To read "The Monuments Men" or see the film based on the book is to feel a bit ashamed that the thought of how the great art treasures of Europe survived World War II had not crossed one's mind before.
It was exactly that feeling that came to author Robert Edsel in 1996 when he was studying art and architecture in Florence, Italy. Crossing the famed Ponte Vecchio, he wondered how so much of Italy's art and architecture had escaped damage in the war, while other European cities were pulverized.
"And I didn't know the answer," said Edsel. "It's been a subject and story hidden right in front of us. These things in museums are there and have always been there and will always be there."
But during World War II, as Adolph Hitler grabbed country after country as part of the Third Reich, thousands of pieces of artwork were also taken from their owners or from museums and then hidden in caches all over Germany.
It was the job of a small group — about 350 total — of men and women from 13 countries who volunteered for service in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives detail whose mission was to find and preserve as much European culture as they could, while the war was still being fought.
Edsel, recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal, has written several books on the topic, including "Rescuing Da Vinci," "Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis," and "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History," will headline this week's "People of the Book" event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee.
Edsel had no background either in art history or in World War II when he became fascinated by the idea of Nazi looting of art treasures.
"But what quickly became my focus was not the bad guys but the good guys," he said.
The people who made up the MFAA detail came not out of a military backgrounds but by and large were from the art and museum world. Curators, restorers, lovers of the arts, their average age was about 40. By the time Edsel began his research, they were at the upper end of the Greatest Generation's age range. Today, of the 17 Edsel tracked down initially, only five are still living.
Edsel found himself doing primary rather than secondary research for the book. The key thing was to find the Monument Men's families and letters sent home during the war.
"It's really those letters that are so important," said Edsel. "There are different archives around the world. Those are a bit dry. What people want to know is, what were they thinking? Their letters home tell us those critical adjectives."
"The Monuments Men" has all the elements of a thriller, with traincars filled with looted artwork parked and ignored on a siding, the theft of Michelangelo's "Bruges Madonna" in the dead of night, the discovery of $5 billion in gold bars and coins stashed in a German salt mine, and eight 1,100-pound bombs inside the tunnels of the salt mine at Altaussee in Austria, which were intended to be set off and destroy countless priceless artworks.
The last detail was part of Hitler's plan to destroy the infrastructure of his homeland, including its cultural treasures, as the Allied forces chased him into a corner.
Edsel sees parallels between the Nazis' destruction of artwork they considered degenerate and what is happening with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"What Hitler did was destroy works of art that he considered degenerate and that he considered bad art, not out of an artistic sense by a philosophical sense of what kinds of images he wanted to present to uber-Germans and what they ought to be studying and be interested in," said Edsel. "So in that context, we have the Taliban and Al Qaeda destroying things that they considered blasphemous to their interpretation of Islam today. This continues on, when we deal with holocaust, lower case h, destruction of things people believe in and that define a civilization. Humiliation, erase them and all of their history, and then of course you're going to kill them afterward."
Edsel was a consultant on the "Monuments Men" film which starred George Clooney and has had "middling to negative reviews," said Edsel.
"What we've seen is a tremendous interest on the part of the public. I think the film's really good and I don't look at the screen from the point of author or historian but from the standpoint of messages. My objective was to make sure that these men and women's legacy was known to people around the world."
ROBERT EDSEL, author of “The Monuments Men,” will speak at 7 p.m. March 10 in the auditorium at Riverview High School, 1 Ram Way, Sarasota, as the keynote for the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee’s “People of the Book” event. Ticket donation is $36; reservations are required. Call 552-6304; www.jfedsrq.org/events.aspx.