Saving Italy

Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treatures from the Nazis
Robert M. Edsel
Chicago University Press  304pp  £17

Robert Edsel evidently aims his book at the US popular market; on the first page he uses the word ‘tremor’ as a verb. He writes in short sentences, which a purist might think is just as well. When he writes expansively, quite a few of his phrases float rather than attach themselves properly to his main clauses. But beautiful prose is not his purpose. Rather he wants to tell a happy tale of the saving of ‘Italy’s artistic and cultural treasures’ from 1943-45. Those who achieve this salvation were a set of individuals, albeit a ‘diverse and often surprising’ one, ‘including army commanders, Italian cultural officials, leaders of the Catholic Church (the Vatican proves more effective in giving sanctuary to paintings than to Jews), German diplomats and art historians, Nazi SS officers, OSS operatives, and partisans’.

Pride of place in the story goes to Allied ‘Monument Men’, especially American ones. Sometimes they are quite a way behind the front and can only face up to damage already done. The book starts with a vignette of the RAF bombing of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and its refectory in Milan on August 16th, 1943, an attack which all but destroyed Leonardo’s Last Supper. Typically Edsel digresses into a description of how Leonardo painted it. He thereby sets a pattern for his book, which moves with the Allied armies up the peninsula, expending quite a few words on an unoriginal account of war in Italy and a dewy-eyed sketch of the artworks to be found in every Italian city. After a description of the end of fighting in Italy, he ends with brief surveys of what his ‘heroes’ did after 1945.

The story can become exciting. The location of a cache of material from the Uffizi and the Pitti, preserved in the castle of Montegufoni in the Tuscan countryside, is one highlight. Successes outweigh failures, even if Hitler and, more actively, Göring, greedily steal what they can. Encamped soldiers on either side were scarcely given to placing the conserving of ‘history’ or ‘culture’ at the top of their fighting agendas. By contrast, Hitler’s petit-bourgeois artistic proclivities proved useful, with the Führer, for example, ordering Kesselring to avoid battle in Rome. As Edsel phrases it good-heartedly: ‘Hitler understood that the destruction of Rome’s historic and artistic monuments would be disastrous propaganda, but, more than that, he loved the city itself.’ Hitler was equally enamoured of Florence, telling Rudolf Rahn, his ambassador to the Salò Republic as early as November 1943: ‘Florence is too beautiful a city to destroy.’

Edsel claims, with his researchers, to have consulted a wide range of archival sources, conducted many interviews and located new personal material. He reads what he has found gravely, often over gravely, reporting the cliché-studded letters home of the American art historian Deane Keller (‘a Yale [man] to the core’) as though they are jewels of intelligence and subtlety. We do, however, learn that Keller complained of having to put up with ‘two of my British Capt. Companions … [discussing] some God Damn draperies like a couple of fairies in my office today’. We also find that, in 1945, he drove a jeep labelled ‘Me ne frego’, without him (or Edsel) fathoming what an extremist Fascist slogan ‘I don’t give a stuff’ was. Typically no analysis follows such details.

Edsel’s book is more a cheerful portrait of the rescue of what is self-evidently wonderful at the centre of ‘human civilization’ than a sceptical historian’s probing. Saving Italy will be enjoyed by those who like their history soft and pretty (with a hint of menace from the bad guys). It will appeal less to the more critical reader.

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