VENICE - Venice’s best defense from its enemies was traditionally the sea that surrounds it.  Now rising water and the high tide of autumn and winter (acqua alta) are more of a threat to the city of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. In October, as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the American Northeast, tourists were swimming in the Piazza San Marco.  

Photos courtesy of Save Venice. Photo by Karen Marshall.

Images of those frolicking swimmers haunted the internet. Was serene Venice, the world’s most intact historic city, in immediate danger of being engulfed by waves?  As the Italian government debated how to allay global warming’s effect on the Venetian Lagoon, art historian Frederick Ilchman offered some context in light of superstorms like Sandy and Katrina. No one died in the high waters of Venice, he stressed.  

“It’s a pain. Venice floods in the autumn and winter. Sometimes it’s very minor – it goes away in a couple of hours.  That doesn’t mean that it’s good for the buildings, but it’s not something new.  A flood in Venice is not at all like a flood in New Orleans.”

As the waters recede, centuries of history are weighing on Venice and the preservation challenges – like the city’s cultural riches – are vast. Venice has “the highest concentration of historic architecture in the world,” says Ilchman, a specialist in Venetian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who heads that city’s chapter of Save Venice, Inc. In a city where art and architecture span all periods from Medieval times to the present, Ilchman said, much of that heritage is crumbling from the effects of sea salt, industrial pollution and sheer neglect. Scarce funds in a tough Italian economy mean that Renaissance masterpieces are among the many deteriorating works of art.

Restoration of Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple took two years to complete. It is now back on display at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Photo by Matteo De Fina.

One of those paintings was Titian’s monumental Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, which covers an entire wall in the Sala dell’Albergo of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. Created from 1534 to 1538, the mural on canvas is a frieze-like pictorial expanse of New Testament drama, into which Titian painted officials of the Scuola and himself. The setting was equally magnificent. The room’s radiant ceiling of wood, originally adorned with gold leaf, is a rare surviving example of renaissance decoration.

A decade ago, the Sala was a dimly-lit passage with gold decoration peeling above. The Presentation had lost its brilliance and needed urgent cleaning. Thanks to a two-year restoration of both the painting and the chamber that houses it, visitors can now see the celebration of colour that Titian originally intended.  “It’s the painting that I spent most of my life with, more than any other painting,” said art historian David Rosand, who finally saw the true radiance of the Presentation. Even more of a revelation was the restored ceiling. “It glows with an incredible chromatic power,” Rosand said.  

Rosand is project director of Save Venice, Inc., the American organisation that funded the restoration of the Sala dell’Albergo and the painting.  

Save Venice is heir to the Committee to Rescue Italian Art (CRIA), a group formed by Americans in response to the floods that devastated much of Italy in 1966. CRIA would eventually broaden its mission and become the World Monuments Fund. Save Venice has maintained its commitment to the heritage of a single city.  Among some 50 private committees that help fund preservation in Venice, Save Venice often accounts for more than half of that work in a given year.

Titian expert and Save Venice project director David Rosand at the unveiling of the Sala dell’Albergo. Photo by Mary Hilliard.

“More than any other city in Italy, Venice is a work of art,” Rosand explains. “It’s artificial from the beginning, built on these mud flats. And there’s an aesthetic integrity to it.”  

“There’s a near-infinite amount of work to be done in Venice,” says Ilchman. That is why the work funded by Save Venice is so critical. “As I think about it, we have this great verb, ‘Save,’ and maybe the best proper noun ever, ‘Venice.’ Save Venice is a powerful name, and it’s a powerful idea.”

Save Venice operates from donations. There is no endowment, Ilchman notes, and decisions on sites and objects to preserve come from Italian authorities. “We very much work as the guests of Italian institutions and the Italian government,” he stresses.

“As an independent entity, Save Venice saw an opportunity to help, and saw that it could make a big difference by choosing a wide brief of projects,” says Sotheby’s Old master specialist Chris Apostle, who advises the committee.

The Accademia, which houses the Sala dell’Albergo, is one of Venice’s major tourist destinations. The Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where Save Venice is funding work on Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece of 1516-18 (thought to be the world’s largest painting on wood), is another familiar Venetian landmark. So is the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a 12th-century structure, sited like a ship in water, that Save Venice helped preserve.

