1998-01-01 - Tower of Pisa

Tower Troubles: Damaging Effect of Modern Efforts to Stabilize Tower of Pisa

Can we bring our most treasured art objects and buildings back to their original glory by modern restorations? In Italy, which has by some estimates forty percent of the world’s masterpieces, there has been a concerted campaign to do just over the past twenty years. As the Jubilee Year approaches, the urgency to clean every facade, all the public statuary, the fountains, and the paintings and sculptures in the great state collocations seems unbounded. The Tower of Pisa, one of the Seven Wonders, is the object of international attention and it offers an excellent place to obtain insight into the ongoing massive restoration operation. The tower started to lean even before it was finished and it has been leaning for almost 900 years. Since the early 19th century efforts have been made to stop the leaning process, perhaps as a result of confidence in modern technology. Following these interventions, however, an acceleration of the degree of pendency, much more than the previous 300 years, which only totaled about 5 millimeters, in effect no movement at all, has been measured. Still the leaning amounts to 1 or sometimes 2 millimeters a year. An imminent emergency does not seem to be the case, unless the recent interventions have provoked new dangers. Actually the collapse of Venice’s massive Campanile on July 14, 1902 (since rebuilt), which is sometimes used as a precedent for intervention in Pisa, was caused by the restorers of Sansovino’s Loggetta at its base, when they cut reinforment walls that had been added to support the tower in the mid-18th century after damage from lightning.

In fact, there is reason to believe that the efforts to correct what had been a fairly stable situation following the initial period of settlement on the sandy and muddy terrain back in the twelfth century, caused and continues to cause new instability. The latest efforts include the use of lead weights to counter the leaning. The placement at the base on the side opposite the leaning of nearly 1000 metric tons of lead at first appeared to have achieved the desired effect and a correction was registered. Then in a single day, known locally as Black Saturday on the night of 8-9 September 1995, most of the gain obtained in more than a year’s work (about an inch of correction) was almost entirely lost in a single day to the terror of all concerned, and work was stopped. What happened? One explanation is that the technical committee and its director discovered that in the 1930s certain work with cement and metal pipes had been undertaken, the existence of which they were unaware. This unexpected situation resulted in problems that had been be resolved. But more recently it has been admitted that the spectacular plan to freeze the ground using liquid nitrogen seemed to have, literally, backfired, in a lunar scene with orange gasses surrounding the tower. Keystone cops come to mind.


1998-01-01 - Tower of PisaThis is hardly the occasion to argue complex technical issues, nor am I equipped to do so. What is remarkable about the entire situation surrounding the tower and the plans that have been announced recently (NY Times, January 7 ed. confirm date), is the total absence of a forum for discussion before action is taken. This unwillingness or inability to debate the health of our treasures, I suggests, characterizes most major restorations in Italy. If the nitrogen idea has been discussed openly and experts from outside the immediate group were invited to participate, the experiment would never have been undertaken in the first place.

Italian history since the Tower was begun back in 1173 has been characterized by the operation of clans, extended families, factions, and I suggestion that in the world of Italian restoration we have similar impenetrable, self-contained cliques. Criticism is not permitted. Worse still, there are no effective evaluations and controls of the work undertaken, the Committee that runs the multimillion dollar operation at the Tower of Pisa is totally independent. In fact, while in almost every other area of society, from films, theater, music, art, there is a tradition of criticism, with restoration no such habit exists and when it crops up, it is not tolerated. If it were, many would express consternation that there is now a project to fill in the centuries-old cracks in the massive walls of the tower (4 meters wide) with concrete. At the same time the use of concrete is known to have caused damage to the Perugia Fountain a half century ago, and its removal is being undertaken, in a laborious and expensive restoration. Keystone Cops? And even before there is anything like an assurance that the Tower will survive its caretakers, plans and funds are being ready for a proper cleaning of the marble exterior. Keystone Cops?

In an analogous situation, it is now widely accepted that the worst damage to the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi last fall was the result of a restoration of the roof a generation ago, when the original timber supports were replaced by concrete ones. The concrete is heavier and more rigid, and while the seven hundred year old roof resisted previous quakes, the technologically modern one gave way. During the repairs now going on, water poured out from a hose in a work station over an entire week-end, actually dampened Giotto’s frescoes that had escaped the earthquake. Everyone knows that water is a greatest enemy of frescoes. Keystone Cops?

