Venice is a vibrant museum-city that welcomes over 16 million tourists every year. These visitors swarm the familiar sights of Saint Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and tour the Grand Canal, yet overlook the smaller, more remote pieces of public art that decorate the city. Unfortunately, ignorance by tourists, disregard by Venetians, and the damaging effects of nature are contributing to the deterioration of the city's public art. Conserving Venetian public art would help to preserve the heritage and culture of the city, but conservation’s greatest threat is ownership. Most public art is located on the exterior of privately-owned buildings, yet the government legally owns the art. Consequently, Venetian public art exists in a grey area where nobody claims responsibility for its maintenance; thus, public art in many places is succumbing to atrophy.
Nevertheless, scholars and other groups interested in preserving public art have made significant contributions to art preservation in the city. Alberto Rizzi, an expert on Venetian architecture and sculpture, assembled a pioneering catalogue in the 1970s and 80s, publishing Scultura Esterna a Venezia ("Outdoor Sculpture in Venice") in 1987. Using Rizzi’s catalogue as a base model, more than 50 students at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute added to the original database and produced a digital version, complete with dynamic maps, digital photographs, and detailed condition information.
With the additions have come changes to the working definition of “public art”; while Rizzi defined public art as being nonstructural and integrated into buildings, the WPI catalogue now includes structural elements, wellheads, and flagstaffs. The fifteen types of Venetian public art are divided into two categories: erratic and non-erratic. Erratic art are the small, artistic sculptures scattered throughout the city. Patere, relievi, crosses, inscriptions and fragments are all erratic art. The ten remaining types of public art are non-erratic. Non-erratic art is both decorative and functional. Structural art such as portali, lunette and mascaroni act as ornate, load bearing parts of buildings. Coats of arms and confraternity symbols are proprietary art – they denote ownership of buildings. Statues and monuments commemorate historical and mythological events in Venice. Flagstaff pedestals, wellheads and fountains all provided a social utility to ancient Venetians.
The following sections illustrate different types of public art found throughout Venice and the importance of each.
Patere are the small, typically circular reliefs dotting the sides of buildings throughout Venice. Their shape originates from the way they were made, often sculpted from slices of old marble columns that had been replaced in past renovations of a building. Usually 20 to 80 centimeters across and only eight or so centimeters deep, patere exist in six categories: flat, low/medium relief, high relief, curved, champlevé, and drilled, named according to their sculptural topography. Flat patere are the oldest category. Fashionable in the 12th to 14th centuries, patere were seen by Venetians as superstitious charms that could protect a household from vice or evil, keeping it at bay. The motifs on patere are widely varied, with about 150 different images accounting for the majority of their designs. One very common image is that of an eagle eating the head of a rabbit, representing the victory of virtue over vice. Another common theme, thought to represent harmony, depicts two flamingos with their necks intertwined, sometimes drinking or eating from the tree or fountain of life.1
Patere are products of Byzantine culture, a dynasty that produced many Venetian treasures. They are also the oldest type of Venetian public art. Formelle, a related type of public art, are also considered part of the patere collection, because they share many of the same graphical motifs. Formelle are larger than patere, and are characterized by a rectangular shape capped with a rounded arch, rather than being circular.
Collections of patere and formelle grace the facades of such Venetian structures as the Ca' Donà de la Madoneta, the Ca' Cappello a Castelo, and the Ca' Vitturi in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, as well as the campanile of San Aponal, and a wall near the Ponte de le Oche. There are approximately 1,200 known patere in the entire world2; Venice is home to 471 of them. An additional 11 can be found on lagoon islands. Seven patere have disappeared from Venice.
Venice, as it exists today, was little more than marshy swampland until after Christianity had become a well-established religion in Europe, and the crosses that appear throughout the city are almost exclusively symbols of that religion. Given the number of churches in Venice (142 currently, but closer to 1,000 in the sixteenth century), there are fewer crosses decorating the city than one might expect. This is especially surprising when the number of crosses is compared to that of other pagan symbols like patere. However, as the expression so pointedly proclaims, "Siamo Veneziani e poi Christiani," ("We are Venetians first, then Christians"), it was more important to the largely insular Venetian community to declare political and mercantile allegiances than religious ones.
There are three popular styles of cross in Venice: Latin (crux ordinaria), Greek (crux immissa quadrata), and variants on the cross pattée. Latin crosses, the most familiar to practitioners of western Christianity, feature a longer vertical beam intersected near the top by a shorter crossbeam. Greek and pattée crosses have all arms of equal length; the Greek form uses uniformly-shaped beams, while Maltese and pattée-style crosses, some with origins in the Italian republic of Amalfi, have arms that narrow towards the center of the symbol.
