In 1943, with the world convulsed by war and a Fascist defeat in Europe far from certain, a few visionaries—civilians and soldiers alike—saw past questions of life and death to realize that victory wasn’t the only thing at stake. So was the priceless cultural heritage of thousands of years.In the midst of the conflict, the Allied Forces appointed the monuments officers—a motley group of art historians, curators, architects, and artists—to ensure that the great masterworks of European art and architecture were not looted or bombed into oblivion. The journalist Ilaria Dagnini Brey focuses her spellbinding account on the monuments officers of Italy, quickly dubbed “the Venus Fixers” by bemused troops. Working on the front lines in conditions of great deprivation and danger, these unlikely soldiers stripped the great galleries of their incomparable holdings and sent them into safety by any means they could; when trucks could not be requisitioned or “borrowed,” a Tiepolo altarpiece might make its midnight journey across the countryside balanced in the front basket of a bicycle. They blocked a Nazi convoy of two hundred stolen paintings—including Danae, Titian’s voluptuous masterpiece, an intended birthday present for Hermann Göring. They worked with skeptical army strategists to make sure air raids didn’t take out the heart of an ancient city, and patched up Renaissance palazzi and ancient churches whose lead roofs were sometimes melted away by the savagery of the attacks, exposing their frescoed interiors to the harsh Tuscan winters and blistering summers. Sometimes they failed. But to an astonishing degree, they succeeded, and anyone who marvels at Italy’s artistic riches today is witnessing their handiwork.In the course of her research, Brey gained unprecedented access to private archives and primary sources, and the result is a book at once thorough and grandly entertaining—a revelatory take on a little-known chapter of World War II history. The Venus Fixers is an adventure story with the gorgeous tints of a Botticelli landscape as its backdrop.
"During World War II, the destruction of Italian monuments was as vast as it was heartbreaking. Much of the irreparable devastation that was authorized by the necessities of war had little strategic value. Paintings and sculptures were lost forever. Many more were reconstructed from shreds and scraps. The tragedy could have been worse. The Venus Fixers, by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, tells us why the country's cultural sites paid less of a price than the circumstances might have exacted. A small brigade of monuments officers—architects, professors and art historians in civilian life from the Ivy League and Oxbridge—propped up collapsing buildings, removed art from the line of fire and—when they could—guided bombs away from cultural treasures. The support of Gen. (and Supreme Allied Commander) Dwight D. Eisenhower, while not absolute, was crucial. Brey resurrects a cast of heroic officers who minimized that damage. The world's debt to them is huge. We follow architects as they race to buttress buildings on the verge of collapse and watch art historians gather fragments of ceilings and frescoes. With the help of local Italians (sometimes former fascist officials), they held buildings together until real preservation work began, and kept homeless civilians from squatting there. The landscape of Italy would be far different without them."—David D'Arcy, San Francisco Chronicle
"One of the most pleasing sights in Florence is the Ponte Santa Trinita, a masterpiece of the Renaissance that has a strong claim to being the most beautiful bridge in Europe . . . That the little bridge—to say nothing of churches, villas, palaces, libraries and the great paintings of the Uffizi—can be admired today is due largely to the salvage efforts of a small group of American and British soldiers. Mostly architects, artists and art historians, they risked their lives protecting and repairing in the midst of war much of the Western World's cultural history. Their story is celebrated in Brey's engaging and important addition to the vast library of books about World War II. Brey has firm command of art and military history and does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of a war-torn country."—Michael Riedel, New York Post
“Art and war come together in this superbly researched history that reveals how Italy’s Renaissance masterpieces were caught in the crossfire of World War II. Ilaria Dagnini Brey recounts how many of these works almost miraculously survived, and who we have to thank for saving them—a somewhat unlikely crew of art historians, scholars, and architects. She shows how their quiet courage stood between some of the world’s greatest treasures and a fate almost unbearable to contemplate.”—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture“The Venus Fixers is an extraordinary story—tragic, poignant, and inspiring by turn. A must-read for anyone who recognizes that the mute victims of any country’s war are frequently its works of art, it brings to light a little-known and entirely absorbing aspect of World War II.”—Caroline P. Murphy, author of Murder of a Medici Princess“Ilaria Dagnini Brey expertly recounts the race to protect masterpieces of art and architecture caught on the battlefront. Fascinating and brilliantly researched, The Venus Fixers is a story of Botticellis hidden in castles, the monuments officers’ heroism, and the art’s often narrow escape, played out against air strikes and looting, leveled churches and shattered frescoes.”—Cynthia Saltzman, author of Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures“In this finely written and researched first book, full of anecdotes that will fascinate all art lovers, Ilaria Dagnini Brey adds wonderful insight and detail to the gripping story of the miraculous preservation of many of the world’s most treasured masterpieces during the Allied campaign in Italy. The heroes are the curators of Italy’s patrimony and the fabled monuments men attached to the Allied invasion forces, and Ms. Brey does them proud.”—Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War"A poignant wartime reminder of an ancient truth: Ars longa, vita brevis."—Kirkus Reviews"This engaging and clearly written book will appeal to readers interested in art history and preservation."—Library Journal
Ilaria Dagnini Brey is a journalist and translator who was born in Padua, Italy. She now lives in New York City with her husband, Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. This is her first book.
Florence looked pale and indistinct to Lt. Benjamin McCartney as he approached it aboard his Martin B-26 Marauder on the morning of March 11, 1944. It wasn’t haze that blurred the city skyline on that morning; in fact, as he would later write, “the weather was perfect, the visibility unlimited.” A sense of impending tragedy seemed to drain the beautiful city of its color in McCartney’s eyes as it slowly came into view.