Around the same time, another medieval building, the Arena Chapel in Padua which contains Giotto’s mature work, underwent a substitution of their original timbers, but in this case metal beams were used. Giotto’s frescoes were not damaged during an earthquake in 1976 which was felt in Padua. But they are being damaged by humidity and the officials in charge seem quite unwilling to confront the question of the water in the crypt of the Chapel, which has been registered in recent years as being as much as 7 feet deep. Rather they plan to filter the dust and the moisture from tourists in a “scientific entrance way” constructed for the purpose. Keystone Cops?

The larger issue seems clear enough, and rest upon a simple assumption: works of art of the importance of the Basilica of San Francesco and its decorations, the Arena Chapel with Giotto’s frescoes, the Tower of Pisa, belong to the entire world. Decisions over their health, life and death decisions, should be undertaken with the greatest transparency and ample discussion, where all alternatives are considered before any course of action is taken. As with normal medical practice, second and third opinions should be solicited. No single entity or committee should have absolute control and be the absolute judge of their own activity but should be directed and should be responsible to a larger set of controls. We need a system of checks and balances to assure the most reliable results. Only in this way can we be guaranteed that these rare productions of mankind are not treated as if participants in an opera buffa.

1997-11-12 Giotto fresco Scrovegni Chapel Padua Kiss of Judas

Earthquake damage to Assisi frescoes linked to modern reconstruction techniques; Giotto’s Padua frescoes threatened

Experts now suspect that the earthquake damage to the Assisi frescoes was caused in part by earlier structural changes in the building, particularly the use of reinforced concrete beams in the roof. Similar reinforcements have been used in old churches and could be threatening masterpieces contained within them. The most dramatic example is in Padua, where the Scrovegni Chapel contains Giotto’s most important frescoes.

In addition to damaging several distinctive churches, the earthquake in central Italy on September 26 has raised serious questions about the implications of various restoration techniques for the preservation of art in Italy. The unfortunate substitution of reinforced concrete for wooden beams in the restoration of the roof of the Basilica of San Francesco a generation ago appears to have contributed to the extensive damage to the building. This distressing practice seems to have placed a cloud of danger over buildings in Umbria and the Marches. In the case of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi we witnessed the loss of several early frescoes, and the long-term effect of the quake has yet to be evaluated for other frescoes in the church.

Italy’s leading art historian, Professor Federico Zeri [Zeri, in La Stampa, sett. 27, 1997], has stated, “Ecco l’effetto di scelte dissennate. Sono stati dei folli, ecco, dei folli. a sostituire le travi di legno del tetto della Basilica con travi di cemento armato che hanno appensantito e reso rigido il tutto.” Zeri, in an interview with the London Times (10-4-1997) went so far as to say: “Italy’s art is in the hands of people who are cretins or corrupt, or both.” Grave concern has been expressed for other buildings and their contents which have been similarly treated.

Apparently during the restoration of the roof of San Francesco, the original old wooden beams of the roof were removed and replaced by concrete ones. It is well known that concrete is not as elastic as wood and that it “moves” with different oscillations than the wood beams and the masonry of the walls, which had withstood seven centuries of quakes. Furthermore, the more rigid reinforced concrete is considerably heavier than the wood it replaced, putting additional stress on the vertical supports and thereby increasing the danger to the structure. Despite these inherent problems, reinforced concrete has been widely used in so-called technological restorations of architecture over the more recent decades and has become a fashionable procedure. (Parenthetically, another disadvantage to concrete is that its presence in walls is highly detrimental to the longevity of the intonaco of which buon fresco is a part).

Similar errors in the treatment of Italy’s finest structures can be recited. Two decades ago, over fifty large spaces or “holes” in the cupola of Florence Cathedral provided for by Brunelleschi for static as well as for maintenance reasons were filled in with cement when restoration work was being done there. The additional weight and alteration of the equilibrium of the structure had made the cupolone a candidate for disaster. More recently, recognizing the problem, the local soprintendenza has re-opened most of the holes. Of course, the removal of the concrete is tacit recognition of the inherent danger of its use in the first place. [Apparently it took six years of work to undo the filling of the holes which must have taken a matter of days or weeks to fill. It goes without saying that both money and labor have been wasted, and it becomes ever more clear that the indiscriminate use of concrete may be coming to an end in such restoration efforts. (See a letter by Arch. Mario A. Lolli-Ghetti to Il Messaggero of 6 October 1997). We can be grateful that the Soprintendenza saw and corrected the original error.]

Similar imprudent methods have been employed for the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In the attempt to correct its tilt, or at least prevent further leaning, the tower has been wrapped in metal bands and its base surrounded by tons of concrete, while lead weights were placed to one side. Initially, this simplistic ‘solution’ seemed to function as hoped to the enthusiastic headlines of the press. Then, about a year ago, the few centimeters of the much-hailed correction were lost in a day or two. Work had to be stopped and the experts are now in a dreadful quandary, not knowing what to do. It is quite possible that the costly project has placed the tower in greater danger of collapsing than before.

