The Monuments Men

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Perry Blythe Cott ( 1909-1998 )

Museum director and curator Perry Blythe Cott was born in Columbus, Ohio on March 27, 1909. He earned two degrees from Princeton University, including a Bachelor’s degree in 1929 and a Ph.D. in 1938. In 1932 he began a seventeen-year career at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, which included his promotion to Associate Director and Curator of European and Asiatic art in 1940.

Cott served as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve from July 1942 to April 1946. The first part of his military service was spent in Naval Intelligence. In October 1943 he was selected as one of the first MFAA Officers. As MFAA Adviser for western Sicily, he was stationed at headquarters in Palermo but later transferred to the Italian mainland after its closure in March 1944. Entering Rome on the heels of U.S. Fifth Army in June 1944, Cott immediately began inspecting culturally significant monuments and sites, including the Arch of Constantine and the Galleria Borghese. Interviews with Italian officials followed. Cott then began assessing the condition of various collections, both private and state-owned, and initiated salvage and repair operations.

During the summer of 1944, Cott undertook the removal of protective structures covering hundreds of Rome’s greatest monuments and works of art. In August, he organized a group of forty-six paintings from well-known Italian State Galleries in Rome, Milan, Venice, Urbino, Naples, and Palermo for an unprecedented exhibition which war alone made possible. After two months of collaboration with the various Italian Ministries and the Director of Fine Arts for the Vatican States, “Exhibition of Masterpieces of European Painting” opened to the public on August 27, 1944 at the Palazzo Venezia. Originally scheduled to run for only a few months, the exhibit remained open until February 18, 1945. During these six months, the exhibition was viewed by nearly 100,000 people.

Cott later served as Monuments Man for Lombardi and Milan, where he supervised the removal of protective sandbags from Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. When scores of soldiers flocking to see the unveiled masterpiece posed a threat to its well-being, Cott posted a notice prohibiting access to all military personnel. In August 1945 he was transferred to Austria, where he arranged another blockbuster exhibition of 100 paintings from the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum at the state apartments of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

Following his return to the United States in 1946, Cott resumed his position as Associate Director at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, where he was responsible for writing the museum’s handbook, Art Through Fifty Centuries (1948). In 1949 he resigned in order to become Assistant Chief Curator, and later Chief Curator, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1967 he helped the Gallery acquire Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, the only painting by Leonardo outside of Europe at the time. His book on the portrait, Leonardo Da Vinci: Ginevra de' Benci, was published in 1967.

Perry Cott died in Vevey, Switzerland in 1998.