As one might expect, crosses can often be found in the areas surrounding churches. Of the 74 crosses in the public art catalog in Venice, 28 are located in actual church campi, and 7 additional crosses are located on the streets surrounding churches. Lagoon islands account for an additional 6 crosses, a small but not entirely unexpected number, considering the relative number of churches on islands outside of Venice proper. Two crosses are currently recorded as missing.
A relief is a piece of sculpture that protrudes from a wall. The subject matter for reliefs generally concerns religious scenes or significant events. Serving as a reminder of an important occurrence or event in Venice, reliefs help to remind Venetians of their history and of related mythology.
Reliefs also provide examples of the artistic styles popular in Venice hundreds of years ago, and demonstrate to historians the legends that certain neighborhoods held dear. Reliefs depicting Saint George slaying the dragon are particularly popular, with Rizzi's catalogue listing 16 throughout Venice. Reliefs are categorized by the percentage of the sculpture that protrudes from the wall. A low relief (bas-relief or bassorilievi) has less than half of its depth protruding from the wall; a high relief (haut-relief or altorilievi) has more than half.
Venice is home to 386 reliefs3. Another 40 exist on the lagoon islands. Four reliefs have been noted as missing.
Inscriptions are simply words that have been carved into stone and displayed in public locations. They usually display historical or religious messages, but can also serve as memorials. Typically written in old Venetian or pseudo-Latin, inscriptions were often produced to commemorate a prominent person or significant event. Their function is purely informational, but they now add to the artistic atmosphere of Venice, too.
The inscription in the Campo San Zaccaria is one of the best examples of this category, in part because it is in good shape, but also because of the information it contains. A rough translation could be, "In this campo, near the cloisters behind these doors, the following are prohibited: games and making a ruckus, loudly uttering bad words, being dishonest, leaving garbage, planting trees, nor any other such type of thing. Under grave penalty and by the decree of the most illustrious and most esteemed Lord Executioners Against Blasphemy. July 16 and August 8, 1620.” While they are often low in artistic value, inscriptions do provide insight, sometimes even humorous, into the lives of ancient Venetians.
There are 28 inscriptions throughout the streets of Venice4. A further nine can be found on lagoon islands5. No inscriptions have been found missing, perhaps because they are of little value to treasure hunters.
Fragments (frammenti), like their name suggests, are small broken pieces of other artwork. When larger carvings were destroyed, the remains were often discarded. However, on occasion, remaining fragments were spared and often set into a wall. The fragment is not an intentional piece of artwork; no one makes fragments. Instead, they are the leftovers from grander objects that no longer exist. While they may have once been part of an important artistic sculpture, they are no longer of much significance.
There are 251 fragments in Venice, and 31 in the lagoon islands. Six fragments are recorded as missing.
In Venice, statues are indicators of the importance and status of a building. A statue is a sculpture that is not embedded directly in a wall, but is structurally attached to a building in some way. Statues are often found accentuating the roofs of important buildings and churches and add figurative, often human, elements to the building’s architecture, augmenting its overall beauty and visual interest. In Venice, statues are almost always found on buildings of significance, most often churches. Venetian practices did not always permit ostentatious ornamentation, but statues could be used to symbolize the wealth, power, and distinction of certain groups of the population.
Longhena's iconic Baroque church, Santa Maria della Salute in Dorsoduro, is worth noting because of the statues adorning its exterior, including figures of angels and other biblical characters. It is one of the most spectacular examples of this category of external sculpture in Venice. The Salute's collection is representative of the general thematic content of most Venetian statues, which typically feature angels, the Virgin Mary, and other important Christian icons (e.g., the saint of the local parish). Just across the Grand Canal is the Libreria Marciana, the balustrade of which is decorated with many mythological figures that animate the roof of the building. There are 173 statues that are classified as "public art" in Venice, and an additional 11 are found on islands in the Venetian lagoon. One statue, a Madonna with the infant Jesus, was found missing during cataloguing in 20006.
Unlike many cities with rich histories, Venice has surprisingly few monuments. This is a result of the unique statutes that governed the Venetian Republic for hundreds of years, prohibiting the elevation of one individual above others in the city, along with the city's unique pattern of development. Early Venetian citizens were concerned with their safety and survival on the barren and soggy islands of the Venetian lagoon. After the city had grown and began to take its present shape, a shortage of land became the more pressing issue. By the time Venice developed into a major European capital and citizens began erecting monuments, virtually all public land had been already spoken for, by churches, campi (public squares), and the like. Laws went further, preventing the construction of free-standing statues in an effort to reduce fighting between wealthy and powerful families who might perceive one individual being declared more important than any other.