[For up-to-date information on the Tower of Pisa consult: Prof. Piero Pierotti, Univ. of Pisa. Dept of storia delli arti, P. S. Matteo, 2. (office:) 39-050-542345; (home:) 050-525220. E-mail: 050-587224; (fax:) 050-580128.]


1997-11-12 Giotto fresco Scrovegni Chapel Padua Kiss of Judas

The situation at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is the home of Giotto’s famous fresco cycle depicting the life of Mary and the life of Christ, regarded as the finest work of the period and a high point of Italian art. In an effort to protect the frescoes, an ill-looking and incongruous bussola or technological entranceway to the chapel has just been constructed, which is intended to filter the humidity and dust that could be brought into the chapel by visitors. [The structure is referred to as a “bussola d’ingresso antismog” by the Assessore alla Cultura of Padua, or as a technological structure suitably furnished where all the visitors must pass to enter the chapel (“un corpo tecnologico attrezzato attraverso il quale dovranno passare tutti i visitatori”), as paraphrased in Il Gazzettino, sett. 25, 1997.] This substantial construction of concrete, steel and glass, measuring 8 meters square, should now be re-examined in the light of the recent and ongoing events in Assisi. The nature and amounts of these materials all add considerable weight to the spongy area surrounding the foundations of the chapel. This pressure on the foundations is further increased by the presence of part of an old base of an earlier structure in the ground dating from earlier in the century (as there was in Pisa). [During World War II, a project to encase the chapel in a reinforced concrete bunker got as far as placing foundations on the sides of the chapel, according to G. Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, London, 1993, p.178.]

(1) Even more worrisome is the fact that the bussola was built flush against the original early fourteenth-century side wall of the chapel. The various materials, steel, glass and concrete, have different properties and different tensile strengths, both from each other and from the brick wall of the chapel. In the event of an earthquake, they would oscillate with differing waves or swings, making a collision among them almost inevitable. This already dangerous situation will be increased by the heavy machinery for filtering the air, not yet placed on the roof of the bussola, which will multiply the potential for disaster. One can imagine a scenario in which the bussola would function like a jack-hammer or a gigantic battering-ram, smashing the adjoining wall of the chapel and creating havoc with Giotto’s frescoes.

(2) A potential catastrophe for the Scrovegni Chapel is further aggravated by another ‘Assisi’ factor: In 1962 the original wooden beams of the chapel’s roof were replaced by metal supports, the so-called metal trusses [“capriata metallica, di tipo inglese”], engaged into the wall with concrete. Here, unlike the case with the bussola and the walls of the chapel itself, the “new” roof would move with greater elasticity than the other elements. [According to an item in the Il Mattino of 11 January 1997, “Un lavoro importante h compiuto all inizio degli anni 60 [1962]; viene sostituta la capriata di legno, ormai illanguidita dal tempo, con una metallica, si incatenano le pareti, si sistema la statica con un cordolo in cemento armato e si ineietta nella pietra parecchio cemento consolidante.”] These interventions, including the substitution of three chains (“catene”) of concrete in place of a wooden one on the facade and a similar substitution of four of the five original chains in the nave, should be a cause of deep concern, particularly because Padua is a seismic area. In addition to these dangerous alterations, the original tile-covered timber roof has been replaced by one constructed of metal. [Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, p.381.]

Indeed, there was an earthquake that affected Padua on the 18th of October 1936 which caused damage especially to the east wall, and a quake mainly in the Friuli in 1976 which exaggerated the cracks on the facade. Worse still, the facade itself separated from the vaulted interior. [Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, p.379.] We have no way of knowing whether the materials and new techniques applied to the building in the 1960s did not contribute to the damage. One also has to wonder whether the concrete placed in the walls of the chapel had a negative effect upon the frescoes chemically. Besides, the rigidity of the concrete compounded with the extreme flexibility of the metal are hardly a happy and safe situation. What we seem to have is a series of alterations that comprise a built-in time bomb about to explode in Giotto’s chapel, with the bussola as the trigger that could set it off.

