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The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II Hardcover – August 4, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

They were a gaggle of misfits—nerdy, old, bookish and sometimes pompous and abrasive. Yet the group of Allied soldiers nicknamed the Venus Fixers believed that saving Italy's culture—from bombing, from Göring's coffers, from careless soldiers—was an essential component of the war effort. Initially, it was the Italians who tried to find safe havens for the art, and then the job fell to the Venus Fixers, who performed triage after an area was secured by the military. In one harrowing tale, Brey describes how the Venus Fixers saved delicate manuscripts from being bulldozed along with rubble into the Arno. Often these artistic subversives were at odds with their own armies. In her first book, journalist and translator Brey isn't as skilled as one would like in bringing her soldiers to life on the page—a shame, given what a unique bunch they were and what an unusual task they had—but the book makes a strong case for what the Allies were fighting for in Italy: its history, and the artworks that continue to inspire us today. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Aug.)
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“Art and war come together in this superbly researched history that reveals how Italy’s Renaissance masterpieces were caught in the crossfire of World War II. Ilaria Dagnini Brey recounts how many of these works almost miraculously survived, and who we have to thank for saving them—a somewhat unlikely crew of art historians, scholars, and architects. She shows how their quiet courage stood between some of the world’s greatest treasures and a fate almost unbearable to contemplate.” —Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

The Venus Fixers is an extraordinary story—tragic, poignant, and inspiring by turn. A must-read for anyone who recognizes that the mute victims of any country’s war are frequently its works of art, it brings to light a little-known and entirely absorbing aspect of World War II.” —Caroline P. Murphy, author of Murder of a Medici Princess

“Ilaria Dagnini Brey expertly recounts the race to protect masterpieces of art and architecture caught on the battlefront. Fascinating and brilliantly researched, The Venus Fixers is a story of Botticellis hidden in castles, the monuments officers’ heroism, and the art’s often narrow escape, played out against air strikes and looting, leveled churches and shattered frescoes.” —Cynthia Saltzman, author of Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures

“In this finely written and researched first book, full of anecdotes that will fascinate all art lovers, Ilaria Dagnini Brey adds wonderful insight and detail to the gripping story of the miraculous preservation of many of the world’s most treasured masterpieces during the Allied campaign in Italy. The heroes are the curators of Italy’s patrimony and the fabled monuments men attached to the Allied invasion forces, and Ms. Brey does them proud.” —Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374283095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374283094
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,250,461 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Anne Nelson on August 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"The Venus Fixers" tells one of the truly great "untold stories" of World War II. There have been several fine books on Nazi looting, but this one describes the bold young American officers who struggled to save Italy's artistic legacy from destruction. The characters and their stories are extraordinary. (The book opens with a young Harvard grad piloting a Martin B-26 over Florence,ordered to bomb the exquisite city he loved...) The author has done incredible research, in both U.S. and Italian archives, and manages to balance engaging anecdotes with military history. The insert of photographs is exceptional, really brings the people to life. This book changes the way you look at art -- and war.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Doru M. on May 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I picked up the book, I initially had the impression that this will develop into a telephone directory type of book: too many names, too many details. But by the time I read the first 100 pages I was hooked.

Why: because it brought into focus, even to one like me, who lived during WWII in Europe, and lived under bombs and survived them, how little we know, how "nothing" really we know about the manner in which so many masterpieces we admire matter-of-factly at the Uffizi, Accademia, the Archaeological Museum in Napoli, the cathedrals which we visit and admire everywhere in Italy, the bridges, the Palazzi, etc., how all these were saved by only a small number of Allied officers and by the work of most of the 50 Italian superintendents who were entrusted with these treasures, alas! too late in some cases, when the Allied forces landing in Italy in 1943.

Much of the book concentrates on Tuscany and on Florence, but there is plenty about the South and the North of Italy.

Personally, I will never look in the same way at Boticelli's Primavera, I will never walk along the Lungarno in Florence without imagining palazzi destroyed, bridges over the Arno annihilated, the Palazzo Pitti serving as shelter for 6000 people while the bridges and palazzi of the Arno were being blasted, 6000 people living in the Pitti in the midst of the art treasures, cooking, sleeping, worrying, waiting the war out. Among them Carlo Levi, and the Guicciardinis of the street with the same name whose palazzo on the Lungarno was mined and blasted, so many others without famous names.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By nom de plume on June 20, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I ordered three different books about stolen artwork/jewels from Amazon at one time. I began with the Venus Fixers, moved on to Chasing Aphrodite and ended with Flawless. The Venus Fixers was the least enjoyable of the three.

I am familiar with Italian Rennaisance art, with Florence, Rome and Sienna but still felt bogged down in all the minutae. The book had no central focus to drive the narrative - I understand that there were lots of different players involved who helped save the artwork of Italy... but the book never felt exciting - that we were a first hand witness to critical events - that the Venus Fixers raced to rescue the artistic jewels of Italy.

The book was interesting, just not engrossing. I was hoping that a story of Allied forces saving entire cities and their monuments and artwork from destruction would be thrilling - unfortunately, the Venus Fixers doesn't come close to that. It's more a laundry list of place names, beauracratic names and artwork. Most times when a famous piece of artwork was listed, there was no context for it. I always wanted to ask: why is that piece of art or that monument important?

Read the book for its detail, but don't expect it to be a page-turner.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By las cosas on September 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Very well written history of a few US and British architects, art scholars and museum directors sent to Italy during WWII to both lessen damage done to buildings and art works, and to assist in the restoration of damaged buildings, bridges, towers and art objects. The author provides a detailed study of the tensions between the military and the intellectuals, who were relatively old (40s and 50s) and out-ranked (lieutenants and captains). The story progresses from Sicily to the Alps as we follow the Allied forces marching north, with our heroes, derisively named the Venus Fixers by the military, mopping up behind. The majority of the book centers on Florence, with several narratives interwoven to describe the terrifying months when the city became one of the war's front lines. Wonderfully vivid and alive.

The central point of this book might be summarized as: it is naïve to think a war can be choreographed to avoid damaging culturally important objects, but a few people with some support from leaders can limit looting, educate as to the importance of these objects and help to restore those objects that have been damaged. It is a measure of any nation's humanity that it can appreciate our shared culture, and the importance of the physical objects exemplifying that culture, even during war.

"If you remember, when some of that looting was going on, people were being killed, people were being wounded...It's as much as anything else a matter of priorities." This quote from Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Iraq, on the April 2003 looting of the Baghdad museum is included, without comment, at the start of the last chapter. It makes your heart ache.
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