As a result, the vast majority of monuments in Venice today postdate the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. The densest area for monuments in the city is, by far, the Giardini of Castello, one of Napoleon's "improvements" to Venice. Thirty seven – more than half – of the 67 monuments in Venice are located in these gardens, and the rest are scattered throughout the city. One statue of note is Andrea del Verrocchio's monument to Bartolomeo Colleonio. Colleonio, a Venetian mercenary, left his fortune to the city in the fifteenth century with the condition that a monument would be constructed in his honor "in front of San Marco." Because Venetians would be vehemently opposed to the construction of a monument in the Piazza San Marco where Colleonio had intended, the nonetheless impressive statue was instead placed in front of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, in the Campo di SS. Giovanni e Paolo.
Unlike most other public art in Venice, monuments are usually constructed from bronze or tenera stone. Their bases are typically made of Istrian marble7. While a number of monuments are fenced in, the majority are vulnerable to damage from people sitting on them, kicking soccer balls against them, and other detrimental human forces. Notable monuments include the above-mentioned one to Colleonio, the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II on the Riva degli Schiavoni, and the large collection in the Giardini.
Stemmi (Coats of Arms)
In Europe, coats of arms have long served as decorative and highly recognizable symbols of patrician families. They appear most frequently in Venice as stone carvings on the external walls of structures owned by wealthy and powerful Venetian nobles. Families like the Contarini, Barbarigo, Cappello, Foscari, Giustinian, Loredan, Marcello, Morosini, and Pisani owned properties all over Venice (their names are still attached to many famous palazzi today), and at least one family crest would be required for each structure; hence, the significant amount of these types of public art objects.
Coats of arms, or stemmi, were not thought of as lasting artistic legacies, and details were often erased if a new family was to take ownership of a building. As such, a number of them are now blank, illegible, or missing entirely. Coats of arms in Venice span the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods, and almost all use the shield as their basic design. Gothic stemmi feature geometric elements like circles, rectangles, and simple shields. Renaissance stemmi became more elaborate, featuring leaf-like decorations, scrolls, and additional flourishes. In keeping with architectural styles, baroque stemmi were even more ornate and complex8.
One particular category of stemmi is special because of the way it communicates information about its owner: known as "talking" coats of arms, these stemmi use symbols with a pictorial or phonetic reference to the name of the family being represented. Some of the more obvious examples include the Dolfin family (a dolphin), the Da Ponte family (a bridge), and the Dalle Rose family (roses). The Barbarigo family used a beard on their stemmi, because "barba" is Italian for beard. Even more creatively, the Erizzo family used the letter “E” and a porcupine as their family symbol, as "riccio" is an Italian word for porcupine, or "rizzo" in the Venetian dialect9. For a pictorial example of the Erizzo family stemmi, see Figure 15.
Venice contains 1064 stemmi, and the lagoon islands contain 99, together far outnumbering any other category of external sculpture in the Venetian lagoon. Sixteen stemmi have been reported missing in Venice since 2000.
Confraternity symbols are similar to coats of arms, but instead of patrician families, they indicate that the confraternities, or scuole, of Venice are the property owners. They are often placed prominently on buildings associated with each scuola, and also adorn houses and buildings owned by members. Venetian scuole were organizations brought together by a common craft or trade, also typically having a patron saint. To a degree, the scuole united the secular and sacred life of the city. Venice's confraternities were known for their charitable work, and they also acted as a support system for members in need.
There were six scuole grande in Venice: San Rocco, Santa Maria della Carita, San Giovanni Evangelista, Santa Maria in Valverde, Santa Maria del Carmelo, and San Marco. The six scuole grande were the largest and best-known of the greater collection of scuole in Venice. All scuole held meetings, ceremonies, and religious services within their walls; services were often held in the main halls, often ornately decorated and featuring notable works of art.
Venice has 196 confraternity symbols, with two others on lagoon islands10. The scuole only existed in Venice proper, so it would be rare for properties outside of the city to be associated with them strongly enough to warrant a symbol. Seven confraternity symbols have been reported missing.
Portali, or portals, are entranceways to buildings or courtyards that serve both a structural and decorative purpose. Portali also include doorways with sculptures affixed to their tops or with artwork that flows into the doorjambs. The main purpose of a portale, besides its obvious structural function, is to convey a sense of affluence and grandeur to those entering and passing by the building. On private homes, wealthy families would often incorporate their coat of arms into the portali. Besides these familial signs, a number of portali also contain reliefs, sculptures, planters, or inscriptions. In particular, portali on churches frequently include reliefs of biblical scenes, or sometimes the image of the saint for which the church is named.
