(Aachen’s Cathedral after bombings – photo from here)

One of the biggest intersections in my life was at the end of high school when I had to decide what to study in college. We don’t have a minor and major system, so whatever you choose you’ll have to stick to it for at least 4 years, unless you start again. My choice was between art restoration and communications. I loved the idea of both, but was aware that it was a choice between risk and safety, since the restoration market in Portugal is tinny, prestigious connections mean a lot and I was as middle class as they come. So I went with the safer option.

I don’t regret the decision, but still think a lot about it. My dream job would be doing comms for an organisation like UNESCO. I still continue to have a great interest in art and the efforts to preserve it, so this book’s theme was right up my alley.

The Monuments Men (non-fiction) is about the untold story of a group of soldiers whose main mission was to help save the artistic and architectural treasures at risk during and after WWII. It’s a fascinating, almost unknown account, and one that (like Henrietta Lacks’) this book is helping bring to light. The story is divided into two parts. The first is about the Monuments Men who were in the battle front, trying to preserve as much art as possible in the villages and cities gradually taken over by the Allied forces. The second details the treasure hunt for the art pieces systematically looted by the Nazis from their occupied territories, mainly France and Belgium.

Although the author is from the start focusing on the build up towards the second part, it was the first that touched me the most. The Monuments Men’s descriptions of entering for the first time since their severe bombings in cities like Aachen and Cologne were incredibly real. Captain Hancock’s exploration of Aachen’s Cathedral (which I visited for the first time only a couple of months ago), his account of what was lost forever and miraculously salvaged, got me all choked up. Other favorite bits were Edsel’s passionate telling of the theft and hunt for the Ghent Panel and the Bruges Madonna (both here in Belgium), which I’ve also seen several times without knowing this part of their history – note to self: go back and look again.

Through the personal experiences of these men and women, including letters they wrote home, Edsel draws the bigger picture: art as a the visible part of what’s best in Man and its frailty when faced with war. He also briefly touches on more modern examples, suggesting that a Monuments Men-type of team could have prevented the looting of 15.000 priceless works of art from Baghdad’s National Museum. I wish he had gone more into the situation in current conflicts. Do you remember the Taliban’s bombing of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan back in 2001? What about the bombing of Dubrovnik in 1991 during the Yugoslavian War? Did we learn anything from the Monuments Men’s experiences during WWI?

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Outside, the colonel was cheering, delighted by his first encounter with warfare. Inside, two Monuments Men bent over a four-hundred-year-old painting in the faint light of a newly arrived lamp. The first was kneeling on the ground, studying its surface like an archeologist in an Egyptian tomb or a medic with a wounded man. The second hunched behind him, concentrating on his notes. The soldiers, tired and dirty, huddled around them like the shepherds in the manger, staring silently at a painting of expressive faces and peasant villagers and at the two adult men in soldier’s grab fussing over every square centimeter of its surface.

I’m aware that the reason I loved this book so much has more to do with the theme than the writing. I enjoyed Edsle’s style, but some parts felt a bit slow and I don’t think he was quite there when describing the inner musings of some of the characters. But overall, it was an exciting, touching and uplifting story. I’m sure I’ll never enter the Louvre or look up at Cologne’s dark Cathedral (I call it Saruman’s Tower) in the same way.

(Cologne after Allied bombing – it’s Cathedral almost intact – photo from here)

Other books I liked about artists, art works and its restoration:

  • The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, about the making of the six famous tapestries with the same name.
  • The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, about a mystery hidden in a painting from the 15th century, uncovered by the restorer working on it.
  • The Sarantine Mosaic duology by Guy Gavriel Kay, a fantasy novel inspired in 6th centure Byzantium, about a mosaicist’s travels and adventures.
  • The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, a novel based on the life of Canadian painter Emily Carr.
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, a moving story about a Hasidic Jewish boy in New York City who from its infancy shows sign of an amazing talent in painting.