Let us remember that May Day is also a call for help (“M’aidez”). The destruction of the twelfth century Umayyad Mosque‘s minaret in the world heritage city of Aleppo is yet another artistic calamity in Syria’s bloody civil war. Whether it is government or opposition who was responsible is irrelevant: a further part of the world’s cultural treasures has gone and who knows when or whether it will be ever rebuilt? Some war-damaged monuments can be restored – like the bridge at Mostar, others perhaps, impossibly – like the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan.
Beautiful buildings can be destroyed through four main forces: war (as in Aleppo’s minaret), natural events such as earthquake and floods (as in Finale Emilia’s Torre dei Modenesi), neglect (as in Pompeii’s House of the Gladiators) or planning vandalism (as in London’s Coal Exchange). Sometimes, where one agency fails another succeeds. In “Works of Art in Italy”, a HMSO publication from 1945 listing “losses and survivals in the war” (WW2) L’Aquila is recorded as “undamaged”. Would it were so today! The same publication notes that the worst losses are Benevento cathedral, Santa Chiara in Naples, the Campo Santo at Pisa, the banks of the Arno at Florence and the Tempio Malatestano in Rimini. And this is just volume one since we are still at the Gothic line and the fate of buildings beyond it had yet to be revealed. I do not have volume two but reckon that the greatest losses mentioned in it would have to include the Mantegna frescoes in Padua’s Ovetari chapel, the Tiepolo ceilings in Milan’s palazzo Archinto and large parts of Genoa.
War destruction was carried out in almost equal measure by both allied and axis armies. For example, the demolition of the mediaeval quarters just north and south of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio was accomplished by the Germans who didn’t wish to destroy that famous bridge but wanted its approaches to be impassable to the allies (They had already dynamited all the other bridges across the Arno). Would they had blown up the ponte instead! As in Mostar, bridges can be rebuilt but the ancient centre familiar to Dante and his contemporaries is lost forever and in its place we have the innocuous but bland architecture just north and south of Ponte Vecchio.
However, for me, the destruction of the Camposanto frescoes (which also included works by Benozzo Gozzoli) at Pisa represents, together with the Mantegna frescoes in Padua, the worst Italian artistic losses of WW2 and both were regrettably carried out by the Allies!
It’s easy to protect canvases (London’s National Gallery collection was hidden down a Welsh slate mine) but frescoes form an integral part of a building – hence their easy annihilation. Pisa is a jewel in this country’s crown but I can never visit the luminous cathedral ensemble in the Piazza dei Miracoli (unusual in Italy with its greensward more characteristic of the English cathedral close) without lamenting the loss of what used to adorn the Camposanto’s walls (described by Ruskin as the best place to study the history of Italian art and “a veritable Jerusalem”). War damage (as a result of incendiary bombs misaimed on the lead roof) did reveal the sinopie – the drawings used by the artists to plan the painting of the frescoes (their red-ochre earth pigment originally came from Sinop, in Turkey) and these are most valuable and can be studied in a nearby, well-presented museum.
Moreover, the surviving Camposanto frescoes have been restored twice: first after WW2 when they were detached and put on canvas and, again, at the beginning of this millennium when the glue used for the “strappo” technique was found to have deteriorated. This second restoration further diminished the frescoes’ fading colour and, like many other restoration projects in Italy (c.f. the Sistine chapel) has been subject to severe criticism.
We should, however, look on the bright side: cities like Urbino, Assisi were and remain undamaged and Lucca, in the words of the HMSO publication “escaped lightly” – thank god for that! Below you can see some of the Camposanto frescoes remaining and the Piazza dei Miracoli in April 2005 – at the start of my relocated life in Italy when we also climbed that celebrated leaning tower, just re-opened after twelve years of closure to the public. May it never lean too far!