The Monuments Men: the guardian angels of art

What does a Caravaggio’s portrait and an oil by Kokoshka have in common? And a bust by Rodin with a Veronese’s Virgin with Child? What ties a painting by Emil Nolde to a Memling’s Flemish canvas?

They are all disappeared artworks, which have never been found yet: stolen, hidden, lost and sold to unknown people; among them, there were masterpieces by Monet, Van Dyck, Klee, Rubens, Botticelli and many others.

During the XX Century, different people have occurred, struggling to give back to the community or to the rightful owners the lost artworks: these people were the Monuments Men.

The movie

George Clooney, in his latest movie “The Monuments Men”, has the merit to bring to the fore the issue of the art theft, contextualizing it with episodes from the Second World War that are still little known by the public.

The movie narrates, more particularly and in the shades of a comedy-drama, the story of the men who defended the European artistic heritage from the Nazis looting.

The history

At the beginning of the Forties, Europe was plagued by a conflict that, in addition to causing millions of deaths and displaced persons, was also putting a strain on the conservation of cultural heritage: the Louvre and the Uffizi have been heavily damaged by bombing and Nazi raids, Jews collectors were violently deprived by their paintings and in European museums everyone who opposed to the arts looting risked the life.

With these depredations, definitely less important than real war maneuvers, Hitler sought to accumulate the largest number of masterpieces possible, in order to gather them in a Fürher Museum under construction in Linz.

It was in those circumstances that the division of allied forces MFAA – Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section was born. It was a selected group of archaeologists and art specialists, opposed to the Axis Powers to keep monuments safe and recover all the stolen artworks hidden in salt mines and in the inaccessible castles situated in the area between Austria and Germany.

While Europe was burning because of fighting and the Hitler’s “Nero Decree”, which ordered to destroy everything the German troops left behind them, the Monuments Men rescued invaluable works, protecting in this way the humanity’s heritage.

The MFAA division was then in charge of a crucial task, not a simple duty. Memorable are the words of President Eisenhower to the Monuments Men during a mission in Italy, in 1943: “Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.”

The Monuments Man today

Nowadays, part of the works were recovered and, where possible, they have been returned to the rightful owners or to the museums (for example, the Madonna of Bruges returned to the Church of Our Lady and Rembrandt’s self-portrait has been rescued from Heilbronn’s mines). Unfortunately, many other artworks are still missing or of unknown property: the official list is available on the website of the Monuments Men Foundation.

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