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Mellon Prof. Corey Brennan Looks Back at the 'Monuments Men' (and Women) of the AAR in WWII

January 22, 2012
Former G.I.s outside the AAR gate on Via Masina, April 1947, including Paul Valentino (second from left), John Myhers (third from left), Robert Alexander (far right). Credit: John Phillips/LIFE.
Ex-G.I. Paul Valentino in American Academy in Rome studio. Credit: John Phillips/LIFE.
WWII veteran (and later film actor) John Myhers (at left) receiving voice lessons from Myrko Jukelj at the American Academy in Rome. Printed in the 14 July 1947 issue of LIFE (p. 117). Credit: John Phillips/LIFE
Cover detail: "A Soldier's Guide to Rome," prepared by MFA&A. Collection American Academy in Rome.
Cover detail: "A Soldier's Guide to Florence," prepared by MFA&A. Collection American Academy in Rome.
Professor Albert W. Van Buren (FASCSR'06) teaches an "Army leave study group" at the Academy, 1945.
The American Academy in Rome in May 1940, shortly before it was shuttered by the war. Credit: Carl Mydans/LIFE.
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How did so many of the monuments and cultural treasures of Europe escape destruction in World War II? One crucial factor was the “Monuments Men”—the popular term for a group of a few hundred men and women from 13 different countries who made up the military Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives (MFA&A) section during and immediately following the Second World War.

As it happens, scholars and artists who had (or soon would have) an association with the American Academy in Rome played a prominent role in forming and serving within this innovative group. In the end, the MFA&A deserved principal credit for preserving or recovering literally millions of cultural artefacts stolen or scattered during hostilities, and played a significant role in reanimating cultural life in the war-torn countries of Europe.

The feats of the men and women of the MFA&A have been recounted in a series of recent books, including Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s The Venus Fixers (2010), Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men (2009), and Lynn H. Nicholas’s Rape of Europa (1994). And a Hollywood treatment of the Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, is reportedly in the works. Before the cameras start to roll, it seems worth recounting how the American Academy fit into it all.

On 10 June 1940 Italy entered the Second World War on the side of the Germans. By late July 1940, all but two of the American Academy’s Fellows had managed to leave Rome. In September 1940, the Academy discharged most of its employees, and by June 1941 it officially closed its doors.

The AAR also decided to suspend its Rome Prize competition, and instead (from 1942 until 1945) awarded a number of scholarships for graduate study in Classics in the US, and cash prizes to be used for artistic work, especially related to the war effort.

With Italy’s declaration of war on the United States 11 December 1941, the property of the Academy was placed under the protection of the Swiss Legation in Rome. In the years of conflict to come, the Academy’s Trustee Myron C. Taylor—then in Rome as “personal representative” of US President Roosevelt to the Vatican—also looked after the interests of the Academy. So did a tiny staff that included archaeologist Albert Van Buren, who had been a Fellow of the Academy’s Classical School in 1906, and Peter de Daehn, since 1938 the acting Librarian.

Nonetheless the Academy, until the liberation of Rome, continually faced the threat of sequestration by the Italian government and (especially in January 1944) occupation by the Germans. Here the Swiss embassy proved persistent and highly effective in protecting the Academy and its properties.

Meanwhile in the United States, centralized efforts to protect Europe’s endangered monuments and cultural artefacts were in motion even before America’s entrance into the war. After the fall of Paris in June 1940, Harvard faculty and other scholars established the “Harvard Group” to provide expertise on cultural matters during wartime.

In January 1943, at the initiative of the American Council of Learned Societies, there was formed a Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas. Headquartered in New York City at the Frick Art Reference Library, its active work began early in July. A subcommittee of the American Defense-Harvard Group was simultaneously preparing for the American military lists of monuments and cultural repositories in the war areas.

And late June 1943 saw the formation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. This Committee, formed at the suggestion of President Roosevelt, and placed under the State Department, came to be known as the “Roberts Commission”, thanks to its chairman, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Owen J. Roberts. The group, which was centered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, remained active until 20 June 1946, when the State Department took over its operations.

Certainly the major contribution of the Roberts Commission was its role in establishing in 1943 the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) branch within the Allied armies’ new Civil Affairs Division (established 1 March 1943 and later designated G-5). The MFA&A was charged with promoting the preservation of cultural properties in war areas, provided this mission did not interfere with military operations. In practice this meant protecting monuments, recording war damage, supervising the billeting of troops, and (later) recovering art works and restoring them to their public and private owners.

