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The Renaissance mystery of Sibenik’s dome

Sainsbury money is helping restore the fifteenth-century, Venetian-style masterpiece shelled in 1991

For the past two years the city of Sibenik in Southern Croatia has been working to restore its fifteenth-century cathedral damaged by fire in 1991. Now, with the help of a London-based charity, the restoration is about to enter its most delicate stage.

In September 1991 Sibenik’s Cathedral of St Jacob was shelled several times. The façade was heavily damaged and the roof and famous cupola experienced a direct hit.

A Council of Europe team of architects and engineers from France, Switzerland and Italy surveyed the damage in 1994. Their report has guided Split’s Institute for the Protection of Cultural and National Heritage in its rebuilding of the church façade, interior and roof. Other international advisers such as Martin Stancliffe of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, have visited the site to share their expertise with local restorers.

The peculiar structure of the cupola’s vaulting has left many questions unanswered and restoration is set to proceed cautiously.

The usual method of building a cupola, where small stone blocks placed alongside one another exert enough pressure to support the structure as it rises was not used in Sibenik. Instead, large horizontal slabs were interlocked in a framework of grooved beams and it is still not clear how Renaissance builders upheld the seventy-ton structure during its construction.

To rebuild the original cupola as accurately as possible, stone has been quarried from the island of Brac off the coast of Split where the materials for the cathedral were drawn from in the fifteenth century. To understand the complexities of the cupola’s design, a full-scale model of the dome has been built in the church of St Dominic in Zadar. However, as details are concealed within the original structure, one will only discover once work has begun whether the plan for its rebuilding is the right one.

The Bishopric of Sibenik has raised around £30,000 locally. In London, the International Trust for Croatian Monuments, which raises funds for the repair and rebuilding of historical sites in Croatia, has donated £42,000, including a £25,000 contribution from Sir Timothy and Lady Sainsbury. The Croatian government is expected to provide the additional funding needed to finish the work. Goran Niksic of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural and National Heritage is project supervisor. He is adamant that the means to finish the work will be found, stressing the importance of rebuilding the city’s cathedral as a symbol of national pride.

Croatia desperately needs international support for ongoing restoration of the churches, castles, historic buildings and moveable works of art damaged during the four-year Serbian siege. Foreign conservators in all the different branches of the discipline are needed as much as foreign funding.

The Franciscan monastery in Dubrovnik is one of the many victims of the war needing outside help. Shelled fifty-one times in 1991 and 1992, the building and collection of sixteenth-century paintings were badly damaged. With no one in the country specialised in restoring burnt pictures, the workshop set up at the monastery in 1993 to try and cope with the damage is reliant on foreign charity.

Institutions involved in the protection of cultural property throughout the country are struggling to establish similar workshops and encourage foreign conservators to train their staff. Occasionally, enough funding is raised to send Croatian students to study abroad and a student from Split is currently at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, as a trainee woodcarver. However these exchanges are few and far between.

In the UK, many artists at least have pledged their support. An exhibition in October of works by six British artists who have recently visited Dubrovnik aims to raise public awareness, with thirty percent of the proceeds from the sale of works going to the International Trust for Croatian Monuments.

“Royal Academicians in Dubrovnik” will be in the Friends Room of the Royal Academy from 2 October to 4 November.