I would have added a fifth “must-see” set of frescoes in Italy on my list in my last post but on Saturday 11th of March 1944 at 11.45 AM, during the fourth allied bombing raid on Padua, Mantegna’s fresco cycle dedicated to saints James and Christopher in the Ovetari chapel in the Eremitani church, just next to Giotto’s Scrovegni chapel, was irreparably destroyed.
Why here? Perhaps because just north of the church is Padua’s main railway station. I wonder if that building was greatly put out of action by the Anglo-American imprecision bombing. Actually, it seems that the Allies wanted to hit the German command at Arcella, but the wind and a very approximate tracking system caused the bomb to fall on the Ovetari chapel instead, destroying the frescoes.
This raid was thus not just a humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of casualties, but also an artistic one. One hundred and eleven “flying fortresses” dropped more than three hundred tons of bombs over Padua. Mantegna’s frescoes were not the only victims. Other frescoes by notable Venetian painters like Vivarini were also destroyed, and many of the city’s buildings and areas were demolished including the civil hospital, Altichiero, Ponte di Brenta, Vigonza, Noventa and Arcella among other centres.
The restoration of the Ovetari chapel began immediately, with the recovery of fragments of the Mantegna’s frescoes. Too many pieces, however, were never found. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, people have tried to rebuild that masterpiece with the latest restoration techniques, most recently in 2006 when computer technology was used to piece together fragments from one hundred and thirteen cases housing the remains. Much was never able to be reconstituted but in 2011 someone left on the altar of the Eremitani church a box with four missing pieces from Mantegna’s fresco cycle.
I’ve also discovered that immediately after the Eremitani disaster the Allied command set up a task force with the best American and British art experts to map all the artistic sites considered sensitive, and therefore to be protected. They were called the” Angels of Venus” and came to the Eremitani a few days after the bombing to safeguard the area. But it was too late: because of previous poor security, some vandals had already taken home the larger fresco fragments. So the appeal for further fragments to be returned goes on. Reasonably, there will be no penalties inflicted on those who return the precious remains.
After the wonders of the Scrovegni chapel we visited the Eremitani church and sadly saw what’s left of the Mantegna frescoes, the fragments of which have now been pieced over a “virtual reality” image. At least I got some idea of what the cycle would have been like and why it is important in art history. Mantegna was bridging the gap between the post –medievalism of his master Vivarini and the renaissance-inspired example of his own art filled with extreme perspective points, tightly flowing robes, highly defined faces and fragments of ancient roman architecture.
The chapel is also important because it contains early work by Mantegna done between 1448 and 1457, well before he began working for the Gonzaga in Mantua and painting the Triumphs of Caesar, his masterpiece, now at Hampton Court Palace in the UK.
The terrible loss of the frescoes, commissioned by the notary Ovetari for his family chapel, in the history of western art was commemorated by an exhibition in the nearby fine arts museum housed in the Palazzo Zuckermann (11 April to 25 May). I didn’t know about this exhibition, which also extended into a bar where we bought a much needed cappuccino. The photographs (mainly black and white) of the chapel before 1944 were particularly poignant and, for me, gave a much better idea of the lost wonder of this early Mantegna work than any “virtual” reconstruction.
There was also a model illustrating the terrible damage perpetrated by the bombing of the Eremitani church.
Great art can be destroyed in three main ways: I am just referring to Mantegna’s oeuvre:
- War damage – as in the Ovetari frescoes mentioned above
- Planned downright ignorance – In 1488 Mantegna was called by Pope Innocent VIII to paint frescos in a Vatican chapel. This series of frescos, including a Baptism of Christ, was destroyed by Pius VI in 1780 because he didn’t like them!
- Neglect – a Gonzaga stately house near the church of San Sebastiano in Mantua was once adorned with many paintings by Mantegna. Although the house still stands, the pictures have perished through damp and negligence.
The visitors’ book to the exhibition was filled with many heart-felt comments. I could only add this quote from that great poet Wifrid Owen:
“The pity of war”
What a miracle that the Scrovegni chapel, only a hundred yards away, did not suffer the same fate! Was the hand of God somewhere here I wonder?