In Venice alone, there are 534 portali; while in the surrounding lagoon islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello, and Mazzorbo, there are an additional 18 portali. The sestieri, or districts, of San Marco and Castello contain the most portali, respectively 25 percent and 21 percent of the total number of portali in Venice. Historically, these neighborhoods were predominately residential, and therefore, money was spent on the appearance of the buildings to give an impression of family wealth and importance. Conversely, Cannaregio and San Polo contain the fewest portali, at four percent each. These sestieri were traditionally commercial and less affluent areas, so less attention was paid to the buildings’ ornamentation.
Lunette are a particular subset of portali; these decorative arches span the tops of doorways and serve both a structural and aesthetic purpose. In Italian, lunetta essentially means "half-moon," describing the decoration’s semicircular shape. Lunette typically surround artwork from a number of artistic mediums, styles, and themes. There are three prominent styles of lunette in Venice: Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance. Byzantine lunette date back to the 12th century and are distinguished by their dome shape and religious themes. Gothic lunette, popular between the 12th and 15th centuries, are characterized by pointed arches, which are generally larger and contain more elaborate detail than other styles. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Renaissance lunette appeared, with more elegant decorations and simpler subjects, such as the sole image of a saint or the Madonna.
Just as there are various styles of lunette, there are also a variety of materials and techniques used in their construction. Fifty-one percent of the lunette in Venice are made of Istrian stone, 24 percent are marble, 12 percent brick, seven percent tile, four percent paint, and two percent wood or metal. Istrian stone was a popular choice, because it is durable and relatively non-porous, allowing sculptures to endure in the damp Venetian climate. Besides the differences in materials, Venice’s lunette also exhibit a variety of artistic techniques and media. The most popular is relief, accounting for 78 percent of all lunette, followed by 11 percent mosaic, seven percent sculpture, and four percent fresco.
There are 71 lunette in Venice; Cannaregio and Castello contain the greatest number, at 22 percent each. Most lunette are found on palazzi and churches because, in general, only wealthy families and institutions could afford them. Forty-five percent of all lunette can be found in residential areas and 23 percent on churches, monasteries, or convents. The remaining 23 percent of lunette are located in commercial areas.
Decorative keystones, or mascaroni, play both an artistic and structural role in the buildings to which they are attached. They contribute to both the art and architecture of Venice. A keystone finishes an arch; it is the last stone to be placed, making the arch strong and increasing its capability to support weight. As the visual center of an arch, a keystone is an integral element in the aesthetic design of a structure and connects the arch with the horizontal moldings that run above it. It may project horizontally beyond the rest of the arch, and keystones are often decorated with masks or figures. The heads and coats of arms that decorate keystones have artistic and historical value, too, but usually fail to attract attention from the public and historical conservation efforts11.
Keystones are commonly made from Istria stone, which is hard, waterproof, and easily workable. Its unique characteristics are the reason that much of Venice's public art remains in good condition (and in many cases still legible) today. Keystones are located on bridges, doors, and windows throughout all the sestieri of Venice. In 1995, WPI students documented and photographed 307 keystones in Venice. Forty-three percent of the total arches catalogued are doors, 29 percent are bridges, and 27 percent are windows. The remaining one percent consists of tunnels and one unusual piece – a decorative keystone head on an opening that once housed another piece of outdoor art12.
The distributions of the different kinds of arches in which keystones appear are quite even. Doors account for the largest portion of the total number. The number of decorative keystones on bridges is relatively small, however, accounting for only 88 keystones, on 78 out of over 400 bridges in Venice. It was determined that most of the bridges studied had only one decorative keystone.
Stemmi (coats of arms) are the most common decoration for keystones on Venetian bridges. Eighty-seven of the 88 bridges evaluated have stemmi as a keystone decoration. Only a few stemmi are found on doors and other arches. Only one bridge contains a head as a decorative keystone. The rest of the heads can be found on doors, windows, and other types of arches. Doors have the greatest number of heads as keystone decoration. Together, decorative keystones on the windows and doors were all heads with exceptions of four stemmi on doors. Doors and windows are often decorated with keystone heads, usually somewhat grotesque, to drive away evil spirits as well as potential human intruders.
Decorative keystones are also subject to damage. Of the total 307 pieces that were evaluated, the most common type of damage was a feature missing from a stemma. Forty-five stemmi pieces were found with at least some part of the shield missing. Some heads were also missing either the nose or the hair, and a few did not have any eyes. Very few were missing wings or chins13.
