Vermeer's "The Astronomer," found in the Altaussee mine
Robert Posey Collection

But my quest to experience the Monuments Men’s handiwork for myself isn’t over yet, which is why I must go to Milan. “Only a miracle — and a few sandbags — prevented Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ from being blown to bits,” Edsel says. “It came within feet of existing only in art-history books.” After hearing that, I am desperate to see it. The fresco is in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I look for tickets online and even try to book a tour that includes the painting. With my hope dwindling, I ask my hotel if the staff can get me a ticket. Non c’è problema.

Getting in to see “The Last Supper” is almost as interesting as the painting itself. Because da Vinci painted it on dry plaster instead of the wet plaster traditionally used for frescoes, the painting started to deteriorate almost immediately after it was completed in 1498. Today, only 25 people at a time are allowed in. I see the painting with a group of traditionally garbed nuns, a family of Chinese tourists and two Texans. Before entering, we stand in a dehumidifying room for several minutes. The high-ceiling refectory is large, but the painting dominates the room. I glance at the upturned faces nearest me and wonder if anyone here knows of this painting’s travails during World War II. Then, I smile and think: When the film comes out, you won’t look at this painting the same way ever again.

IRENE RAWLINGS lives in Denver with her photographer husband and two rescue dogs, Hank and Chloe. When she’s not following in the footsteps of the Monuments Men, Rawlings interviews book authors on Clear Channel Communications, Inc. radio and collects vintage fishing gear.