The monuments men who saved Rome

Damage to many of Rome’s artistic treasures during world war two was prevented by a dedicated group of experts and academics attached to the Allied military forces

As you wander the small streets of Trastevere or gaze at the might of the Colosseum, it is hard to imagine these were once the backdrop to a war that was one of the deadliest in history. Now, during the year that marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in Anzio in January 1944 and the liberation of Rome in June the same year, the work that was done to protect and preserve Italy’s cultural heritage is getting some belated recognition.

The United States commission for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in war areas (known as the Roberts Commission) was established in June 1943 thanks to Francis Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and with the blessing of President Franklin Roosevelt. The commission set up the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive (MFAA) programme, which was the first of its kind and came under the civil and military government sections of the Allied armies.

Its sole purpose was to safeguard cultural treasures in the European, Mediterranean and Far East theatres of war. Art historians, museum curators, archaeologists and university professors worked with military officers and civilians to patch up and protect the art and architectural wonders in Europe.

In the words of Deane Keller, a monuments officer with the US Fifth Army and professor of art at Yale, who is quoted in Robert Edsel’s recent non-fiction book Saving Italy (2013): “In wartime when thoughts of men of fighting nations are concerned primarily with winning battles and the consequent fear, animosity, hatred, blood and death, it seems incongruous and inconsistent that the commanders of opposing armies should give attention to culture and the fine arts. Yet in both the Nazi-Fascist and Allied armies, perhaps for the first time in history, there were men whose sole job it was to preserve the heritage and culture of nations being torn to shreds by the ravages of war. Italy was the first to know the men whose job it was to care for her cultural and artistic heritage in wartime.”

Saving Italy encapsulates details of this little-told story to save Italy’s art, architecture and archives from looting and destruction and is a sequel to an earlier book by Edsel, The Monuments Men (2009), focusing on the broader tasks of the operation throughout Europe. Edsel’s research inspired the production of recently released film The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon.

Also to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Italy, Context Travel, a group that provides specialised walks for the intellectually curious, has organised a tour focusing on both the destruction and deliverance of the Italian capital in 1944. Tour guide Richard Bowen takes visitors on an itinerary that includes the well-known war sites such as the Fosse Ardeatine, Via Tasso and the Museum of Liberation, the fascist urban programmes of the EUR district and the railway neighbourhood of S. Lorenzo.

In July 1943, as United States, Canadian and British troops landed in Sicily, Allied planes targeted Rome’s railway marshalling yards in S. Lorenzo on a mission to disrupt enemy communication and interrupt the supplies of German and Italian forces. The bombing left 1,800 people dead while hitting the neighbouring church of S. Lorenzo Fuori le Lura and adjacent university and hospital buildings. In February 1944, the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, about 130 km south of Rome, was bombed to rubble by Allied aircraft to clear the heavy German defence of the road to Rome. Not long after this, the American monuments men began to focus their efforts on protective and not only salvage operations.

Monuments officers worked directly with army commanders, surveying and mapping out Italian sites that should be avoided during air raids. Shipments of art from museums and churches all over Italy were sent to the Vatican and other supposedly secure places such as countryside villas and castles, shelters and stone fortresses. Masterpieces from the Borghese Gallery and Caravaggio paintings from the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi were taken to the Vatican for storage, along with more than 3,800 works of art from Venice, Milan and Rome.

Many tourists are surprised at what relatively little damage was done in Rome during world war two. This is mainly because Rome was declared an open city on 14 August 1943–the day after the second raid on S. Lorenzo–thanks to the considerable Vatican pressure on the United States to stop Allied bombings. But the “monuments men” as well as private individuals all over the city also played their part.

Theresa Potenza

From the 5 Feb paper edition Wanted in Rome


Side notes 

Monuments Woman

Vera Cacciatore was the 30-year-old curator of the Keats Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna at the outbreak of world war two. By December 1941 she realised that a museum dedicated to the British Romantic poets was a potential target, not only for its documents and manuscripts but also for its landmark position at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

She closed the premises and removed the plaques from the outside of the house, and the museum was placed under neutral Swedish and Swiss administration. She then entrusted two small boxes containing the museum’s most prized possessions (Severn’s last drawing of the dying Keats, Keats’s own drawing of a Grecian urn, two first editions of his poems, locks of his and Shelley’s hair and many of their letters) and sent them for safe keeping to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, then considered one of the safest places in Italy.

However, in October 1943, after the landing of Allied troops on mainland Italy and the Italian government’s surrender in September, the Germans decided to evacuate the Monte Cassino archives and take them north. The librarian managed to place the anonymous boxes from the Keats Shelley House among his personal possessions on a German lorry to be delivered to the Benedictine motherhouse of S. Anselmo on the Aventine in Rome.

On 30 November, over six months before the liberation of the city, Cacciatore collected the two boxes from S. Anselmo and took them back to the museum in Piazza di Spagna.

The danger was still intense. People were on the run, deserters and Jews were being rounded up, and in reprisal for the partisan bombing in Via Rasella of German troops, who had marched through Piazza di Spagna only minutes previously, 335 people were murdered in the Fosse Ardeatine on 24 March 1944.

In her own account of the story*, Cacciatore tells how only days after the liberation of Rome on 4 June 1944 the boxes were finally unsealed by the United States and British ambassadors and that even before the conflict was over the museum once again became a haven for Britons and Americans and all lovers of the Romantic poets.

Mary Wilsey 

* A Room in Rome by Vera Cacciatore, part of which is reproduced in Keats and Italy by Sally Brown, is on sale at the Keats Shelley House, Piazza di Spagna 26.

In the pretty Tuscan town of Cortona, locals and tourists sit out on the town hall steps until late at night on warm summer evenings. Many years ago, Michele W was enjoying watching strollers out for an after-dinner walk when he overheard two elderly tourists sitting near him, chatting in Texas accents. He got into conversation with them, and invited them to join him for a glass of wine. They told him they had been stationed with the US forces on Sardinia during world war two and had come to do a tour of some of the places they had had to bomb. One of them was an art historian in civvy street, and was horrified when, during a pre-operational briefing, he realised he was about to be sent to bomb Cortona. He, the pilot, went into a huddle before take-off with his friend, the navigator, and they secretly resolved to disobey orders and drop their bombs in the woods outside the village. Now as pensioners they had come to see the town they had saved. And among older cortonesi the story is still told about how S. Margherita saved the town by covering it in fog one night, so that some bombs were dropped on the mountain of S. Egidio…

Geoffrey Watson

Members of the Italian Star Association have arranged meetings to remember key events in the Italian campaign. After the landing anniversaries in January and February the next event is on 19 May in Monte Cassino, 4 June in Rome and 16 June at Allerona Bridge. To find out more details contact Harry Shindler MBE, Italian representative of the Italy Star Association,, tel. 0735 658446 or 347 5242893.