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Art: The Venus Fixers

1998
1970
1945
Time 16 April 1945


In Florence, U.S. Army officers were hard at work rebuilding a part of the Nazi-destroyed, rubble-rimmed banks of the Ponte Vecchio. Four of Florence's famed medieval towers had been badly damaged; three were already repaired. Fixing the wobbly fourth, 100-year-old Torre degli Amidei, was the immediate problem.

Rebuilding Italian towers is only a trifling part of the mammoth job now being done by 16 Allied officers (eight Britons, eight Americans), whose jawbreaking official title is the Allied Sub-commission for Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives in Italy. The title has been briefly translated by G.I.s into "Venus Fixers."

It is the Venus Fixers who furnish the air force and infantry with lists of Italian art treasures which must be spared "if possible." These non-targets are rated ac cording to age, preservation and reputation of the maker (buildings like St. Peter's in Rome get top billing: three stars). The Venus Fixers approve expenditures for rebuilding (20,000,000 lire in Sicily) and get the restoration started. In charge is the U.S. Army's Lieut. Colonel Ernest Theodore DeWald, 53.

Stuff & Things. Venus Fixer DeWald, a softspoken, pipe-smoking ex-professor of art history at Princeton, was an infantry officer in World War I. Colonel DeWald has followed on the heels of advancing Allied armies, listing damage, determining what "first aid" is needed. When he sees some of the atrocities committed on art by the retreating Nazis, he frequently has trouble with his blood pres sure. During the past year Colonel De Wald, who invariably refers to Italy's priceless objets d'art as "stuff & things," could sketch, from reports of his staff, a broad outline of what has happened to liberated Italy's historic architecture. Highlights:

¶ Assisi, site of 700-year-old San Francesco, oldest Gothic church in Italy, escaped unscathed.

¶ Rome (and the Vatican), undamaged, except for the 1,500-year-old Early Christian Church of San Lorenzo (three stars), which was hit by a bomb.

¶ In Naples, the Santa Chiara Church (two stars) was badly burned, but 14th-Century frescoes were discovered when the 18th-Century decorations peeled off the walls.

¶ In Benevento, the precious, 1,100-year-old Cathedral (three stars) was blown skyhigh, along with its famed 12th-century bronze-sculptured doors.

¶ In Pisa, the famed Leaning Tower was lopsided as ever, but the medieval cloister and burial ground, Campo Santo (one star), had its roof destroyed, ruining the frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli.

The Venus Fixers have hardly begun. Nazi-occupied northern Italy is still ahead of them.* As for Italian paintings which have been destroyed, lost and looted, Colonel DeWald has quoted no figures (others estimate as high as $50,000,000 worth in stolen goods alone). But on the theory that some of the "stuff" has been hidden by Germans or Italian Fascists, he has his Venus Fixers hunting clues. And, he thinks, a lot more will come to light when the Allies get a good look into the Hitler Museum in Linz and Art-lover Goring's Karinhall near Berlin.  

* The Paris radio last week reported that "Italian Partisans" had blown up famed Rialto Bridge (1591), on Venice's Grand Canal

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