Art and historical fiction author Laura Morelli takes us to World War 2 Italy in her newest book “The Last Masterpiece.” Morelli has written novels on numerous topics regarding art history and in this but she focuses on the efforts of the Monuments Men who were working in Italy. Most of us are aware of the Monuments Men because of the book by Robert Edsel, as well as the movie, but those basically concentrated on northern Europe and what was going on in Germany. Less attention has been paid to the Herculean efforts by the men and women behind the scenes trying to save the great masterpieces of Italy. As with most of Morelli’s books she gives us a dual perspective as half the book is narrated by Eva Brunner, a German photographer who has been sent to Florence to document the efforts by the Nazi too “save and preserve” the masterpieces of Florence and Italy. And then we also get to follow Josephine Evans, an American WAC who has become so proficient at her stenography that she is selected to accompany two different art historians and experts in their attempt to retrieve and preserve these same works of art.
The book is filled with historical characters, and this fills the book with the realism that one needs to understand what was happening in Italy near the end of the war. Eva begins documenting all the artwork that she encounters in Florence and then accompanies the German Art Institute personnel to photograph these works of art as they’re being moved to various locations in Italy. She eventually comes to the realization that the Germans are not preserving these for the Italians, but rather to take back to Germany where her father is actually in charge of one of the leading salt mines where masterpieces are being stored. Josie, who knows nothing about art to begin with, eventually becomes attached to works and comes to understand their importance to the citizens of Florence, Tuscany, and mankind. She becomes part of the rescue efforts to locate these paintings at the very northern border of Italy and Austria, and to make sure that they do not disappear forever. If you don’t know much about the Italian version of the Monuments Men then this is the book you want to read to fill you in on the history, but it’s also a book that explores the human side of art and how fluid and dangerous the situation had become in Italy after the Italians no longer fell under the control and domination of the Nazis and we’re now working either overtly or covertly with the Allies. Morelli’s book is fast-paced, action-packed, and filled with relatable characters. It is a book that is hard to put down and one that I heartily recommend.