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How to save the stones of Venice?

The sculpture that adorns the churches and palaces of Venice is being damaged beyond retrieval by pollution and vandalism

Venice

From the Greek lions that guard the Arsenale to the monumental columns of St Mark’s Square and the marble icons of the basilica, no Italian city is more richly embellished with sculpture than Venice. But the city’s sculptural heritage is in grave danger.

While the Italian government and private charities work to preserve and restore Venice’s art and architecture, the sculpture that adorns the façades and columns of the city’s palaces, churches and public squares is being eaten away by acid rain, and destroyed by theft and vandalism. Marble is particularly susceptible to the weathering effects of wind and rain.

Academics and conservationists have been lobbying for Venice to follow the example of Florence, where key pieces of sculpture, such as Donatello’s statue of David and Ghiberti’s panels for the baptistry doors, both now in the Bargello Museum, have been replaced with copies.

The originals of the Byzantine horses that dominate the façade of St Mark’s have been moved to the Marciano Museum and replaced with copies. Although other sculptures have been substituted, their removal has been dictated more by necessity than a preventative restoration plan; the figures of the lion and the doge on the Ducal Palace’s Porta della Carta were replaced in the nineteenth century after Bartolomeo Bon’s originals were destroyed; the statues of saints on the portal of S. Giobbe were moved inside, but not before they had been significantly eroded.

Amputated arms, graffiti, and the black streaks caused by sulphur dioxide have marred the appearance of much Venetian sculpture, and everywhere there are examples such as Alessandro Vittoria’s statue of Saint Zaccaria on the central portal of the church, which remains faceless after its marble features disintegrated.

The case for and against the substitution of copies for originals was addressed at a conference held at the Palazzo Ducale in May 1999, organised by the conservator Toto Bergamo Rossi and Anne Markham Schulz, of the department of the history of art and architecture at Brown University. Italian cultural officials with responsibilities for Venice and Florence were also present.

Dr Giovanna Nepi Sciré, the Ministry of Culture official with responsiblity for Venice’s artistic heritage, told The Art Newspaper that in the case of certain key pieces, removal to a protected environment might become necessary, but in her view, at present everything is adequately protected.

According to Dr Schulz, however, not enough is being done. She believes that the Ministry of Culture is reluctant to remove works to safer environments as it severs them from their original context.

To some, the removal of these sculptures would betray the memory of Venice’s glory as a maritime power: as the city reached its zenith of wealth in the fifteenth century, it attracted sculptors from Tuscany and Lombardy, as well as from England, Flanders and Germany.

According to Dr Schulz, however, such views are the product of a twentieth-century obsession with originality: “Our depreciation of copies is conditioned historically by the modern proliferation of copies. By contrast, Renaissance connoisseurs were happy to purchase copies. As for antiquity, we would know nothing of Greek sculpture were it not for Roman copies.

“To the objection that copies are never adequate substitutes for originals, I would reply that stumps are even less adequate substitutes for originals than copies.”

Efforts to preserve sculpture through conservation have often done more harm than good. The conservation of sculpture lags far behind that of painting and the damage that can be caused is sometimes not apparent for half a century or more: “Attempts at chemical restoration of sculpture have probably caused more damage than exposure,” remarks Dr Schulz, citing the Porta della Carta, damaged by restoration in the nineteenth century, as an example.

Venice has no Bargello, but, according to Signor Bergamo, “There are many historic buildings and empty churches, such as San Vidal or San Basso, that could house sculpture”. In addition to the cost of producing copies, it would be imperative to weatherproof buildings and ensure proper security. Despite the scale of such a project, Dr Schulz is undeterred: “The battle of removing originals to a museum and replacing them with copies has been fought and won by conservationists throughout Italy.

“Only Venice refuses to recognise that if measures are not taken immediately there will be no sculpture left to save.”