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. 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. 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 the hard-fought campaign, the Americans persisted in their suspicion that the British were trying to undermine the effort. For example, the imbroglio over the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino and the ineptness of the British assault, led by a commander already discredited by his role in the fall of Crete, would spur the Americans to overreact and destroy the monastery by bombing. This created a major propaganda victory for the Germans. Such incidents convinced both Washington and London that they were working at cross-purposes. Hoyt contends that, as the British argued at the time, Allied efforts would have been better-spent concentrating on the Balkans. The Normandy campaign was expensive, unnecessary, and ultimately lengthened the war.
Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities--and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. Cuno explains how partage broadened access to our ancient heritage and helped create national museums in Cairo, Baghdad, and Kabul. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial.
Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.