DALLAS - From a fairy tale-inspiring castle in the Bavarian Alps to a serene sculpture of Mary and Jesus by Michelangelo tucked away in a Belgian church, sites and works of art across Europe can give travelers a glimpse of the heroic work done by the group depicted in the new movie "The Monuments Men."
The group's mission was to save cultural treasures during World War II. And just like the group's previously unsung accomplishments, many of the places and objects they saved have been "hidden in plain sight" for decades, said Robert Edsel, the Dallas-based author of the book "The Monuments Men," which inspired the movie starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and others.
Edsel talked about a few of the many places and artworks in Europe tied to the work of the 350 men and women from Allied countries, most of them already established as architects, artists, curators and museum directors when they reported for duty. Eventually, they returned more than five million cultural items stolen by the Nazis as part of a systematic looting operation.
Belgium and Austria
Visitors to the canal-lined, storybook town of Bruges, Belgium, may look in awe at Michelangelo's marble sculpture "Madonna and Child" in the Church of Our Lady, but few know of its harrowing wartime journey. Taken from the church by German officers in 1944, the sculpture was eventually discovered by Monuments Men on a dirty mattress in a salt mine near Altaussee in Austria.
In the town of Ghent, not far from Bruges, visitors can gaze at another work that made a similar journey: the Ghent Altarpiece. Made of panels painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432, it was carted away by Germans in 1940 from St. Bavo Cathedral in the town of Ghent. It was also discovered in the Altaussee mine.
Tourists can visit the Altaussee salt mine where those works, along with 6,600 paintings, 140 sculptures and other pieces, filled more than 100 tunnels.
The works stored in the Austrian mine about 45 minutes from Salzburg had treasures Adolf Hitler wanted to one day fill his planned museum in Austria.
A famous Vermeer
When the Nazis took over the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, making it the headquarters of their looting operation, French art expert Rose Valland was allowed to stay. But Valland, who unbeknown to the Nazis spoke German, managed to keep track of where the artworks were being sent.
She passed that information along to Monuments Man James Rorimer after the liberation of Paris, directing him to Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle. Today, a small plaque on the southwest corner of the Jeu de Paume, near the Place de la Concorde, recognizes her bravery.
To see a work of art with a history that encapsulates the Nazi looting machine, Edsel says, gaze upon Jan Vermeer's painting "The Astronomer" at the Louvre.
"That one picture is stolen from the Rothschilds, goes to the Jeu de Paume. It's selected for Hitler's museum. ... It ends up in the salt mine at Altaussee, found by the Monuments officers, returned with all these other things to France, returned to the Rothschilds, donated to the Louvre," he said.
Visitors flock to tour "Mad" King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle, nestled in Germany's soaring Bavarian Alps with dramatic turrets rising into the sky. But during the war, the castle was the Nazi's hideaway for about 21,000 items stolen from French collectors and records of the looting.
In Italy, Florence's bridges today offer a look at cultural treasures that didn't survive the war. Except for the Ponte Vecchio, the city's famous covered bridge, other bridges over the Arno were destroyed by the Nazis as they made their retreat out of Italy in 1944.
Online: www.monuments menfoundation.org.
Neuschwanstein Castle near Schwangau in southern Germany was a Nazi hideaway for looted art.×
Monuments Man George Stout (second from right) works with others as they remove Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” from a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, on July 10, 1945.×
Monuments Man James Rorimer (with notepad) supervises American GI’s hand-carrying paintings down the steps of the castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany, in May 1945.×