Wanting to see these artworks firsthand before watching the film, I set out to trace the steps of these Monuments Men while I’m in Rome. First, I visit the National Museum of Rome’s Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to see the beautifully proportioned “Discus Thrower” (Lancellotti Discobolus), grabbed by Hitler in 1938 and repatriated by the Monuments Men in 1948. Then, I hike 45 minutes to the top of Janiculum Hill, with great views of the Vatican and now-hip Trastevere neighborhood. Eight Monuments Men studied behind the high, ivy-covered walls of the American Academy, designed by McKim, Mead & White, the Gilded Age architectural firm famous for its seaside mansions occupied by 19th-century robber barons and industrial tycoons.
I start working my way up the boot of Italy from Rome to Florence, the capital of Tuscany, to learn more about the efforts of the Monuments Men. Florence, a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracts millions of tourists each year. They are all here, I among them, marveling at Filippo Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome atop the Duomo and admiring the monumental statue of Michelangelo’s “David” in the Galleria dell’Accademia. And then, of course, there’s the 16th-century Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s oldest art galleries. Here, a crowd of fashionable locals and casually clad tourists stand in front of the sublime and very large “Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli. In one of the other rooms, I see Lucas Cranach the Elder’s couple-painting “Adam and Eve,” Giovanni Bellini’s “Pietà” and Filippo Lippi’s “Adoration of the Child,” which were stolen by the Nazis and recovered by the Monuments Men.
Hitler visited Florence in 1938 and, with Benito Mussolini in tow, spent nearly two hours in the Uffizi viewing the artwork. “He was seeing paintings and sculptures he’d only studied in art books, and he must have felt like an artist walking among artists,” Edsel says. Yes, Hitler was admiring the art — but with a covetous eye. In 1941, 34 cases of art were shipped to Germany. The pace accelerated substantially with Italian capitulation and the fall of the Italian dictator.
To view more art, I cross the Arno River to wander the quiet and narrow streets of the “other Florence,” happening upon the opulent frescoes in the Santa Maria del Carmine church. Following a rhythmic clacking sound, I discover Antico Setificio Fiorentino, where women from the parish of San Frediano are weaving lustrous silk damasks on 18th- and 19th-century looms. I pop into the tiny Il Santino for a sampling of its 100-plus mostly Tuscan wines and many farmstead cheeses made nearby. In this busy, cheerful wine bar, I close my eyes and try to imagine life under German occupation (1943-’44), when food was scarce and art was disappearing by the truckload.