Georgiann Potts

Writer’s Note: You just have to love Christmas in Louisiana. For those who like cold, wintry weather with their holidays, Louisiana wasn’t their place in 2021.

Down here we grew up singing “Frosty, the Snowman” with exactly the same enthusiasm that others living further north sing it. We did this – and still do -- even though many of us have had precious little personal experience with enough snow from which to build a snowman. No matter, that dream for a “White Christmas” remains in the hearts of Louisiana folks year after year.

When we do finally reach the truly cold days of a Louisiana winter — and that is rarely in December — nothing tempts us more than a warm fire, a cozy blanket, and a good book. Seems to me that all three sound just about perfect right now! —GP

Colder Days Call

for Good Books

So, how did that flip-flops-shorts-and-sunscreen Christmas Day 2021 suit you? For me, it was an all-too-familiar kind of Louisiana Christmas Day. Yet another dream shattered! One of the reasons that I loved to travel abroad at Christmas and New Year’s was that there was a REAL possibility of finding snow while there. I confess: I’m a cold, snowy Christmas kind of girl who lives in the sunny (and often mighty hot) deep South.

Christmas 2021 and the days afterward through New Year’s Day had some of the warmest temperatures on record. Seeing 82 degrees showing on the thermometer on New Year’s Day was a little shocking. I just shook my head and added another ice cube to my tea.

I certainly understand the arguments against inclement weather on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, there is a lot of scurrying and hurrying going on. Santa has to do his deliveries, of course, but many people still need to finish their own “last minute” shopping. On Christmas Day, the children are eager to get outdoors to play with their new toys — and their parents are equally glad for them to be outside doing just that.

Welcoming Some of 2022

This new year came in with a clear message for all of us — “Don’t think you can predict me!” While high temperatures broke records on January 1st, just one day later they dropped like the proverbial rock. Many of us watched in amazement as sleet and then snow flurries became our weather for the day.

We get it, 2022. You will be just as unpredictable this year as your predecessor was!

But not all of 2022 . . .

While we certainly welcomed the new year, we did NOT welcome the steady increase in COVID numbers that also launched 2022. Added to that sad reality are the increasingly conflicting “directives” emanating from the Centers for Disease Control concerning pandemic restrictions. Masks are seen to help one day; they are deemed unnecessary the next. Social distancing and vaccinations are mandatory in some places even as they remain a matter of “personal choice” in others.

We also did not welcome the rise in inflation (at a 40-year high as I write this) nor the increase in the histrionic ranting that is heard almost daily from our nation’s capital. The back-and-forth on all of this doesn’t sound like science to me; it sounds like politics — politics that I, for one, am worn out with. Surely 2022 will see a resolution to all of this.

A Good Book Cures Many Ills . . .

British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis (1989-1963) famously said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I agree with him wholeheartedly, especially on those cold, disagreeable winter days.

There are few better ways by which to lose oneself than inside the pages of a good book. The story will transport you — for at least a time — from all of the cares and concerns that may haunt you. I have spent a great deal of time during the pandemic reading and doing book reviews. Some of the books I have reviewed I have discovered on my own; others have been recommended to me.

My most recent review is of a book that a dear friend suggested that I read. The book: The Night Portrait: A Novel of WWII and Da Vinci’s Italy written by Laura Morelli and published in September 2020. The friend: Dr. Jerry Holmes. Jerry was a professor of mine in graduate school who also served on my graduate committee, then was a valued colleague when I served on the faculty and later in administration, and has always been an important mentor and friend. He isn’t one to suggest books to me often, so when he suggested this one, I read it. I was not disappointed. I think that you would enjoy it, too.

Morelli’s book is really two books in one, told brilliantly from four points of view. It spans time from 15th century Italy to 20th century Poland. The link between the two time periods is a small portrait of a young girl painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. The painting – considered by many to be the first “modern” portrait — is called “Lady with an Ermine”.

The 15th century portion of this historical novel is told from the points of view of Da Vinci and the subject of the portrait, Cecilia Gallerani. Da Vinci is frustrated during the process because he would much rather be designing and building war machines (tanks, artillery guns, submarines, helicopters, etc. — none of which existed before he imagined them) than painting portraits. However, his patron, the de facto Duke of Milan, wants the portrait. Da Vinci needs the commission, so he paints.

Cecilia is also frustrated by the duke. She is only one in a succession of the duke’s mistresses, but she is determined to become his wife and the mother of his legitimate children. In spite of their mutual challenges, the artist and his subject work together and Da Vinci creates a masterpiece that is still regarded today as one of his finest. The portrait, a gift to Cecilia, is retained by her descendants for centuries.

The 20th century portion of the book is set in Poland and Munich during WWII. The “Lady with an Ermine” portrait has been stolen from its rightful owners by the Nazis under orders from Hitler to “confiscate” every major work of art throughout Europe for his planned Fuhrermuseum. This portion of the novel is told from the points of view of two fictional characters who are composites of people working during WWII to recover and protect that art.

One, Edith Becker, works in a Munich art museum as a conservator. She is pressed into service and sent to Poland to help repair and catalogue any works of art that the Nazis acquire there. There she encounters the Da Vinci portrait and becomes determined to protect it at all costs.

Dominic Bonelli is an American soldier of Italian descent who participates in D-Day and then finds himself assigned as guard for a unique unit of art specialists, the 1943 American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic monuments in War Areas (later known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section or The Monuments Men). This international unit’s mission was to recover the stolen art and return it to the rightful owners. Reliable estimates suggest that over 650,000 works of art were stolen by the Nazis making this the single largest art theft in world history.

Morelli (who holds the PhD in Art History from Yale) brings to this book an awareness of art in the context of the culture in which it is created. She combines sound academic scholarship with a vivid imagination through which she creates a very interesting novel. This book delivers everything. It is a story of love and the love for art as well as a story of war and greed — all set against the quite different backdrops of art-rich Italy and war-torn Europe.

The Work Continues

In 1951, the last Monuments Men officer returned home. The 345-member group of men and women are credited with recovering over 5 million artifacts. In 2007, former President George W. Bush awarded the Monuments Men Foundation with the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor in the United States for outstanding work in the humanities. Eight years later, Congress awarded the Monuments Men and Women of WWII the Congressional Gold medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.

In 2019, the Pentagon announced the formation of what it called the “next generation” of the Monuments Men and Women of WWII. Based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, this unit will be trained by the Smithsonian and will be known as “Cultural Preservation Officers”. Their focus will be to protect the world’s cultural heritage sites with a focus on those located in the Middle East.

American author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Perhaps if more people in more cultures were allowed the privilege of reading books — not those “sanctioned by the state” or some special group, but those that they choose to read — we wouldn’t have to create a special unit to protect and preserve cultural heritage sites worldwide.

Enough. A warm fire, a cup of tea, and a good book beckon.

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