‘Saving Italy’ recounts the efforts to protect cultural treasures during WWII

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There are sites all across Europe, from the Normandy beaches to Auschwitz, where travelers can recall the acts of heroism and sacrifice that occurred there during World War II.

But the war rarely crosses the minds of tourists taking in some of Italy’s most-visited cultural treasures, like the Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David, Florence’s Ponte Vecchio bridge. But those masterpieces still stand only because of the efforts of a group of little-known art historians and educators turned soldiers known as Monuments Men.

“To think that some 65 years after the war, there’s a story of such epic proportion that the broad public really doesn’t know about is astonishing,” says author Robert Edsel. “When we consider some of the problems that we experienced in the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003, which was a small regional conflict, it’s remarkable to imagine that we were able to do this with just a hundred or so men and women during a truly world war.”

Edsel’s latest book, “Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures From the Nazis,” recounts the efforts of the Monuments Men to preserve, protect and recover some of the greatest works of art in the history of western civilization. Throughout the war, works by the likes of Leonardo, Caravaggio, Raphael and Botticelli were threatened by bombings or looting by Nazi soldiers hunting for specimens for Hitler’s collection.

“The Monuments officers had been assigned to protect cultural monuments and treasures from Allied bombing,” Edsel explains. “We didn’t want to be the goats of history by destroying western civilization’s cultural heritage in the process of trying to defeat Hitler and the Nazis. But when they arrived the degree of premeditated theft was vastly in excess of anything they’d anticipated.”

Edsel’s previous book, “The Monuments Men,” is being turned into a film by George Clooney, who’s co-starring with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett.

“It’s a great story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” says Keller, who recently visited the set in Berlin. “I don’t think we can ever hear too many stories about something good we did as a country.”

If you go

Robert Edsel
Friday, 6:30 p.m.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street & Ben Franklin Parkway
$5-$12, 215-763-8100
www.philamuseum.org


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