DALLAS (AP) — From a fairy tale-inspiring castle in the Bavarian Alps to a serene sculpture of Mary and Jesus by Michelangelo tucked away in a Belgian church, sites and works of art across Europe can give travelers a glimpse of the heroic work done by the group depicted in the new movie "The Monuments Men."
The group's mission was to save cultural treasures during World War II. And just like the group's previously unsung accomplishments, many of the places and objects they saved have been "hidden in plain sight" for decades, said Robert Edsel, the Dallas-based author of the book "The Monuments Men," which inspired the movie starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and others.
Edsel talked about a few of the many places and artworks in Europe tied to the work of the 350 men and women from Allied countries, most of them already established as architects, artists, curators and museum directors when they reported for duty. Eventually, they returned more than five million cultural items stolen by the Nazis as part of a systematic looting operation.
WORKS OF ART IN BELGIUM AND THE AUSTRIAN SALT MINE WHERE THEY WERE HIDDEN
Visitors to the canal-lined, storybook town of Bruges, Belgium, may look in in awe at Michelangelo's marble sculpture "Madonna and Child" in the Church of Our Lady, but few know of its harrowing wartime journey. Taken from the church by German officers in 1944, the sculpture was eventually discovered by Monuments Men on a dirty mattress in a salt mine near Altaussee in Austria.
In the town of Ghent, not far from Bruges, visitors at Saint Bavo Cathedral can gaze at another work that was discovered by Monuments Men at the Altaussee mine: the Ghent Altarpiece. Made of panels painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432, the famous work of art was taken by the Belgians to France in 1940 for safekeeping. But in 1942 it was taken by the Germans.
Tourists can also visit the Altaussee salt mine where those works — along with 6,600 paintings, 140 sculptures and other pieces — filled more than 100 tunnels. The works stored in the Austrian mine about 45 minutes from Salzburg housed treasures Adolf Hitler wanted to one day fill his planned museum in Linz, Austria.
A PARISIAN MUSEUM AND A FAMOUS VERMEER
When the Nazis took over the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, making it the headquarters of their looting operation, French art expert Rose Valland was allowed to stay. But Valland, who unbeknownst to the Nazis spoke German, managed to keep track of where the artworks — most stolen from Jewish families in France — were being sent. She passed that information along to Monuments Man James Rorimer after the liberation of Paris, directing him to Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle. Today, a small plaque on the southwest corner of the Jeu de Paume, located near the Place de la Concorde, recognizes her bravery.