by Gerri Chanel. Heliopa Press, May 2014. 344 p. ill. ISBN 9780615990392 (pbk.), $18.00.
Reviewed May 2015
Lauren Paustian, Associate Librarian, Leo Baeck Institute, email@example.com
Saving Mona Lisa is a fascinating historical account of the Louvre's near total evacuation to depots in the French countryside during World War II. The details of the evacuation are daunting: thousands of paintings, drawings, sculptures, books, and archival documents were packed, documented, and transported to depots (often chateaux or abbeys) just before the invasion of Paris in 1939. The Louvre's priceless artifacts stayed in the depots for the next six years, threatened alternately by artillery attacks, poor environmental conditions, and covetous Nazi leaders who wanted to acquire the art for their own collections. While Mona Lisa is the eponymous core of the narrative, other important paintings like Raft of the Medusa and Diana at Her Bath play prominent roles (indeed, Hitler's foreign minister was reportedly enamored with Boucher's depiction of the nude Diana).
Remarkably, no collections items belonging to the Louvre were damaged or seized during the war years, a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of the Louvre's staff. Led by the museum's director, Jacques Jaujard, the Louvre curators, administrators, and guards stayed with the crates of artifacts in the depots. Careful in negotiating with German authorities, Jaujard prevented the Louvre's holdings (and France's irreplaceable cultural heritage) from being used as political bargaining chips. The author mentions numerous heroic acts undertaken by Louvre staff: an archivist who transcribed hundreds of provenance documents by hand, museum guards hiding French resistance fighters among the art in the depots, curators who slept with the Mona Lisa in a custom-built box underneath their beds to easily evacuate the painting in case of bombings.
The author pieced together myriad primary resources to recreate the chronology of the Louvre's history during World War II; subsequently, the book features extensive notes and bibliographic sources. Other helpful supplementary materials include a map of the art depots in relation to occupied Paris and a list of selected French and German individuals and organizations that are mentioned in the text. Black-and-white photographs of the artworks, people, museum rooms, depots, and German-occupied Paris are plentiful throughout the book and are aligned appropriately in the text.
Saving Mona Lisa tells a compelling true story of ordinary citizens (in this case, museum professionals) doing extraordinary things during a time of duress and instability. It also functions as a case-study in successful disaster preparedness for priceless museum collections. While the art historical details are somewhat light, the book has a general interest appeal that would have a place in any library with an art or history section.