Art and War may seem like strange bedfellows at first, but on consideration there are many great art works that have drawn their inspiration from war in virtually every artistic medium. The Hindu god Vishnu is both creator and destroyer of worlds, and the ancient Greeks appointed Athena goddess of the arts and victory in war.
There has been a lot of interest in the fate of art during times of war of late. George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men is a fairly lightweight attempt to dramatise the work of those who sought to prevent major cultural artefacts falling into Nazi hands. (Give me Burt Lancaster in The Train for a bit of grittier art rescue).
There there’s been the revelations about Cornelius Gurlit, the German whose father was one of Hitler’s art dealers and who amassed a collection worth over $1 billion at today’s prices. The trouble is the work was frequently looted or sold under duress, so there are considerable efforts to restore it to its rightful owners of their descendants.
I was reminded of this when I visited the photography exhibition at Tre Oci on Giudecca, for the permanent exhibits show the preparations made to protect much of Venice’s artistic heritage from damage.
Panels from the ceilings inside the Palazzo were removed leaving gilt frames showcasing bare roof timbers.
The whole of the facade of St Mark’s Basilica was covered with an enormous wall of sandbags and supporting timber. Statues were dismantled and removed.
Venetians had suffered before you see. When Napoleon had taken the city in the 19th Century, he looted many works of art and placed others in storage in what is now Accademia, the great repository of works by Bellini, Tintoretto, Carpaccio and more, pending its removal. Luckily he handed Venice to the Austrians shortly afterwards, leaving much of the booty in one place and inadvertently creating a great collection.
Come the Great War, Austria were the enemy and all those preparations were aimed at preventing damage from Austrian bombers. In over 42 air raids, some 1000 bombs were dropped on Venice. Cultural vandalism or bad strategy? The Italian fleet were based at Arsenale in the city.
The defences around St Marks were effective, but at the other end of the grand canal, on 17th October 1915, a bomb intended for the train station destroyed the roof of Santa Maria di Nazareth (better known as Scalzi), and with it the incredible ceiling fresco painted by Tiepolo. Surviving fragments are on display at Accademia, and serve to demonstrate the scale of the loss.
Meanwhile the aforementioned Mr Clooney, and the bride that he wed in this city, campaign to have the Elgin Marbles repatriated from the British Museum back to Athens. Ironically one of the original reasons for their removal was to protect them from further damage; the Ottomans who ruled Athens at the time having used the Parthenon as a munitions store, which exploded under fire from…
Now who has the moral high ground?