Recording memories for future generations
This is a cropped image of the head of a bronze statue by Fidardo Landi called Daisy

The Monuments Men Movie and My Family History

Daisy statue by Fidardo Landi

[Editor’s note: This week marks the long awaited release of The Monuments Men movie, an epic story about a little known group of U.S. Army soldiers that worked to save the art and cultural artifacts of cities throughout Europe during World War II. This is my story about family history and how it relates to the work of The Monuments Men. The work I’ve done to find my great grandfather’s artwork has been previously documented in a series of blog posts called Finding Fidardo Landi, which were published on my personal blog]

Meet Daisy.  This bronze statue was named for the graceful crown of flowers that wind around her adolescent head. She is frozen in time as a young girl – perhaps 10-12 years of age – carrying a water pitcher, bending forward to gather fresh water. The slight, but delicate extension of her left hand, leaves fingers wiggling with intent.

There are two notable features about her that tie her to my family as an ancestor. The excessively short little toe that looks more like a Brazilian nut is a family trait. Perhaps an ancestor of mine modeled for it. The copyright signature of F. Landi is that of my great grandfather Fidardo Landi, the Italian sculptor whose work I’ve been hunting down for more than 20 years.

The story of Daisy was told to me repeatedly when I was a child by Landi’s wife, my great grandmother Luisa (Biggi) Landi, who lived into her 98th year, and again by my grandmother Alexandra (Landi) Camuti and my mother Nina (Camuti) Danielsen over the years. Here is what I’ve been told.

The design work for Daisy was originally done for the Guggenheim estate on Long Island. It took me until this year to find the summer estate of Isaac Guggenheim, which is now the Sands Point Country Club.  The general manager has been delightfully gracious in helping me with my research, but there are no records of Daisy. There are, however, four other statues that were either designed or sculpted by my great grandfather.  Landscaping for the estate was designed by the famed landscape architect Ferruccio Vitale, who became one of my great grandfather’s closest friends. (I’ll write about their friendship in another post). At the time they were doing collaborative design work for several estates and business was booming.

According to notations in several books about Long Island Summer Estates, there was a small bronze statue in the courtyard of Guggenheim’s home that was quickly replaced by another larger bronze done by a more notable sculptor.  If Daisy was ever at this estate I’m assuming she had a brief visit.

My great grandmother Landi told me that Great Grandpa Landi made a copy of the statue and gave it to her brother Antonio Biggi, who married Alena Bertolli (of the Bertolli Olive Oil fame). It was on display in the Biggi family home in the center of Carrara, Italy where my great grandfather Alessandro Biggi was mayor. Also a sculptor and exporter, he established the massive family home as a showroom to display the varieties of marble capable of this region. It is possible that the original Daisy statue, upon being rejected from the Guggenheim estate, was given to Biggi.

During World War II the family retreated to their summer cottage in the mountains to hide from the German Army. Their home was invaded and much of the artwork was stolen, including Daisy. Generations of my family have described for me how the German soldiers stole the drawers from all the dressers to carry out the artwork and sculptures. This home was clearly a target, fueling the German greed machine of hoarding the best pieces of art and artifacts under the guise of protecting it from the enemies.

Imagine how much inventory was taken from a 10-bedroom estate home with more than one sculptor and marble importer living in it.

I’ve seen bits of the artwork that has passed down through the generations. I’ve imagined that inspired showplace for so long that it feels like I’ve lived there.

The Biggi statue was never found. Never returned. It’s been talked about in my family for some 70 years. The only evidence I have of this statue are the business records showing it being cast in bronze and some photos of the follow-up castings.

Out of curiosity, I bought The Monuments Men book about two years ago. My mother and I share a love of art and antiques. Together we’ve been trying to track down Great Grandpa Landi’s artwork for decades. Before I finished the forward of the book I called her and excitedly ranted on about the foundation that was established to honor this military group and work done to reunite owners with artwork.

It gave us hope.

Officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the United States Army, this was a small unarmed group of museum archivists, sculptors, curators, and art and antique specialists tasked by the president to protect the cultural treasures of the communities affected by the war. Their work was slow and tedious and met the tempestuous distrust of locals.

One of the Monuments Men was a Prix de Rome winner in sculpture just like Great Grandfather Landi!

There was so much information gathered about the work of the Monuments Men book  by author Robert M. Edsel that he saved anything about Italy  for his follow-up book Saving Italy, which was published last year.

Somewhere in all the stolen artwork from Italy is a three-foot high bronze statue of a young girl slightly bent forward, holding a water pitcher.  Our Daisy. I’d like to see it returned to the Biggi-Landi family.

I’m eager to see The Monuments Men movie, produced by George Clooney for its relationship to our family’s hunt for stolen artwork. I need to see the drama and horrific nature of how art and artifacts were damaged and destroyed. Without question, it will inspire me to keep looking for Landi’s artwork. His story, his legacy deserves more than to be written off by German greed. He was a great sculptor, who was gaining attention both in Italy and the United States. He had the work of three American presidents to his credit, either as the designer or the carver.

I’m encouraged in my search for Daisy by a recent article in the New York Times by reporter Doreen Carvajal, who took an amateur’s shot at using genealogy to find the heirs or former owners of looted artwork. Her case study exampled in Loot No Longer shows how government agencies and museums tasked to find the rightful owners haven’t done an adequate job to locate owners. Perhaps it’s a lack of staff or financing. Perhaps, it’s a lack of knowledge in genealogy or how communities rebuilt themselves and people relocated after the war.  Perhaps it that they’re not really interested in finding the original owners, if the artwork has already jockeyed between government agencies, art museums and dealers. The effort has been defined as sluggish and inefficient, especially since the emergence of sophisticated online genealogy programs shared worldwide.

Carvajal notes that over the past 60 years the French have returned just 80 of the so-called orphaned works of art. The rest, some of them masterpieces, sit or hang in 57 French museums, which are their guardians until the rightful owners can be found.

I just want Daisy back with the family.