our part to protect these great cultural treasures.
“It’s for this reason that I created the Monuments Men Foundation… we as a nation have paid a high price for not having preserved and realized their legacy.”
By Sean Davis