Monuments Men

20th February 2014
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Sicily- the starting point for the "Monuments Men"

While the film “Monuments Men” has opened to distinctly mixed reviews, the story of the men and women who worked to conserve archaeological sites, historic buildings, artworks and archives in the wake of the Second World War is nonetheless a compelling one. The film shows a modified version of events, in which a dedicated unit, composed of art historians, archaeologists, museum staff and academics, fights to protect vulnerable cultural heritage from destruction - the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives division, or MFAA. Many of Andante’s most beloved and inspirational destinations owe a huge amount to these brave individuals.

One policy of the Third Reich had placed an unbelievable number of artefacts, paintings and sites in danger - that in the event of defeat, these cultural icons would be destroyed in a final act of revenge. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy, was a particularly avaricious collector of art, much of which was looted from Jewish collectors and their families, but also from museums and galleries in occupied countries. Archaeology, too, was under threat - classical statues and ceramics were equally valuable, in a warped interpretation of the past in which the Greeks were the first Aryans, related to the Germans through a series of tangled invented migrations. In Italy, too, Mussolini famously adopted the Roman Empire as a model for his own state, channelling Roman greatness as “Romanità”.

The challenge for the men and women of the MFAA began in Sicily, where Palermo lay in ruins, its Baroque churches mangled by shelling and high explosives. More ancient sites were also severely damaged by the war - and Rome itself was only saved by the German High Command’s desire for a propaganda victory in the face of unavoidable defeat. Nazi forces left the city untouched after a contrary command from Hitler himself, although the story that they had retreated due to concern for the cultural heritage of the Eternal City was exposed as false by violent street battles that destroyed much of Pisa, and left the great abbey of Monte Cassino in ruins. The MFAA pressed northwards too, posting guards at abandoned local museums - the vulnerable and valuable collections of the Etruscan Museum at Tarquinia remained miraculously intact due to their intervention, while in Florence, sculptures by Michelangelo emerged from a garage.

Over 6, 500 artworks, hidden in an Austrian saltmine, while recorded and catalogued by the MFAA, were actually saved by the bravery of another group, who risked their lives to prevent the mines from being blown up and the art destroyed. A band of Austrian Resistance fighters secretly moved the art to other chambers, so when the fateful explosion came, none were damaged. Their courage is reminiscent of a story we featured some weeks ago on this blog, in which the contents of one of Mali’s most ancient libraries were smuggled to safety by a network of fishermen and traders. The parallel demonstrates just how desperately vulnerable art and archaeology remain in modern conflict - among the many tragedies of the conflict in Syria has been the mass looting of archaeological sites. Now, in addition to organised ransacking, to remove objects to be sold for profit, a new threat has emerged. 


Just as happened in Mali, jihadist fighters are deliberately destroying some of Syria’s greatest archaeological sites - a wonderful Byzantine mosaic is said to have been blown up as it depicted a human figure. This, too, is not a new phenomenon - waves of iconoclasm have destroyed images of the human form over the centuries, with iconoclastic fervour breaking out in Constantinople in 730 AD, across Europe during the Reformation, and more recently exemplified in the blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2008. While the MFAA may have made it to the big screen, the story of archaeological and cultural heritage at risk doesn’t stop when the credits roll.

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