Salvaging Art in L’Aquila

Italy conjures up images of rolling vineyards and piazzas full of cafes. Yet as the tragic recent volcanic eruption in Aquila reminds us, Italy has a history of disasters that have destroyed cities. From the flooding of Florence in 1966 to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that fossified Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italians are not strangers to natural disasters, or the havoc they wreak on people and their cultural heritage.
After the most pressing needs of survival are taken care of, L’Aquila and the surronding area now have a situation similar to Florence after it’s flooding had stabilized: how to recover its artistic heritage. This is not the high-tech process you would imagine. I am still suprised by how simple the process is:

  • Bring a flashlight, two way radio, and camera.
  • Climb into the rubble and start digging with your bare (or gloved) hands.
  • Hope you see something that resembles art. (Although it is unlikely you will have much idea what you are looking for, since archives tend to be housed with their artworks)
  • Stabalize the work, e.g. wipe the mud off of paper or remove the tapestry from water.
  • Try to find all the pieces and take them somewhere safe.

Among other works, a Della Robbia’s altarpiece, which is still somewhere inside Church of San Bernardino di Siena with its crumpled bell tower, is missing. Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, has pledged about $40 million toward art relief, and teams are starting works at the most damaged sites today. While I have just spoken of art objects, architects will also be called in to restore ancient facades and rebuild domes. They have a big project ahead of them.

For more information, see the New York Times and Wall Street Journal’s articles on that topic.

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