CURRENT ISSUES

The down and dirty

Pollution takes it toll on Italian treasures
by Alexandra Salomon   (issue no. 24/2006 / January 12, 2006)

The 16th-century Fountain of Moses, a testament to the power of Pope Sixtus V, sparkled after a restoration was finished in 1988 in Rome. But now the likeness of the biblical hero that adorns the fountain is turning black, the victim of a constant barrage of traffic exhaust and other pollutants.

 

In Florence, conservationists are considering moving Giambologna’s “A Rape of the Sabine Women”indoors.  The statue adorns the majestic Piazza della Signoria but just five years after the restoration, it is already beginning to show signs of wear.

 

Many of Italy’s symbols of great empires and the works of Renaissance masters are deteriorating because of pollution. Environmental groups believe the government doesn’t spend enough money on prevention, only intervening after the damage has already been done. Furthermore they argue that the public is unaware that environmental pollution not only puts mankind at risk but is also harmful to architectural monuments. Although the problem is global, its impact is being felt acutely in Italy, which boasts more than 57,000 works of historic and cultural significance, and 37 cities and sites honoured as world heritage by the UN cultural organization UNESCO.

 

“The situation is truly dramatic,” said Federica Sacco, director of the Save the Art initiative for Legambiente, Italy’s largest environmental organization. “Italy’s monuments are under attack, and people don’t realize that pollution is destroying them.”

 

But several projects have begun, in recent years, to document the effects of pollution.  Florence, considered by many to be an open air museum, is leading the nation in such efforts.

 

A study conducted recently by Italy’s Central Institute for Restoration, the government organization responsible for conservation and restoration of artwork and monuments, and the Italian Agency for Environmental Protection, found that restoration projects that cost millions of dollars begin to deteriorate within three years. Dr. AnnaMaria Giovagnoli, who directs the institute’s research laboratory, headed the team of scientists that studied the impact of the pollution. She says hundreds of monuments are threatened throughout the country. “Until now, nobody has studied the risk to the monuments, and unlike humans, monuments don’t regenerate,” she says. “Once they’ve been lost, they are gone forever.”

 

Emissions from cars and heating systems are the leading sources of pollution. As thousands of scooters, buses, and cars whiz past the Piazza del Duomo, bits of the city’s past are being eaten away. The damage, sometimes irreversible, manifests itself in several ways.

 

Such pollutants as nitric oxide or sulphur dioxide attack the marble statues gracing the piazzas and the facades of Renaissance palazzos in Florence. A high concentration of the pollutants sets off a chemical reaction, known as ‘sulphation’, that over time literally transforms marble into plaster. Pollutants cause what Giovagnoli calls a “black crust” to form on the surface of outdoor monuments and churches. In time, the crust thickens and the stone or marble underneath weakens, cracks, and even break off, taking a sculpted nose or a limb with it. In addition, rain is rendered acidic, and the corrosive effects cannot always be reversed by restoration. When plaster comes into contact with water, it dissolves, eroding the details that sculptors like Donatello and Michelangelo spent years carving.

 

Bronze, considered to be one of the most stable materials, has also come under attack. In a project coordinated by Florence’s Institute for the Conservation and Promotion of Cultural Heritage, researchers have been monitoring the effects of pollution on the Baptistery’s gilded bronze doors, measuring the progression of damage on both Lorenzo Ghiberti’s northern doors and the panels created by Andrea Pisano on the southern entrance.

 

The project is still ongoing but initial results suggest that damage is exponential, rather than constant, says Dr. Matteo Matteini, director of the Institute.  Over time, exposure to pollutants makes the bronze more vulnerable. The surface becomes rougher, more porous and harmful particles attach themselves more easily. As more and more pollutants are released into the air, says Matteini, the air becomes more acidic, literally causing the bronze to disintegrate.

 

In the 1980’s many original works, including Michelangelo’s David, were moved indoors and replaced with replicas. But many conservationists such as Giovagnoli believe, realistically, that “you can’t move every statue or monument inside and part of the conservationist’s job is to maintain the object in the context in which the artist created it.”

 

Matteini’s group is experimenting with a technique on Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, which may offer some hope.  One side of the statue is completely exposed to the elements but the other is protected because it sits partly under the Loggia dei Lanzi. Anyone walking by the statue can observe that the marble that is exposed has become rougher, damaged.

 

Scientists have applied tiny sheets of protective waterproof material to four areas on the surface of the statue that is not under cover. The study will be completed in January and the researchers will see whether the technique can be used successfully to protect Giambologna’s masterpiece from further damage. 

 

“It’s a heated debate.  Not everyone believes using protective measures is the answer because they alter the appearance of the artworks,” says Matteini.

 

Conservationists say the national budget has for years under-funded programs to protect historic sites and that attention is paid to damage repair rather than prevention and maintenance.  Until that changes many believe Italy’s treasures will remain at risk.

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