The Last Masterpiece: A Book Review
I take a brief pause from my usual posts to offer readers a review of Laura Morelli’s latest historical fiction, The Last Masterpiece: A Novel of World War II Italy. In my not-for-profit blog I have never publicized another author’s book, but her subject closely aligns with my interests of World War II, looted art, and of course, Italy.
The publisher (William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins) reached out to me to write a review. My only payment for this review was a complimentary copy of the paperback book. My respect for Dr. Morelli’s research and efforts to bring art history alive for readers made this an easy yes as we both share a passion to bring Italian art history to wider audience.
Laura Morelli, The Last Masterpiece: A Novel of World War II Italy. William Morrow, 2023. $18.99 403 pp.
Based on real events, this historical fiction captures the behind the scenes drama that unfolded at the end of World War II when opposing sides worked tirelessly to either steal or recover precious art. The author presents readers with parallel stories of two young women in their twenties, from different countries, each playing a role in Nazi looted art. Eva Brunner is an Austrian photographer who documents art transported to the Austrian salt mines and other locations. Josie Evans is an unassuming typist from Connecticut who joins the Fifth Army Women’s Army Corps (WACs) on a whim in the summer of 1943 to help with the war effort. Both are naïve and have no idea what lies ahead for them as they are assigned to work close to battle lines. Readers will quickly surmise the two will eventually meet as the Nazi false claims of saving the art from Allies is exposed and the Allies try to track down the hiding places.
Eva is confident in her mission documenting hoards of art until some things don’t add up and she is confronted with finding a way to expose the truth. Josie starts out insecure and becomes more self-assured in her skills and ability to navigate dangerous and tricky situations. The author captures mid-1940s U.S. life for women with poignant hints of classism, limited roles for women, non-stop cigarette smoking, the smell of Glo-Coat floor polish, wool skirts, and the awful sanitary napkins with the belt. Her writing is thoughtful and I appreciate that women are the main protagonists. Eva is not presented an evil Nazi, but conflicted and troubled by what she encounters and wrestles with making the right decisions.
The story begins just as Italy surrenders to the Allies and ends with Germany’s surrender. April 1945 is a pivotal month when President Roosevelt dies, Mussolini is strung up, and Hitler commits suicide. Both characters learn to take chances and get out of their comfort zone and are equally shocked by the consequences of war on human life, landscape, and culture. Themes of family pride and personal growth through adversity are woven throughout the book. Dialogue is sprinkled with Italian phrases and words which bring the characters and setting to life.
Although Josie is a fictional character, she is based on accounts of the women who assisted the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive section. Eva has a counterpart as a German woman who worked for the Kunsthistorisches Institute in Florence (Art History Institute). The two Monuments officers depicted (Rand Thomas and Wallace Foster) are based on real art historians who, along with staff, tracked down what is estimated to be present day value of seven billion dollars of looted art.
Two of the most interesting characters are siblings Paloma and Corrado Innocenti who work with Eva and the Germans, however, there are some questions about which side of the conflict they serve. The siblings’ true intentions are revealed and they become the catalyst that bring Eva and Josie face to face. Corrado, a drop-dead gorgeous Italian, caught the eye of Josie when the Allies reach Florence. The author flirts with some romantic tensions between Corrado and Josie, but the real romance is the love the characters have for the cultural patrimony of Florence and Italy. Corrado sums it up when he explains to Josie that art isn’t “just a dusty object. Somehow it’s a living force. It helps us remember who we are” (p. 224).
Dr. Morelli paces her book briskly, and although chronological, does not weigh down the reader with dates. Her details, such as the British bomb that fell on the marshaling yards of the Florence train station, and locations of the looted art in the Dolomites, are spot on, as are the artists, paintings, and sculptures.
Laura Morelli’s research is impeccable and thorough. As a Yale University Ph.D. in art history, she knows Florence and its masterpieces intimately. The book would benefit from illustrations of some of the art and monuments. After reading the book it was fun to find online photos of the Fifth Army section recovering the art and many of the scenes depicted in the book. A note on the title – perhaps the last masterpieces would be more appropriate as this book does not focus on one artwork but thousands.
I would have liked to spend more time with the Corrado and Paloma characters, as they are intriguing as Florentines who had to navigate the war years with the Fascists, Nazis, and the Allies. Dr. Morelli rightfully includes Italian curators in her story. They made valiant efforts to document and track the artworks and assist in their recovery, but I would have appreciated exploiting more of the tension those Italians experienced in their Nazi occupied homeland. Perhaps in her next book?
If this has piqued your interest, check out some additional resources on this exciting historical period.
The Monument Men and Women Foundation Highlights the 345 men and women from fourteen different nations who reclaimed art. Check out the most wanted missing art – not all of it was recovered, including works by Michelangelo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Raphael, Claude Monet, and Rembrandt.
National Archives Photographs and a short documentary film reminiscent of scenes in the book.
Author's website: Laura Morelli