The Venus Fixers: The Untold Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

Publishers Weekly

They were a gaggle of misfits-nerdy, old, bookish and sometimes pompous and abrasive. Yet the group of Allied soldiers nicknamed "the Venus Fixers" believed that saving Italy's culture-from bombing, from Göring's coffers, from careless soldiers-was an essential component of the war effort. Initially, it was the Italians who tried to find safe havens for the art, and then the job fell to the Venus Fixers, who performed triage after an area was secured by the military. In one harrowing tale, Brey describes how the Venus Fixers saved delicate manuscripts from being bulldozed along with rubble into the Arno. Often these artistic subversives were at odds with their own armies. In her first book, journalist and translator Brey isn't as skilled as one would like in bringing her soldiers to life on the page-a shame, given what a unique bunch they were and what an unusual task they had-but the book makes a strong case for what the Allies were fighting for in Italy: its history, and the artworks that continue to inspire us today. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Aug.)

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Library Journal
In her first book, journalist Brey tells the story of the Allied monuments officers, commonly known as the "Venus Fixers." These were middle-aged art historians, scholars, and architects—newly commissioned lieutenants and captains—from the United States and Britain tasked with saving and restoring Italian painting, sculptures, and architecture during the Italian campaigns of 1943–45 with few resources and limited authority. While much has been written about Nazi efforts to plunder European art, comparatively little has been written on Allied efforts to save Europe's cultural heritage. Brey's book is more about art than it is about war, but she effectively places her story within the context of the larger Allied efforts in Europe. VERDICT This engaging and clearly written book will appeal to readers interested in art history and preservation. Those without a knowledge of art but intrigued by its fate during World War II will want to skip this and read Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum or Lynn H. Nicholas's The Rape of Europa. (Index and illustrations not seen.)—Michael Farrell, Reformed Theological Seminary Lib., Oviedo, FL
Kirkus Reviews
Near the end of World War II, a group of military officers in Italy-the "Venus Fixers"-struggled to save what they could in the rubble of great cities and to recover from the retreating Nazis the myriad artistic treasures they took with them. In her debut, journalist and translator Brey narrates a story with a complex setting and context. Accordingly, she continually pauses to explain troop maneuvers and battles; Italian geography, history and politics; the biographies of her principals; the nature of the works being found, rescued or restored; and the techniques employed to shore up a collapsing building or repair a damaged fresco or damp manuscript. For the most part, the author succeeds in her multitasking, though there are times when the thick hedges of her prose need some additional pruning. When the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943, they intended to push the Germans out of Italy, a task that proved far more difficult and sanguinary than the war strategists had anticipated. Civilian losses were ruinous. Because the front moved slowly northward, the destruction-principally from bombing raids-was extensive. But as cities were liberated-in some cases, even before the liberation was complete-the Venus Fixers moved in to inventory, locate, assess and initiate salvage operations. With the support of President Roosevelt and the Allied military command, the Fixers moved swiftly to gain the trust and respect of the locals. In fact, the principal Fixer in Florence, Frederick Hartt, an American officer, earned from that city an honorary citizenship, and his ashes are now interred there. A poignant wartime reminder of an ancient truth: Ars longa, vita brevis.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374283094
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/4/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2011

    Highly Recommended for Lovers of Italian Art

    A beautifully and intelligently written story behind the efforts to protect and repair Italian art during World War II, this exhaustively researched book paints the unlikely story of the care the U.S. military and its allies took in attempting to identify and avoid harming treasured historical buildings, artwork and other artifacts during the Allied campaign in Italy. Where damage and destruction were unavoidable or due to Axis bombings, and with the assistance of scholars at U.S. and British universities, soldiers in Italy at the time with non-wartime occupations in architecture, education and the arts lead the way into war-torn Italian cities and towns to work with local scholars on repatriating, rebuilding and restoring Italy's many artistic treasures.

    This book will be a joy to read for anyone who appreciates or has enjoyed the numerous places of artistic beauty in Italy from museums to churches, bridges and palazzi. While highlighting the obvious and near-unavoidable destruction of war, it also serves as a reminder of the many good servicemen who worked behind the scenes to avoid the complete annihilation of civilizations and beauty that came before.

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