Initial progress was slow. By June 1943, only one US officer, Capt. Mason Hammond, had seen release from active duty (in his case, in Air Force Intelligence) for MFA&A work. Hammond, a Harvard classics professor who had served as Professor-in-Charge of the American Academy in Rome from 1937-1939 and (since 1941) was an Academy Trustee, found himself assigned to North Africa as the Allies planned for the invasion of Sicily in July. Indeed, it was not until June 1944 that the MFA&A was fully acknowledged as a part of the Operations Branch of the G-5 Civil Affairs Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).

It was perhaps inevitable that the American Academy in Rome was asked to play an institutional role in the protection and rescue of war-endangered monuments. On 14 October 1943, the President’s new Roberts Commission approached the American Academy’s Trustees, communicating its resolution that if the Board “were to offer the facilities of the Academy….for work connected with the protection and salvage of artistic monuments, the Commission would welcome such an offer.” Board member Leon Fraser—a notable banker who then also served as the Academy’s treasurer—suggested alternative uses for the Rome properties (such as the role they had played in the First World War, as a Red Cross headquarters). Yet in the end the Trustees offered the Academy to the MFA&A, and on 24 December Major-General John H. Hilldring, Director of the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division accepted it.

Despite much subsequent discussion and correspondence—and the Trustees’ formal concession that they had no real control of how the Allied Military Government might use the Academy property in other ways—the matter eventually came to nothing. On 3 March 1945, Lt. Col. Ernest T. DeWald, Director of the MFA&A in Italy, wrote to Myron Taylor explaining why the Monuments Subcommission was no longer interested in the Academy as a base. “Since the buildings are so far removed from the centre of the city…and particularly since our Subcommission was required by the Executive Officer of the A[llied] G[overnment] to be under the same roof with the other Subcommissions, the pleasant prospect of being housed on the Gianicolo had to be abandoned.”

Indeed, immediately following the liberation of Rome on 4 June 1944, there was a surge of optimism among the Academy’s Board members that the institution, closed since June 1941, could soon reopen to continue its academic and artistic mission. In July of that year the Trustees appointed Board Secretary William Bell Dinsmoor, a longtime professor of classical archaeology at Columbia University and then also head of the Archaeological Institute of America, to serve as the Academy’s acting Director. As an Academy Trustee, Dinsmoor also was one of nine members of the Roberts Commission, and chaired the ACLS Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas.

But the State Department refused Dinsmoor a visa to travel to Italy for the purpose of heading the Academy. The view of Myron Taylor, who communicated to the Trustees that it was premature to reopen the Academy until peace was declared, also proved influential. So the Academy remained shuttered.

In April 1945 William Bell Dinsmoor resigned his post as acting director, making way for Charles Rufus Morey. A former chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, Morey was then in Rome as cultural counselor at the American Embassy and head of the Office of War Information in Italy. Morey had a particularly keen interest in questions of wartime art loss and damage—for instance, presenting at an important conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 28 December 1944 on the war’s impact on Europe’s monuments and cultural treasures.

One of Morey’s first initiatives as new Director in April 1945 was to join Albert Van Buren in approaching Myron Taylor with a proposal for holding non-residential “army leave studies groups” at the Academy in exchange for government compensation. The courses, which received high-level publicity, started on 11 June 1945. In October 1945 the Academy enhanced the arrangement, by opening its properties for residence by members of the Embassy and also military personnel taking the “leave courses”. It is difficult to number the American servicemen who enjoyed the residential opportunities until the Academy formally reopened in fall 1947; just six names are recorded in Academy records.

The American servicemen who received room, board and instruction at the Academy eventually caught the attention of LIFE magazine. Noted war photographer John Phillips visited the Academy in April 1947, and some of the images he snapped appeared in the 14 July 1947 issue of LIFE, in a feature “Americans Live High in Rome”. For the happy few who received sponsorship by the Academy, LIFE tells the reader, “they can act, sculpt, paint and sing to their hearts’ content, and in the evenings there is always music, good talk, and dates.”

In all, about sixteen persons who had or would have a close association with the American Academy in Rome played a role in the military’s preservation of cultural treasures in the World War II era. All did so as individuals, without the Academy’s official support. But these include some of the most important officers among the “Monuments Men”, such as Mason Hammond, RAAR’52, Walker Hancock, FAAR’28, RAAR’57, ’63, Deane Keller, FAAR’29, and Norman T. Newman, FAAR’26, RAAR’67.

A summary list follows below, with fuller details to be found via the links to the excellent ACLS Monuments Men website, and further in my article “L’American Academy in Rome e la Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission nell'era della seconda guerra mondiale”, in Guerra, monumenti, ricostruzione. Architetture e centri storici italiani nel secondo conflitto mondiale, ed. L. De Stefani and C. Coccoli (Marsilio Editori, Venice 2011) 191-199.

