The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) was established in 1943 to assist in the protection and restitution of cultural monuments in war areas during and following World War II. Dubbed the "Venus Fixers" or "Monuments Men," this group of art historians, curators, architects, and artists joined military forces to protect statues, paintings, historic buildings, and other important cultural landmarks. After the collapse of the third Reich, the MFA officers oversaw the hunt for the priceless art treasures that had been hidden in more than a thousand locations across Germany and Austria. By the time the Allied forces reached Germany, the mission had shifted from protection of monuments to restitution of stolen artworks.
Albert Sheldon Pennoyer, a California artist and captain in the U.S. Army, served with the MFAA in Italy from 1944 to 1945. Issued a Leica camera, and a car and driver, he traveled the front lines photographing fellow monuments officers assessing damage to landmarks and performing emergency restoration. During his tenure Pennoyer organized the photographic section of the MFAA and compiled an archive that includes his own photographs and those taken by members of the Army Signal Corps. The photographs document the casualties of war: devastated civilians, ravaged cities and towns. In March 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest T. De Wald, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University and director of the MFAA, praised Pennoyer, writing: "He has spared himself no end to secure materials which were almost inaccessible to us and to build up this photographic record for Washington and London."
Among the more poignant images in the Pennoyer collection are those of a stunned population struggling to survive in war-torn cities. Millions of people were evacuated or displaced, forced to move from location to location. There are images of refugees traveling with the paltry remains of their household goods, seeking refuge behind Allied lines or eking out an existence in temporary shelters. Even after the Allies liberated a city or town, daily living remained an exercise in survival. Retreating German troops left a path of destruction in their wake; buildings that were not completely destroyed were wired with concealed bombs. The photographs capture the misery and despair of families, their meager possessions piled on carts, returning to their villages to discover that their homes had been ransacked or burned.
Many of the photographs document the damage and subsequent restoration of monuments and art in Italy and other countries. Some depict the mute victims of war: the churches, museums, and other monuments that suffered from bombardment, ransacking, and military requisition. Others show Monuments Men assisting local officials in their efforts to remove cultural treasures from the line of fire. The perception of the "art army" as a group of effete intellectuals is refuted by these photographs, which document the heroic efforts of this dedicated group as they worked diligently amid rubble and ruin, stabilizing collapsing buildings, fixing leaking roofs, and repairing battle-scarred works of art. Faced with Herculean challenges, the monuments men and women were undeterred in the pursuit of their goal: to locate, recover, and preserve the artistic and cultural heritage of Europe.
Hitler's troops had conducted one of the most thorough and extensive looting campaigns in history: the destruction and dislocation of cultural property that took place during World War II was unprecedented. Throughout history, the spoils of war have always included objects of art, and the loss and destruction of buildings, both public and private, have always been an inevitable consequence of war. In his book Rescuing Da Vinci, Robert M. Edsel wrote: "What sets this story apart from other such historical events was the response of America and her Allies. Their determination to prosecute a war while minimizing damage to cultural monuments and art works, and later recovering stolen objects for return to their rightful owners, was extraordinary."