When I was in Italy, my colleague commented that Italy lives under the weight of history. His reference was more about the social and cultural ramifications for contemporary Italians — how can they possibly live up to a heritage as one of the major forces in the development of Western civilization? During my trip, however, I was struck by the economic and philosophical weight of trying to preserve centuries of history, not only for oneself but for the world. Granted, Italy’s economy benefits from tourists who come in droves because of that history, but the costs of maintaining architectural, artistic and religious sites and artifacts must be enormous.
Case in point: The Scrovegni Chapel in Padova. In order to preserve the 14th century frescoes painted by the master Giotto, the chapel has been sealed so that the climate can be completely controlled. Only 25 visitors are allowed in at a time and they can only remain in the chapel for 15 minutes. Each time the door is opened to allow visitors to enter and exit, it must then remain closed for 15 minutes so that the interior climate can be stabilized. I can’t even imagine how much it costs to maintain this system.
Which then raises the question, which artifacts and buildings deserve such intensive preservation? Italy is literally overrun with potentially valuable places and objects. Every museum courtyard, and some private ones, are full of Roman pillars and gravestones. Partial frescoes show on interior and exterior walls and ceilings everywhere. It’s not just that it would be economically impossible to preserve all of them with the kind of technology used in the Scrovegni Chapel, it’s not practical to preserve all of them — full stop. This, of course, means making choices about what is valuable and what is not, what is worth preserving and what is not. And who is responsible for the cost of preservation? Is the Catholic Church responsible for religious building and artifacts because they are the church’s heritage? Or is the Italian state responsible because these are important works of art and architecture regardless of the religious context? These can be very complicated debates.
Finally — and this is perhaps too esoteric for the general reader but something I think about as a historian — should artifacts and buildings be preserved or restored? What are the implications of leaving them in their current state (and even letting them continue to decline)? What are the implications of reconstructing or restoring them to their “original” state? In Vicenza, I saw the Restoration 2011 exhibit at the Palazzo Leoni Montanari museum. The exhibit presented 80 works of art — paintings, sculptures, and other pieces from the from antiquity to the neoclassical period. All of the works were restored as part of two year project intended to save the works “from the ravages of time to provide scholars and the general public with a fuller knowledge and a deeper understanding.” The exhibit included short videos of the restoration work, such as re-painting, re-weaving, and adding pieces and materials to sculptures. On the one hand, I understand the advantages of seeing a painting or a sculpture as it originally looked. At the same time, philosophically, I think that once new technologies are used to restore a work, it is no longer the original. There probably aren’t answers to these questions and these are debates that will continue, so that’s probably enough of philosophizing about historic preservation for now.