I thank especially dott.ssa Carlotta Coccoli, who co-edited the book and co-organized an important conference in Brescia (November 2011) on the subject of damage to cultural property and city centers in WW II, and for her many authoritative suggestions. And I gratefully acknowledge the invaluable help that Antonio Palladino (Preservation Assistant, AAR Library) provided in researching the published article and editing my Italian text.

It should be noted that the Academy’s Rare Books Room houses a collection of mimeographed and published reports of the Allied Military Government and the Allied Commission relating to monuments in Italy and other European countries during and just after World War II. These include MFA&A memoranda dating from November 1943 through January 1946, some labelled “Confidential” or “Restricted”. Printed materials include lists of monuments in Italy prepared by the American Defense-Harvard Group; War Department pamphlets on field protection of objects of art and archives; and Army Service Forces manuals on European cultural institutions.

—T. Corey Brennan, FAAR’88 (Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge, AAR)

“MONUMENTS MEN” OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY IN ROME:

DINSMOOR, WILLIAM B. (1886-1973)
AAR Trustee 1932-1958, and Acting Director 1944; Advisory position, Harvard Group, Chairman, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) (January 1943-), Original Member and (April-July 1944) representative abroad, Roberts Commission.

FELBERMEYER, JOHANNES
Chief photographer at the Central Collecting Point in Munich (1945-1949); later Staff, American Academy in Rome (starting 1950).

HAMMOND, MASON (1903-2002)
School of Classical Studies, Professor-in-Charge 1937-1939 (also 1955-1957); AAR Trustee 1941-1976; Lieutenant Colonel, MFA&A Officer (1943-1946), with service in north Africa, Sicily, Italy, England, France, and Germany. Later, Director of AAR Summer School, 1949; RAAR Classics/Archaeology 1952, 1963; Academy Medal for Outstanding Service.

HANCOCK, WALKER KIRTLAND (1901-1998)
FAAR Sculpture 1928; Captain, U.S. Army, MFA&A, with service in England, France, and Germany. Later AAR Trustee 1956-1974; RAAR Sculpture 1957, 1963.

KELLEHER, PATRICK JOSEPH (1917-1985)
Captain, U.S. Army, MFA&A Officer; later FAAR History of Art 1949.

KELLER, DEANE (1901-1992)
FAAR Painting 1929; later Captain, serving as regional MFA&A officer (1943-1946) with the US Fifth Army in Italy.

LEE, RENSSELAER WRIGHT (1898-1984)
Member, ACLS Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas, also Roberts Commission, Consultant; later RAAR History of Art 1955; AAR Trustee 1958-1976; President 1969-1971.

MOREY, CHARLES RUFUS (1877-1955)
Fellow, American School of Classical Studies at Rome 1903; AAR Professor-in-Charge 1925-1926; Member, Harvard Group, and Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas of The American Committee of Learned Societies. Later AAR Acting Director 1945-1947.

NEWTON, NORMAN T. (1898-1992)
FAAR Landscape Architecture 1926; Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Air Force, with service as regional MFA&A officer in Italy. Later RAAR Landscape Architecture 1967.

PEEBLES, BERNARD MANN (1906-1976)
FAAR Classics/Archaeology 1934; Staff Sergeant, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A), 1942-1945 in Italy.

RICHTER, GISELA MARIE AUGUSTA (1882-1972)
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A), Volunteer Assistant; later AAR Jerome Lecturer 1952-53; Medal for Outstanding Service to the Academy 1964.

ROWELL, HENRY THOMPSON (1904-1974)
AAR Visiting Student 1926-1927; then US Army, Lieut. Colonel 1942-1945, MFA&A, with service in Italy, also as Allied Military Government Education Officer for Rome. Later AAR Trustee 1946-1974; AAR School of Classical Studies, Professor-in-Charge 1961-1963; RAAR Classics/Archaeology 1967; AAR President 1971-1974.

SCARPITTA, SALVATORE (1919-2007)
Seaman, 2nd Class, United States Navy, MFA&A; later GI Resident at the AAR 1945-1947, Rome Prize Fellow (dismissed in 1949, for alleged Communist sympathies).

SMYTH, CRAIG HUGH B (1915-2006)
Lieutenant, United States Naval Reserve (USNR), Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Officer; later RAAR History of Art 1959.

TAYLOR, FRANCIS HENRY (1903-1957) 
AAR Visiting Student 1925-1926, Trustee 1941-1951 (also 1954-1957); Vice-Chairman, Roberts Commission; he visited England and France in August-September 1944 representing the Commission.

WAUGH, SIDNEY BIEHLER (1904-1963)
FAAR Sculpture 1932; Captain, U.S. Army Air Force, MFA&A Officer. Later AAR Trustee 1953-1963.