The recent renovation of the Sala dell’Albergo included restoring the 15th-century wooden ceiling. Photo by Matteo De Fina.

As with most restoration, much of the work done by Save Venice is unseen by the public.  And Save Venice does not restrict itself to popular landmarks. A case in point is the Church of San Sebastiano, in the sleepy southeast corner of Dorsoduro. The ceiling and walls are covered with paintings by Paolo Veronese (1528-88). Many depict Saint Sebastian, an icon of renaissance and baroque art, usually portrayed standing, semi-nude and pierced with arrows, often tied to a tree. Yet the shrine to the early Christian saint (who survived an attack from archers, only to be clubbed to death on orders from the Emperor Diocletian) is also a shrine to Veronese.

“It’s almost completely intact. It’s his equivalent of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco,” says Frederick Ilchman, comparing San Sebastiano to the renaissance hostel in Venice that holds 24 paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto. “And Veronese is buried there, too – it’s an amazing personal monument.”

The involvement of Save Venice at San Sebastiano began with an investigation of water damage. It continues today in its restoration of frescos and tempera wall paintings.  “Our goal is to do what we did in the Miracoli, and to restore it from ceiling to foundation,” says Matthew White, who has been chairman of Save Venice, Inc. for twelve years.

Farther afield is the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato, the cathedral of Murano, the island in the Venetian lagoon famed for its glassmaking.  

On display behind the altar in the Byzantine structure are four rib bones, said to have come from a dragon slain by Saint Donatus of Arezzo. Here, Save Venice’s mission is the restoration of a water-damaged Byzantine floor mosaic depicting peacocks and griffins.

“This is a much less glamorous project than some, but it’s something that people who love Venice can give a modest amount of money to, and make a big difference, on a very early and important site,” says Apostle.

“The city is renowned for its artistic treasures – things that would be in any museum in the world are still in their original places and churches,” Ilchman says. “But, beyond that, part of its beauty is its lesser-known works of art. There are beautiful carvings and paintings everywhere, even if they’re not world-class masterpieces.”

Save Venice’s Matthew White and Frederick Ilchman lead a group through Venice. Photo by Mary Hilliard.

Rosand echoes that appreciation for Venice’s everyday texture. “We are dealing not only with masterpieces by Titian and Veronese,” he explains, “but also with the anonymous carved pieces of stone that fill the city, that once were a thriving part of the city’s economic and social life – like the wellheads – and its religious life, those small images of the Virgin and St. Christopher. When our attention is brought to them, sometimes it’s by a local parish priest.”

Save Venice plays no role in the managing of water in the Venetian lagoon and in the fierce debates over huge engineering projects there, which are politically contentious. Amid those debates, the head of Venice in Peril (Save Venice’s UK counterpart) resigned last year after the committee failed to pass a resolution mandating attention to water levels.  Like the water, that debate will swirl around most conversations about the city’s future.

“The more we can keep this beautiful city intact and protected, and full of its artistic treasures, the more that the rest of the world will decide that this is something that needs to be saved,” says Ilchman. “If people say, ‘Well, it’s safer to move this indoors, it’s safer to take this out of this church, why don’t we relocate this artistic treasure to the Venetian mainland, maybe this would be safer in Rome or Milan...’ – if you begin doing that kind of thing and hollow out the city, then it’s no longer the beautiful intact Medieval and Renaissance city.”  

“Italy in general and Venice in particular have given so much to the world in terms of culture that it’s important to give back,” says Ilchman. “The amount of art in Venice is so great, it is so extensive, and it is in such a precarious physical setting, that there’s nothing like it in the world. To do all we can to see this place perpetuated for the rest of the world is both an obligation and a privilege.”

The Sala dell’Albergo cost some €450,000 to restore, a bargain by art market standards – a greater bargain if you measure it in the number of visitors who have seen it since the space reopened in September. The mural has already won over the public that once filed through the room after seeing Titian’s Pietà and other treasures, says the Accademia’s director, Matteo Ceriana. “They are looking at the Titian and discovering a new painting in the light which is there now. I know that, because the brochures in the gallery, in English and Italian, are being stolen, so we have to replace them, which is okay,” he said, laughing.

David D'Arcy is a journalist and critic and the co-producer and writer of the new documentary film Portrait of Wally.

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