By Emma Uible.
For the 28th Annual Books for Lunch, Seven Hills had the pleasure of receiving renowned historian and philanthropist Robert M. Edsel, the author of the popular non-fiction books The Monuments Men, Saving Italy, and Rescuing Da Vinci. In September 2009, Edsel’s second book, The Monuments Men, was published. It is a narrative telling of the story of the the Monuments Men, a US Army battalion of men and woman who saved artwork in Europe in the midst of World War II. The Monuments Men is translated in more than twenty-five languages, and was recently made into a film directed by George Clooney that premiered in February of 2014.
As part of Books For Lunch, Edsel was the guest of honor at the annual Books for Lunch Dinner, hosted this year in the home of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Gale. The next day, Edsel spoke to 6-12 graders at an all school assembly, and later to adults, teachers and parents at a lunch held at Xavier’s Cintas Center.
Robert M. Edsel was originally a Houston businessman, but after getting out of the oil industry, he moved with his wife and son to Florence, Italy where he studied art and architecture. Edsel became especially intrigued as to the predicament of art throughout World War II, and how these cultural icons survived the turmoil of war in the midst of the destruction of the cities around them. What began as a question evolved into an impassioned journey to tell the story of the Monuments Men, the unsung heroes who saved the world’s greatest art and cultural treasures for the benefit of civilization. By 2001, that journey had become a full-time job. Edsel dedicated more than twelve years to painstaking and far-reaching research about the Monuments Men, which first culminated in the publishing of his book Rescuing Da Vinci. Edsel is also the co-producer of the documentary film, The Rape of Europa, based on the award-winning book of the same title by scholar Lynn Nicholas. In November 2008 the film was broadcast on PBS and subsequently received two Emmy nominations.
Edsel is also the Founder and Chairman of the Board for the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a non-for-profit committed to “supporting the recognition of American Monuments Men as well as the search for remaining lost art from world War II in Europe,” according to the foundation’s website.
In his lecture in the all school assembly Edsel began by talking a bit about himself and then transitioned into historical information about the Monuments Men. Edsel discussed how these pieces of art were more than just art for Europeans, they were cultural keystones. He emphasized in his lecture the constant struggle the Monuments Men had during their deployment was, “were these pieces of art worth a human life?”
In the luncheon at Xavier’s Cintas Center, Nick Clooney, who makes a cameo in The Monuments Men film directed by his son, introduced Edsel at the luncheon by discussing how important and relevant Edsel’s story is to the history of our world’s art, and the recognition of these unsung heroes. In his speech, Edsel gave the audience a history lesson about the American World War II Monuments Men and their individual backgrounds. Edsel’s lecture was interesting as a result of his dynamic and engaging way of speaking and how it really drew the audience into the plight of the Monuments Men. Discussing in detail individual men Dene Kelller, George Straight, and James Mortimer with the aid of photos projected onto a screen helped to make the men Edsel talked about seem even more relevant. Edsel stressed that, “this story is not just the story of the Monuments Men, it is the story of a society.”
During World War II, Hitler’s vision of founding an art museum in his home town of Lintz was brought into the early stages of fruition by his ordered stealing of art by Nazi soldiers. Edsel showed the audience with the aid of pictures about the various conditions this smuggled art was kept, most notably in salt mines throughout Europe, and a castle in Bavaria. One of the most iconic of the pictures Edsel showed was of the famous Florence San Marco altarpiece disassembled and in crates, which the Monuments Men found in a German salt mine.
The Monuments Men feature film written, directed, and starred by George Clooney premiered in London in February of 2014. Edsel stated that although the events in the movie seem dramatized, the historical basis for all the events are factual. As well, Edsel reflected that although the film was obviously made for Hollywood, the ability for the information about the Monuments Men to reach millions is truly extraordinary. As a result of the film, Edsel’s foundation received more exposure for Edsel’s foundation aimed at helping the original Monuments Men receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Edsel’s foundation founded in 2007, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, uses heightened visibility about the Monuments Men to illuminate the path home for the hundreds of thousands of works of art, cultural objects, and documents still missing since World War II. Working with individuals who come forward with leads about missing cultural items facilitates the Foundation to return art to its rightful owner. Most recently Edsel has been advocating for the remaining Monuments Men from World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.