Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Destructive Elements – Italian churches damaged by earth, water, air and fire

This month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic is elements. Although we could talk about just one element, I opted for the challenge of all four. And while I could write about nice warm fire or beautiful holidays by the seaside, for some reason, I have destruction on my mind. Maybe it’s the frozen water that has blanketed all of Italy except, fortunately, Florence city. Or maybe the little earthquake tremors that many of us felt even here in Florence last week and that caused greater damage up north. Or the fact that just three months ago water (and mud) devastated the Cinque Terre, Genova and areas of the Lunigiana.

Assisi, damaged first bay, Photo Gerhard Ruf, http://expo.khi.fi.it

I guess I’m just thinking that the elements are not particularly friendly these days. But a post about these things would be no fun. So the art historian in me decided on a challenge: to come up with historic misfortunes to befall churches in Italy and to think about what we have learned from these disasters, if anything.

Earth

The element Earth becomes destructive when it moves on its own. Italy has suffered many earthquakes over time. Most recently, the city of Aquila in Abruzzo was completely destroyed, and little is being done to reconstruct it.

Acuila, cupola of Santa Maria del Suffragio, photo ANSA

In September 1997, a massive earthquake hit the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Because of its position, the church shook hard and was much more damaged than the rest of the town, which nonetheless suffered greatly. And while international effort rushed to restore this important artistic masterpiece, in part due to its impact on tourism, work on other buildings lagged.

During the earthquake, the frescoed vault in the first bay of the basilica collapsed, killing engineers and monks who were inside evaluating the damage of an earlier tremor. This was recorded on video by the photographer Ghigo Roli who had just finished documenting the entire building and its artwork on film the night before. About 200 square meters of vault and fresco were lost, containing works by Giotto, Cimabue, and their workshops.

I first visited Assisi in July 1997, and then again in the summer of 1999. At that date I remember seeing videos and information about how the restoration was proceeding. Life-size reproductions of the destroyed frescoes were printed, and upon these, fragments of plaster were being assembled. Four standing saints were fixed up in this manner and installed in their original location in 2001. The restoration of all wall paintings in the upper church was completed in 2005 (source: KHI).

What did we learn from this disaster? Experts revealed that the reason the church was so badly damaged was that wooden beams were replaced with reinforced concrete ones in the 1950s, a process that had been applied to many Italian monuments, and that was not at all seismic-friendly. In 1998, the Italian Ministry of Culture and the European Commission held a conference to discuss the damage and restoration of the church and potential preventative measures. A year later, the EU Commission announced in a press release that a solution had been found by one of their research groups, and that “custom-made shape memory alloy (SMA) devices will be used to connect the tympanum wall to the roof” in the first heritage application of this technology. I was unable to find out if this was indeed carried out. Indeed, the Assisi quake raised questions about potentially damaging interventions on other important monuments like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Padova’s Scrovegni Chapel, nicely summarized in this article by ArtWatch International. I may be wrong, but I have not heard of much being done to address these issues, and I imagine that we will continue to only patch up damage, like at Pompeii, rather than prevent that damage from happening.

Water

North aisle of Santa Croce, Nov 1966, photo Bazzechi (KHI)

There are too many flood disasters to pick from these days, but the great flood of November 1966 in Florence always tugs at my heartstrings. The most dramatic photos show rushing water in the streets, monuments will all know and love. The photos of ruined artworks are less exciting to look at but I want to talk about the flood at the Church of Santa Croce because of its very long lasting effects on the art world. In the photo above we see mud on the ground as the water retreated, and you can see the line on the wall (still today in person) where it had reached.

Cimabue’s 13th century crucifix, one of the most important works of this period, was irreparably damaged. In the photo by Bazzechi you see the work being transported to the Boboli Gardens after the flood. Its restoration was completed only 10 years later, and it hangs now, in its reduced state, in the museum of the church of Santa Croce, where it always makes me sad.

Cimabue’s crucifix being moved after flood, Photo Bazzechi KHI

For many years I thought that the paintings in the Vasarian altars in the side aisles of this church were nothing too spectacular. They are dark and in bad condition; in fact some still have patches of rice paper on them to hold them together after flood damage. When on a visit to Santa Croce a few years ago I found a “new” work in the museum that makes me realize that probably those large, dark works are much more exciting than they look, but they are awaiting restoration (in fact some have come out from restoration and look very nice). Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo came out from restoration only in 2008 after having been damaged in the flood (and also misplaced); I have spent quite some time admiring the colours, forms and details of this important mannerist work that has been saved from obscurity… 40 years later.

A “new” Bronzino for Santa Croce

How many paintings like this are still hiding in storage somewhere in Florence, waiting for appreciation (and funding)? Or on a lesser scale but equally important, how many books are there in the Biblioteca Nazionale that are still “alluvionati” (flooded) and inaccessible for study? 46 years after this flood we are still removing the mud. In Florence, much has been done to prevent another disaster from the Arno; experts say it is highly unlikely that this will happen again. But meanwhile, in other areas of Italy, disaster is just waiting to strike, and human stupidity is helping it along.

