by Gerri Chanel
Publication Date: September 1, 2018
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Icon Books
In August 1939, curators at the Louvre nestled the world's most famous painting into a special red velvet-lined case and spirited her away to the Loire Valley. So began the biggest evacuation of art and antiquities in history. As the Germans neared Paris in 1940, the French raced to move the masterpieces still further south, then again and again during the war, crisscrossing the southwest of France. Throughout the German occupation, the museum staff fought to keep the priceless treasures out of the hands of Hitler and his henchmen, often risking their lives to protect the country's artistic heritage.
Thus a story that features as a vignette in the George Clooney film The Monuments Men is given the full-length treatment it demands. The recipient of several independent publishing awards in the United States, and illustrated throughout with nearly 100 photographs, Saving Mona Lisa is a compelling true story of art and beauty, intrigue and ingenuity, and remarkable moral courage in the darkest of times.
The copyediting in my hardcover edition is total crap, and the narrative dragged a wee bit in the middle – although I doubt nearly as much as the same point in the actual war felt like it did for those that had to go through it – but otherwise, and excellent book about exactly what it says on the wrapper. Concise, focused, and written to be easily read (if not for the bad copyediting), Chanel does a masterful job at juggling an enormous number of French and German players, and the unbelievable efforts curators, guards and volunteers went through to protect the art of the Louvre. The fact that she does this without deviating into politics or resistance efforts that don’t directly pertain to the protection and conservation of the art made me appreciate the read even more.
Though I’ve been to France, I’ve not been to Paris; I knew, of course, that the Louvre isn’t a po-dunk museum, but until I read this book and saw the photos included (alas, all black and white but better than none), I really hadn’t comprehended the sheer vastness of their collections. And of course, having been to other world museums, I know that ‘art’ comprises many different mediums, but when I first imagined the evacuation of the ‘art’ prior to the outbreak of war in France, my mind’s eye thought, of course, ‘paintings’. Nevermind the Winged Victory of Samotrace, a sculpture coming in at just around 3.5 tons. And I never considered the paintings that were huge that had to be rolled up on giant oak poles, or Raft of the Medusa, that couldn’t be rolled because the artist used bitumen for the black, which never dries but remains sticky. Evacuating that piece alone was a tale. And the Bayeux Tapestry? That tale is one that can only be marvelled at in retrospect; in the moment it must have been … I don’t know, but I imagine the three men who lived it got very, very drunk afterwards.
An engaging read.