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Mark Stuertz | Photo: Jimmy Bruch and Paul Zinken | April 25, 2013
After three books on daring art rescues, Hollywood discovers a Dallas author.
American spies, Nazi SS generals and secret wartime negotiations are the real-life dramas that make up Dallas author Robert Edsel’s latest book, Saving Italy, which chronicles the race to save priceless art treasures during World War II. The book is the latest installment in a string of publishing successes that have resulted in a George Clooney-directed film set for release in December, starring Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.
The 428-page tome ($29, W. W. Norton), which hits bookstores May 6, is edge-of-your-seat stuff that recounts the heroism of art scholars, artists and servicemen who risked their lives protecting some of the world’s greatest artworks. How many know that Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic painting, “The Last Supper,” came within a few feet of being lost forever due to a stray British bomb? Or that wanton Nazi destruction claimed the spectacular bridges of Florence and the medieval towers that lined the Arno River, forever changing the city’s landscape? Episodes like these—both the tragic and the miraculous—animate Edsel’s well-researched prose.
Edsel first became interested in the fate of European art during the war after selling his Dallas oil and gas exploration business in 1995 and moving to Florence. His research led to Rescuing Da Vinci, a book that documents the Nazi looting operations, the discovery of stolen art and artifacts and the efforts to return them. After being rejected by publishers multiple times, Edsel self-published it in 2006. In a twist of fate, The New York Times put the book on the front page of its Arts section, and Hollywood came calling. Edsel followed up with three more books, including The Monuments Men, which turned the history buff into a moviemaker. We caught up with Edsel to reflect on his remarkable path from page to big screen.
How did The Monuments Men happen? One day, walking across the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge not blown up by the Nazis as they fled Florence in August 1944, I wondered how, in spite of the most destructive war in history, so many of western civilization’s artistic treasures survived, and who were the people that saved them.
How did such a serious topic by a Dallas writer catch Hollywood’s eye? One person who quickly understood the excitement of the story was my agent at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, Michelle Weiner. She saw Rescuing Da Vinci when it first came out, and loved the story. But she also understood the uphill battle we faced selling the book to Hollywood. As I was finishing Saving Italy, I received word from Michelle that George Clooney and Grant Heslov were interested in making a film about The Monuments Men.
Were you surprised that George Clooney decided to direct the film? No. I hoped it would appeal to him. He understands how to put together an ensemble cast. He also has a tremendous social conscience, and he wants to leave the world a better place. That’s certainly been my attitude.