Book Review of Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel

I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.

Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.

Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.

I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.

I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.

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