In 1996, the writer Robert Edsel was walking across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence—the only bridge not destroyed by the Nazis during World War II—when he had an unexpected thought. How did so many works of art manage to survive a war that claimed 65 million lives? Who saved the art?
“I was hugely embarrassed that I didn’t know,” Edsel explained over the phone recently while on a train to New Haven. “I started asking everybody I knew that lived there. Everyone shrugged their shoulders. It was perplexing to me. World War II is the most documented, photographed event in history. Here was a pretty big hole—what happened to the art?”
Edsel, now 57, grew up in Dallas, TX. He worked in oil and gas exploration before selling his company in 1995 and moving to Italy with his then-wife and young son. There he undertook a serious study of Renaissance art, hiring tutors to teach him about Florentine history and culture. After his moment on the bridge, he started reading books about Nazi looting. He eventually discovered the Monuments Men, a unit made up of soldiers of the Western Allies, which operated from 1943 to 1951 to recover and return stolen works of art. The group of men and women included a painter, an art historian, archivists, and scholars who had volunteered to join the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied armies. Edsel has since written three books on the subject: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History; Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art—America and Her Allies Recovered It; and Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis.
A few years ago, George Clooney expressed an interest in making The Monuments Men into a film. Edsel supported the project, at one point spending a week with Clooney and the film’s producer, Grant Heslov, going over background information shared by family members of the Monuments Men. “They were very passionate about this,” Edsel told me.
Edsel also spent time with the rest of the cast during filming, including Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray, who were as fascinated by the story as he was. “They had not been aware of this part of history,” Edsel said. “I hadn’t been aware of it.”
Many of the Monuments Men had spouses and children and established careers—one worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—when they volunteered for service. Before leaving for the battlefield, they were required to attend basic training. Edsel described Private First Class Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the American School of Ballet in 1933, as a “human Google” in terms of his knowledge of cultural arts. He said Kirstein wrote home during basic training, dryly noting that what would’ve “been fun at 19 and interesting at 29 was a real pain at 39.”
The unit was initially charged with protecting museums and cultural landmarks from being bombed or damaged by the Allied forces as they marched across Europe. Later they began tracking down stolen art, including works by Michelangelo, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. They found some of them crated and stacked in salt mines in Heilbronn, Germany, and Altaussee, Austria, and hidden away in a castle in the Bavarian Alps.
There are still more items to recover. Edsel established the Monuments Men Foundation to continue finding and returning stolen art from World War II.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he explained. “There is much more out there.”
Therese Anderson Grinceri is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter @theresegrinceri.