Excerpt from Saving Italy by Robert M. Edsel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Saving Italy

The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis

by Robert M. Edsel

Saving Italy
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  • First Published:
    May 2013, 480 pages
    Feb 2014, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Heather A Phillips

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Print Excerpt

The bomb had slammed into the center of the Cloister of the Dead, a small, grassy courtyard east of the Refectory and north of the church. The blast had obliterated a covered walkway through which the friars, garbed in white habits and sandals, passed each day. Had Padre Acerbi not relocated his fellow Dominicans from their refuge in the convent basement to a shelter outside the church walls several days earlier, they, too, would have perished. The only clues that the long arcades ever existed were the stumps of wood that once supported the graceful arches and frescoed plaster leading to the main church buildings.

The explosion reduced the east wall of the Refectory to rubble, bringing the roof down with it. The wooden A-frame girders crushed the thin plaster vault of the Refectory ceiling like a hammer hitting an egg. In 1940, local art officials concerned about this very possibility had installed sandbags, pine scaffolding, and metal bracing on both sides of the north wall. Only this precaution had prevented Leonardo's masterpiece from collapsing. While no one could immediately confirm the condition of The Last Supper, Padre Acerbi considered it miraculous that the painting might have survived a bomb that exploded some eighty feet away.

Leonardo painted The Last Supper using an experimental technique. Rather than applying pigment to wet plaster in the traditional manner of fresco painting, the master painted on a dry wall, hoping to achieve a more complex palette. This approach also complemented Leonardo's slow, meditative style of work. It took him about three years to complete the painting. When finished, it measured some fifteen feet in height by twenty-nine feet across, almost the entire width of the Refectory. But Leonardo's experiment failed; in less than two decades, the painted surface showed deterioration. By 1726, well-intended restorers had begun the first in a continuous series of documented and undocumented interventions. Too often, such efforts had less to do with reattaching Leonardo's work to the perpetually damp north wall than the restorer's desire to attach his work—and name—to the historic image. As one art expert in Milan observed, "There is no work in the entire world that has been more venerated by the public and [yet] offended by the scholars." The bomb blast of August 16, 1943, was only the most recent and certainly the most drastic offense.

The humidity of the north wall had always concerned caretakers. Now the sudden exposure to the elements created new risks. The loss of the east wall and roof dissipated the delicate microclimate inside the Refectory, and Milan's summer heat increased the moisture in the wall, causing portions of the painted surface to swell and then lift. The bomb blast had also dislodged sandbags, tossing some of them against the painted surface. A summer rainstorm could easily wash away whole sections of the work. A severely damaged low-rise building attached to the back side of the Refectory threatened to collapse. Just the vibration, much less a direct hit, from another Allied bombing mission might be enough to cause the north wall to crumble. Even if the north wall survived further damage or movement, Leonardo's signal work faced great peril.

Italy has long been identified by its cultural treasures; Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is but one. Its ancient cities—Rome, Syracuse, and Pompeii; jewel-box towns—Venice, San Gimignano, and Urbino; places of worship—St. Peter's Basilica, Florence's Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore), and Padua's Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel; and iconic monuments—the Colosseum, Leaning Tower, and Ponte Vecchio, have been so studied and admired through literature, verse, and image that they have become the shared heritage of all mankind.

As events in Milan demonstrated, World War II and the new technology of aerial bombardment—in particular, incendiary weapons—posed history's most lethal threat to that heritage. When the Allies landed in Sicily on the night of July 9–10, 1943, another threat emerged: ground warfare. The Germans were determined to concede not an inch of Italian soil. How many more monuments, churches, libraries, and immovable works of art lay in the path of war? Even then, as the bombing of The Last Supper illustrated, the Western Allies were not immune from mistakes in judgment and execution.

Excerpted from Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel. Copyright © 2013 by Robert M. Edsel. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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