Ilaria Dagnini Brey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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.
“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