I’ve finished Ackroyd’s Venice. ‘By the early 21st century the inhabitants of Venice had the lowest incomes in the whole of the Veneto region. One third of the population were over the age of sixty. The death-rate had overtaken the birth rate by a factor of four. That is why at night, Venice now seems so empty. It has hard to imagine a time when it was a city full of people. Of course, in the day, it is full of tourists. But, paradoxically, tourists empty a place by their presence. They turn it into a spectacle without depth.’
It’s been a dazzling, dense read. It’s restored memory banks and created new ones. It’s got me rereading Byron. I’ve sat in my chair and contemplated Ackroyd’s aphorisms and the place of art in the human consciousness. I’ve blogged about it and discussed it with friends. It’s been a joy to read and at the same time a chore in that it seemed to require a sense of duty to plough on.
It is almost with relief that I picked up ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Theives and the Greatest treasure Hunt in History’ by Robert Edsel, lent to me by Pam. Despite its overblown title, repetitions and rather wooden prose it’s a terrific story – the search for the art stolen by Hitler’s men during the Second World War. Some masterpieces have been lost, others amazingly recovered.
The Allied side caused many losses – Monte Cassino springs to mind. In Dresden I was told that the paintings in the art gallery that so impressed me were hidden in a salt mine during the war. Otherwise they could have been destroyed in the fireball that consumed the city. Eisenhower ordered his officers to take care of architectural and artistic treasures if possible but he also pointed out the necessities of war.
Edsel early on in the book describes Hitler touring the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Mussolini impatient and bored beside him. The scene altered my mental conceptions of the two dictators. Hitler determined to have a magnificent German gallery as his memorial.
Two great pieces of art that I’ve seen are part of the story. While the paintings of the Louvre in Paris were evacuated early the Bayeux Tapestry depicting William the Conqueror’s victorious campaign to capture England was stored in its basement for safekeeping. As Paris was falling SS men arrived with Hitler’s orders to take the tapestry away. The Resistance had taken over the Louvre. The German general in charge refused to order his troops into battle for the tapestry. It did not leave French soil.
Even more striking is the story of the altarpiece at Ghent, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It compares with Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin for majesty and colour – all 24 panels. The natural background to the theological expression is striking while the large Adam and Eve are eye-catching. Seeing it was an artistic highlight.
Apparently when war broke out the Belgians sent the piece off by truck for safe-keeping in the Vatican. At Pau in France they learnt the Italians had declared war on France. So they handed the piece over to the local authorities for the duration. The Germans tracked it down and took it away. I have not got to the stage where it was recovered. Treasure-hunting of this type is a form of detective work. The war is still being fought in the narrative, the Allied advance halted by the German counter-attack at the Battle of the Bulge.