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A Story Of War, Theft And A Beautiful Woman, Back In The U.S. After 70+ Years

Gorgeous. Serene. You won't believe the rocky life this glorious young woman has led since Botticelli painted her in Italy around 1475. First off, she doesn't look her age. And with a passport that would make jet setters seem slug-a-beds, she's seen parts of Europe that Americans flock to, and ends up right now in an American city that rarely tops European's bucket lists: Cincinnati, Ohio. She's part of the Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition, "Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men."

You may remember the George Clooney (be still my heart) 2014 film, about art experts, museum curators, others who volunteered to hunt down artworks confiscated by the Nazis in World War II, and hidden away for safekeeping by Hitler and his henchmen.

The movie is streaming these days, should you want to check it out. "It compresses the story," says Peter Jonathan Bell, curator of the Cincinnati exhibition. Hey! It's a movie! (and hey! it's George Clooney!). The curator continues: "Still, it's very good in taking the topic to a broad audience." But I digress.

Back to the Botticelli. The lady, who most scholars believe is Simonetta Vespucci, was the toast of Florence in her day. Painters were besotted by her beauty. When she died at age 22, it is said that Botticelli asked to be buried at her feet. Nearly five centuries after he painted her, Simonetta got caught up in World War II. She'd been bought for Berlin museum collections at the end of the 19th century. In wartime the Nazis moved her first to another part of Berlin to shield her from Allied air raids, then stored her in, believe it or not, a salt mine in central Germany.

"Perfect protection," says curator Bell. "Steady temperature, consistent humidity." (A fascinating part of the story is the care with which the Germans treated the various artworks — those they owned, as well as those they stole. Some were put right next to the country's gold reserve. "That's how valuable they were felt to be," Bell says.) Simonetta, the star of the Cincinnati show, was stored in salt mines near Merkers. That's where General Patton's Third Army discovered her and thousands of other looted artworks.

Read entire article at NPR