Air

While air can be extremely dangerous to the body in Italy (the colpo d’aria can be fatal), it seems to do less harm to buildings than it does in America. In over a decade of living here I have only seen one little tornado out over the sea, versus the tornadoes that seemed to come through the rustic camp I attended in Canada every year.

I tried to find churches or important buildings damaged by tornadoes or anything else air related and the best I could come up with is that the sanctuary of the Madonna di Loreto was supposedly transported – through air - by angels in the 13th century; this is a tale of construction, but you figure that their taking away the stones from Nazareth constituted a form of destruction first. But anyway, recent research shows that the Angeli family brought the stones over by boat, so the element involved is in fact water, not air!

A tornado (tromba d’aria) did take out the roof of the archbishopral palace in Padova in the 18th century. But Padova was more hurt by air raids than by anything natural – allied bombing took out much of the church of the Eremitani and ruined Mantegna’s frescoes in the Ovetari chapel there. Padova was subject in fact to 40 air raids, while Verona was bombed 30 times and 15 raids on Vicenza destroyed the cathedral and historic center. These are just some examples of the terrible damage of WWII bombs in Italy.

Eremitani, Padova, after air raid

Fire

To talk about destruction by fire is almost too easy. The Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD comes to mind – a week in July in which two thirds of the city was destroyed while Emperor Nero was lying on the beach at the coast. The fire was blamed on the Christians (there’s my hook to churches), took out a lot of temples, and made way for the Domus Aurea.

Actually, before the Ancient fire, I thought of the “Fire in the Borgo,” a 9th century fire in Rome represented in a Raphael fresco in the Vatican. No churches were burned that I know of, but The Church claims responsibility for stopping the fire (in the person of Pope Leo IV).

Raphael’s Fire in the Borgo

I asked Agnes from Understanding Rome if she knew of any churches destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the Renaissance or Baroque periods and she came up with an impressive list off the top of her head: Santo Spirito in Sassia and Santa Maria in Traspontina were both rebuilt after fires during the Sack of Rome, and in the 19th century San Paolo Fuori le Mura was damaged by fire.

Florence, too, was often subject to fire in the middle ages, when the tightly populated city was built mostly of wood. Giovanni Villani recounts, in his Chronicle of Florence, various fires in the summer of 1325 including one in via del Parione “next to the church of Santa Trinità, and 14 houses burned, and 5 people died.” He does not mention if the church was at all damaged. Often fires like this took place because of uprisings against a family or person who tries to barricade himself safely inside a home, resulting in arson of that home that spread to the whole area. This is pretty much what happened in 1311 to poor Mr. Calvacanti who tried to hide in his house when an angry mob was after him for killing messer Pazzino de’Pazzi. But alas, for my purposes, no churches were harmed in this fire.

For a famous church damaged by fire in Florence I must look no further than the Church of Santa Maria nel Carmine, where the Brancacci Chapel by Masaccio and Masolino was only slightly damaged by the massive fire in 1771 that caused the entire rest of the church to be rebuilt in the disconsonant Rococco style. Centuries of oil burning caused dark deposits on the frescoes which was compounded by the fire, and the true colours of this work only came to light in the late 1980s restoration.

Conclusions, of sorts

I have, in my head, the male voice of a 1960s or early 70s documentary narrating a conclusion like “and so, man’s constant battle against the elements…” Why is it that the phrase “battle against the elements” is one of writing’s worst clichés? I’ve gone on too long, and think that my questioning in each section summarizes our relationship with water and earth, in particular, in Italy when it comes to cultural heritage: patch up and clean rather than prevent. Because prevention costs money, and the coffers are empty. Too many monuments don’t even have enough money for regular operation and maintenance (for example, the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence sometimes has to turn the heat off in the winter because they cannot afford to fix leaking pipes). And in the midst of the worst economic crisis in recent history, when we are all called upon to sacrifice in order to pull the EU out of this mess, I fear little will be done to prevent further disasters to our endangered cultural heritage and landscape.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

And with that perky message, I hope that my fellow knights have come up with something nicer to say about these poor four elements. Check out the other Italy Blogging Roundtable posts on this blog and read what they have to say about this and past topics.

By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • http://unprosecchino.blogspot.com/ Celia Prosecchino

    fascinating article bringing to light many important issues of conservation and preservation .

  • Stephinmontreal

    Informative and well-written – thanks for posting!

  • http://www.printrunner.com/postcard-printing.html mae_postcard_printing_services

    I do remember the 1997 earthquake which almost turned the Basilica of Saint Francis of Asisi to ruins. Though the frescoes, plasters, and the saints were restored, we can never really turn back how things were. That’s the sad fact.