Sometime in the late 1990s, author Robert M. Edsel was walking across the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence, Italy–the only historic span that wasn’t destroyed when the Nazis flooded the city more than 50 years prior–when a powerful thought erupted in his mind. How many other European treasures, he wondered, managed to survive a conflict that cost the lives of 65 million people?

The pursuit of that question spurred Edsel on a fascinating adventure that has lasted 15 years now, and resulted in three books about the remarkable efforts undertaken to snatch some the world’s most valuable pieces of art from the maw of chaos. The latest, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures From The Nazis, has just been published. In it, Edsel continues the odyssey that began unassumingly enough on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

“I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer to my question,” Edsel says. “But it was enormously embarrassing that it never occurred to me to ask the question before. I suppose I’m sort of an armchair quarterback about World War Two history. I certainly knew enough to know how devastated so many cities and countries in Europe were from bombing, and from actual ground combat.” He realized that the churches and museums he was visiting looked like they had always looked, but they couldn’t have escaped WWII unscathed. “So, what happened to them?”

When Edsel eventually learned that even his Italian friends were as equally flummoxed, he knew he was onto something big.

In 2007, Edsel’s chronicling of the men and women who risked everything during World War II to save invaluable treasures from destruction earned him the National Humanities Medal, and the gratitude of 17 surviving “monuments officers.”

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“There have been other incredible honors,” Edsel says. “But for me, to see these men and two women that I’ve known on my watch–17 monuments officers in all–and hear their family members tell me that they lived more years than they would have lived otherwise because of the recognition and interest they received, it makes all the years of hard work and sacrifice trying to gather this information and then decipher whaSaving Italyt it means, worth it.”

Despite the awesome devastation that World War II wrought, Edsel believes that the United States led the way in protecting cultural treasures that might have otherwise been lost to the flames. Sadly, it’s a costly lesson that Edsel believes the nation has forgotten, and it’s part of the reason he continues to write. 

“Roll forward to 2003 and the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad and damage to other cultural sites there,” Edsel says. “There was no announcement about a cultural policy of the United States. There was no advanced planning that was effected. I’m not saying there weren’t discussions about it, but when it came down to the priority targets, there was the oil and gas sectors, the electrical grid, etc. People love to politicize that, and look, you’ve got to have fuel to run vehicles, you’ve got to have power to keep the lights on. But you also must protect the cultural treasures. It’s incumbent upon us as occupiers–Americans, British, whoever it is–to respect those things, and do what’s necessary to protect them as custodians.”

Although it’s been more than 15 years writing about a very particular time and set of circumstances in world history, Edsel is by no means ready to move on.

“This is an epic story,” he says. “And it sure is deserving of as many books and stories as some of the World War II battles we know a lot more about.”

Joe Maniscalco is journalist living in Brooklyn.