‘Monuments Men’ Omits One of the Greatest Savers of Art (Chicago Sun-Times)

By Gregory J. Wallance


In Paris, art expert James Granger (Matt Damon) enlists the help of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) in “The Monuments Men.” | COLUMBIA PICTURES PHOTO

Updated: February 22, 2014 2:12AM

The movie “The Monuments Men” shows American soldiers recovering paintings and statues stolen by the Nazis. But one Monument Man, not shown in the movie, saved an entire palace.

Several years ago, while on a business trip in Germany, I visited the Wurtzburg Residence in the town of Wurtzburg on the Main River in southern Germany. The Residence, built between 1720 and 1744 by the most renowned architects of the era, is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as one of “the most extraordinary of the Baroque palaces.”

The residence is best-known for the giant ceiling fresco painted by the Italian rock star artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo on the world’s largest unsupported vault ceiling (some compare the fresco to the Sistine Ceiling). At the center is the Sun God Apollo, nude but for a fluttering white cloak. Spreading out from each of the fresco’s corners are melanges of fantastical human and animal figures allegorically representing the then known four continents. America, which Tiepolo viewed as both savage and aboriginally erotic, is depicted as a majestic bare-breasted woman with bronze-colored skin. She carries a bow, her head is adorned by a crown of brightly colored feathers, and her powerful left arm is outstretched against a blue sky. Human heads are piled below her exposed right leg. On a smaller scale, but equally dazzling, is the wing of state apartments, including the Green Lacquered Room and the Mirror Cabinet (made entirely of gold-edged mirrors), built for the express purpose of inducing a state of awe in visiting dignitaries.

After wandering for hours through this over-the-top Rococo fantasyland, I came upon an unadorned corridor. Hanging on a corridor wall was a simple framed photograph of a World War II United States Army officer. He was in his mid-30s, pale and somewhat frail-looking, with a pleasant, intelligent expression. Mesmerized, I stared for a long time at the photograph, wondering why someone had hung it in an 18th century palace built for a German Prince-Bishop. After I returned home, I found the Army officer’s memoir.

On March 16, 1945, the Royal Air Force bombed Wurtzburg. RAF bombs killed 20,000 people, leveled much of the city, and hit the residence, destroying much of the roof, blowing out its windows, and starting fires that devoured wooden ceilings and floors. Torrential rains then severely damaged the exposed interior. By some miracle, the Tiepolo fresco survived.

In the summer of 1945, a newly commissioned Monuments Specialist Officer, Second Lieutenant John D. Skilton Jr., trained as an art historian at Yale University, reported to the American Army’s Military Government Detachment at Wurtzburg. Skilton’s job was to save the residence, and he had little time.

Without a roof, the coming fall and winter’s freezing temperatures would destroy the water-saturated building, including the fresco. Skilton needed an enormous quantity of wood but all lumber and sawmills in the American Occupation Zone were under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers, which flatly refused Skilton’s request because it was building winter barracks for U.S. occupation forces. Skilton, who had put young Germans to work bailing out the building with buckets when it rained, found a private owner of logs further up the Main River. He gave the logs to Skilton in return for a sketchy promise of future payment.

Using a commandeered tugboat, Skilton pushed logs down river to Wurtzburg. There, he fended off the engineers, who tried to steal the logs, and the Burgermeister, who tried to confiscate them to build housing for homeless Germans. Skilton got his hands on more wood by agreeing that USO entertainers could put on a show for American soldiers in the residence’s great courtyard (one entertainer was Ingrid Bergman) provided that he could keep the lumber from the stage. A sympathetic supply officer gave him more than 2000 square yards of tar paper, and a sergeant at a supply depot lent him trucks, onto which men from a displaced persons camp loaded 50 tons of cement donated by another supply officer.

By September, with the help of townspeople, Second Lieutenant Skilton had erected a temporary roof on the residence that saved the building and the Tiepolo fresco and allowed later renovation to restore a great artistic treasure. After the war, Skilton held positions at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Parke Benet Galleries in New York City. He died in 1992. Like the other Monuments Men, his story needs to be told. And, I am proud to have met him.