Gerri Chanel’s book Saving Mona Lisa (2014; Heliopa Press) is a fascinating account of the efforts of the directors, staff, and employees of the Louvre museum to move most of its precious art collection to safekeeping just prior to the opening days of World War II and then again during the German occupation.
In 1933, alarmed by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, and acting on the premise that Germany would eventually invade France, the director of the Louvre began to make plans with his curators to identify safe locations in different areas of the country in which to store the museum’s artworks. By the time Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, employees at the Louvre were ready to begin the task of packing and moving.
Saving Mona Lisa recounts in detail the daunting logistics of packing thousands of artworks—some of them oversized, cumbersome pieces—and transporting them by truck to manors and châteaux throughout France that had been identified as places that the Germans would be unlikely to bomb during an invasion. Not only did difficult transportation arrangements have to be made, but once the works of art arrived at their destinations, they had to be properly stored to protect them from damage by fire and humidity.
Once the Germans invaded and occupied France, they set up a taskforce to identify works of art that they wanted to seize and remove to Germany for an enormous museum that Hitler planned to create in Linz, Austria. Several of Hitler’s henchmen also targeted certain works for their personal collections. Saving Mona Lisa recounts the ingenious efforts of Jacques Jaujard, director of the Louvre, to thwart the Germans in their endeavors.
Chanel has succeeded in writing a compelling epic from material that could have inspired only a dry recounting of the Louvre’s effort to protect its treasures. Carefully researched, Saving Mona Lisa recounts important historical details, not only about the undertaking, but also about World War II France and the many French men and women who risked their lives to protect the museum’s precious heritage.
Gerri Chanel’s book Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures During World War II can be purchased on Amazon.
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