(3) While the experts have been experimenting with the highly questionable entrance system, they seem to have entirely neglected the problem of the presence of water in the crypt of the chapel. This, in the face of visible evidence that moisture can be detected above ground. To be sure, in these very weeks, the situation is becoming increasingly urgent, and emergency work is being done to Giotto’s frescoes because they are literally falling off the wall. We learn from Padua’s Assessore alla Cultura that work is beginning on the plaster surface (intonaco), that is, the very surface on which Giotto’s frescoes are painted. It is detaching because of the humidity. [In an item in Il Gazzettino of sett. 24, 1997: “Nuovo intervento di restauro per le cappella degli Scrovegni, che remarr` chiusa domani e venerdl per l’allestimento al suo interno di alcuni ponteggi necessari ad intervento urgenti per consolidare gli intonaci su cui Giotto ha affrescato i suoi dipinto. H stato notato infatti che in piy puinti questi intonaci si sono distaccati dal retrostante muro, ed h risultata pertanto improragabile l’opera di riadesione.” In Il Gazzettino of sett. 25, 1997: “Lunedl mattina, intanto, inizieranno anche lavori per sistemare l’intonaco interno del monument che ha dato segni di cedimento a cause dell’umidit`. Parte dello stratto si sarebbe staccato ed questo punto gli interventi non erano ulteriormente rinviabili.”]

This very serious condition has gone unnoticed by the national press in Italy as well as in the international press. Correctly, of course, first aid is being tended to the frescoes at this very moment to firm them up where they are falling off or about to fall from the walls, yet there is no serious talk about resolving the problem of the water in the crypt (basement) and the surrounding area. [See also, Basile, op. cit., p.379, where he says that there is “no evidence of rising damp either; the basement appeared to have reached a thermal and hygrometric equilibrium, and to have a stabilizing function in geomorphological terms.” Yet one can see with the eye the dampness above ground level, and besides, the frescoes are falling off. What more evidence does one need?]

There is a true emergency in Padua and part of the solution must be tearing down the bussola. A study should be immediately undertaken to determine whether the metal beams in the roof and the added cement in the chapel are not also reasons for concern. As a fundamental part of a campaign for emergency action in the Scrovegni Chapel, the water in the basement must be separated from direct contact with the chapel and its frescoes. This can be accomplished in various ways, for example, by raising the chapel off its present basement, or treating the entire area surrounding the chapel to eliminate the water, or the frescoes can be removed from the chapel itself.

The notion of filtering the tourists in the technological entranceway, a kind of modern labyrinth for 25 visitors at a time in preparation for their entry into the chapel, as a major if not unique step in preventing future loss to the frescoes runs contrary to common sense, and ignores the more substantial and continuous damage caused by the water even when the chapel is closed to the public. It is time to put first things first.

1996-03-20 - Giotto frescoes Padua Arena Chapel

Petition to Save Giotto’s Frescoes in Padua

The elaborate conservation and restoration project for the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel sketched out by the Comune of Padua, who are the owners, reveal the intention is not merely to maintain the frescoes but to ‘improve’ them.

It is also clear from the doc umentation distributed on 30 September 1995 by local Paduan officials in the presence of the Minister of Beni Culturali, Hon. Antonio Paolucci that the true object is indeed a drastic restoration of Giotto’s famous paintings since upwards of 5 milliards o f lire (3+ million dollars) are being made available. Such sums hardly indicate a simple dusting. All this without determining the actual need nor spelling out the philosophy or the goals of such an intervention, after only a generation.

Measures being initiated include a new entrance construction of questionable appearance. According to announced plans, with the objective of eliminating humidity and pollutants, a state-of-the-art futuristic system is to be created, which is at best out of context with the fourteenth century structure, and which is claustrophobic, experimental, possibly dangerous and surely an expensive experiment. Instead of this band-aide approach, the issues of pollution and humidity should be part of a larger progra m that includes the elimination of auto and bus traffic in the area near the monument, for example, as well as control of the kind of heating fuel used in the zone. And what about the water knee deep in the crypt?

We must applaud the emergency interventions to prevent loss of pictorial surface. However, it is evident that the officials are seeking to restore all of Giotto’s cycle, at a stage even before it is proved that such a drastic step is necessary or desirable.

ArtWatch is categorically opposed to restoration of Giotto’s frescoes for pure or mainly aesthetic considerations. We know that a perfectly acceptable approach for 1995 might not be so attractive a decade rom know, in 2005. It is best not to touch the frescoes except in an campaign of “soft” maintenance but not beautification.

The “science” of restoration, like all other sciences if indeed it is a science at all, transforms itself in a constant organic process. The Scrovegni Chapel is the last cycle pertaining to painting of the greatest and most illustrious category not to ha ve be subjected to a drastic interventions within the past generation. Think of the Brancacci, the Signorellis in Orvieto, the Last Supper in Milan, the Sistine Chapel.

Before action is taken second and third opinions must be sought, and careful and deliberate discussions should be undertaken on a international level.

1996-03-20 - Giotto frescoes Padua Arena Chapel