Some of the world’s most beloved works of art could have been destroyed in World War II. But thanks to the Monuments Men, Leonardo da Vinci’s "The Last Supper" and others still hang for all to see.

I am sipping coffee at a tiny table on Rome’s narrow Via degli Uffici del Vicario. Sitting across from me is Robert M. Edsel, a fit man in his 50s with a slightly unruly shock of white hair. He is leaning back, arms crossed. On the table between us are his three books, Saving Italy, Rescuing Da Vinci and The Monuments Men. We meet at Giolitti because during World War II, this little café was a meeting place for American soldiers.

I begin to wonder where works of art went during the war, knowing that bitter fighting and both Allied and German bombing took place here in the 1940s. 

He smiles and tells me a story about the greatest treasure hunt in history and its unlikely heroes, the Monuments Men. They were a group of middle-aged, tweedy university professors, art historians and museum curators who volunteered for military service to rescue priceless works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis. It was a race against time as the Allies advanced. The Third Reich was in shambles. And the German army, as it retreated, was under orders to destroy absolutely everything — roads, buildings, bridges and, especially, the artwork, including paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt, and sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello. “If the Third Reich couldn’t have them, they wanted to make sure the rest of the world wouldn’t either,” Edsel says.

It started with one man, but eventually the Monuments Men (designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section) numbered 350 from 13 countries, a remarkably small number embedded within an overwhelmingly large army.

“In the beginning, the Monuments Men were charged with steering Allied bombing away from Europe’s cultural monuments,” Edsel says. “Do you know that Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’ was nearly obliterated in an Allied bombing raid? A British bomb destroyed the cloister of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan that caused the east wall of the refectory and its roof to collapse. Miraculously, Leonardo’s masterpiece survived because local art officials had, years earlier, braced the north wall with sandbags and scaffolding.”