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Jack Smith

As he cites a WWII Army unit for courage under fire, an irate reader has him in her sights

January 09, 1986|JACK SMITH

In my reports on our recent European vacation I told of visiting the 18th-Century palace of the prince-bishops of Wurzburg, noting that its ceiling was decorated in fresco by the famous Venetian, Tiepolo.

"It is one of the largest baroque-rococo palaces in Germany," I wrote, "and as a monument to its builders' self-esteem it perhaps has no equal in pretentiousness.

"Whatever Tiepolo's doubts may have been about his subject, his work remains a great masterpiece. In World War II, the roof was destroyed by firebombs and the fresco was in grave danger. But an American Army officer ordered a temporary cover built, and it was saved."

That's all our tour guide told us. She didn't know the name of the American officer, or how he happened to bring off such a great caper for the enrichment of posterity.

Now I have a letter from Col. Charles J. Kunzelman, USAF (ret.), explaining all.

Col. Kunzelman recalls that the officer's name was John D. Skilton Jr., and that he was commissioned a second lieutenant in March, 1945, on the recommendation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas.

He was an expert in works of art, and he operated under the aegis of a formidable American commission.

Lt. Skilton was a member of what Kunzelman calls "an extremely small and unique, highly specialized military unit or team--the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) of the Civil Affairs Branch of the Army, having the designation of a new staff G-5."

The commission had been authorized by President Roosevelt himself at the request of the American art establishment. Its chairman was Owen J. Roberts, justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was known as the Roberts Commission.

"The MFAA," Col. Kunzelman says, "was responsible for the protection and salvage of Europe's, or more properly, the world's, cultural and artistic patrimony. It was a combined Allied activity with the British. Approximately 220 highly trained and educated art specialists served with the MFAA throughout the war. The great majority were Americans. Staffing never exceeded 35 or 40 at one time, including a few enlisted grades. Two officers were killed by enemy action while performing their duties of saving the artistic treasures of Europe."

Being a manufacturing center, Wurzburg was heavily bombed by 300 B-17s and 500 medium and light bombers of the 8th and 9th U.S. Air Forces on March 8 and 9, 1945, and that evidently is when the palace roof was damaged.

The Germans had thoroughly organized their looting of the art treasures of Europe. Their enormous collections were held in numerous repositories.

Lt. Skilton, along with Lt. James D. Rorimer, who in civilian life was curator of Medieval Art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, recovered and preserved the stolen art works held at Neuschwanstein castle and the Carthusian monastery at Buxheim.

"At Neuschwanstein castle Rorimer and Skilton unearthed the Germans' methodical records of their loot, which included 21,903 artistic objects with an untold and inestimable value.

"Because of its unusual organizational structure and the vicissitudes of placing the MFAA in a proper perspective," Col. Kunzelman explains, "the MFAA did not receive a Presidential Unit citation. Nor did any of the individual members of the MFAA receive any awards except for a couple of foreign decorations.

"This despite their magnificent record of performing their prescribed mission of recovering, preserving, and in many cases restituting not only looted art items, but German-owned art works as well. The combined value of these objects could well be over a billion dollars."

The commission itself recognized the recovery of the stolen art works as "undoubtedly among the most satisfying and exciting" missions of the war.

As one of thousands of Americans who will have stood in that great hall, looking up at that fantastic fresco, I am happy to give Lt. Skilton and the MFAA this belated recognition, in lieu of a Presidential Citation.

Having returned to this subject, I might be excused for noting a recent objection from Maria E. Andonian of Glendale to my description of the Wurzburg palace as "pretentious."

Tiepolo's theme, I noted, "was the apotheosis of his patron prince-bishop, who is shown ascending behind Apollo's chariot with an escort of gods and goddesses. It was a fact of 18th-Century life that an artist as great as Tiepolo could be engaged for two years in the glorification of a prince-bishop of doubtful divinity."

Wrote Ms. Andonian: "You have turned me off: to call a room in a beautiful castle (French architecture) in Wurzburg pretentious! Then the castles and churches in France are triply pretentious. And the ones in England double. And how about Austria; and also the unparalleled churches and castles in Italy! How would you describe them? Or were all the prince-bishops in those countries holy and humble?"

For my money they were all pretentious. Most of the castles and palaces of Europe were built by serfs for the glorification of their feudal rulers, or by subjects for their kings.

If you want pretentiousness, how about Versailles, the monstrous extravagance built by Louis XIV, the Sun King, who ruled France by divine right, cruelly persecuted Protestants, and left his nation bankrupt and exhausted. At one time this pile was home to 1,000 noblemen and 4,000 servants, not to mention numerous royal mistresses.

It is fitting that the French Revolution really began at Versailles.

But it's a nice place to visit.

Churches were built to glorify God, and that is something else.

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