The winged lion is the principal symbol present in Venetian artwork; it is also a patriotic symbol of Venice and prominently featured on the Venetian flag. Besides that of the lion, there are many other flags that belong to Venetian culture, like those representing certain areas within the city, the city's scuole, families, or other organizations. These flags, along with their flagstaffs and pedestals, were typically located in campi near the group that they represented. Since far fewer flags are flown today in Venice, the flagstaff pedestal is often the only remaining symbol of this tradition. The pedestals themselves contain decorative designs, as well as historical or religious inscriptions and icons. The pedestal consists of two structural elements, the base and the body. The body holds the wood or metal flagstaff above the ground and contains the artistic elements, while the base is the platform on which the pedestal body rests.
There are 55 flagstaff pedestals in Venice and the lagoon islands, three of which have been enclosed in courtyards and are no longer public. Of the pedestals located in Venice, only 35 contain flagstaffs. The majority of the pedestals are located in or near campi, as churches and associated scuole are often the heart of each campo. Thirty-four of the pedestals are near waterfront, which can be attributed to the mercantile and military purposes of the flags they would have flown. In fact, two pedestals are located directly in the water within the sestiere of San Marco.
Flagstaff pedestals were created from a variety of materials and styles. Istrian stone is the most popular material used to make pedestal bodies, accounting for 76 percent of the pedestals in Venice. Some of the other materials used were bronze, Verona stone, and metal, respectively 11 percent, five percent, and four percent. Istrian stone was also commonly employed to construct the pedestal base, amounting to 75 percent of the total. Pedestals frequently contain artistic carvings; there are nine pedestals in Venice that display the winged lion of Saint Mark, most if not all postdating 1797. Other common themes are water, religious motifs, scuole, and familial coats of arms. Textual inscriptions are also often found on pedestals. Eleven percent of the pedestals in Venice have text concerning Italian Independence in 1866, and another 11 percent concern Venetian confraternities.
Currently, most flagstaffs in Venice are not and have not been used for many years. As a result, 17 percent are in poor condition and are unusable due to deterioration of the wood and pulley systems. Of the remaining 83 percent that are in good condition, only 20 percent are currently in use. In 1997, students at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute examined the pedestals to measure the severity of the damage that has been suffered. They found that the largest problem is cracking, affecting 26 percent of the pedestals. Grime affects 25 percent of pedestals; 15 percent are missing pieces. Other atrophic issues include rust, pitting, chalking, illegibility, and vandalism. The wooden flagstaffs, too, suffer from a large amount of missing paint and cracking. Frequently, cracking appears where there is no paint and the flagstaff material is exposed to the humid Venetian climate.
Because Venice was cut off from reliable sources of fresh water, Venetians built underground basins to collect and filter rainwater. Their system of cisterns collected rainwater and retained it in a clay basin, which citizens could access. Wellheads capped these cisterns. Often, wellheads were festooned with carvings of saints, family crests, inscriptions, or other images important to Venetians; carvings of saints usually faced the nearest church. The decorative characteristics of wellheads ranged through the Carolingian, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras14.
Wellheads exemplified the city’s culture and its love for art, as well as functioning as a barrier between the important water reservoir and sources of possible contamination. Wellheads functioned as protection for the water source by preventing animals from falling in and keeping floodwaters from contaminating the drinking water. It was also common to have a small hollowed-out bowl near the base of the wellhead, which was kept full for animals to drink.
As the city grew, so did the number of wellheads. They were typically located in the center of campi, and were always a place for socializing and interacting with neighbors. Photographs dating to as late as the nineteenth century show women washing clothes on the steps of wellheads, children playing nearby, and men hauling up the water. With the completion of an aqueduct from the mainland in the late 1800s, wells lost their function and were quickly abandoned15.
Istria stone is a type of limestone that has a gray-green or yellowish color. Lengthy exposure to the atmosphere causes the stone to obtain a whitish appearance through a process called “whitewashing.” Unfortunately, this also makes Istria stone a prime candidate for exfoliation. Verona marble is a sedimentary rock composed of organic limestone and fossils. It has either a reddish or whitish color depending on the carbon compounds it contains. All but two of the 217 public wellheads cataloged are composed exclusively of Istria stone, Red Verona marble, or White Verona marble. Istria is stone the most common material, accounting for 79 percent of the wellheads cataloged. Istria is followed by 14 percent Red Verona marble, and seven percent White Verona marble16.
Sixty public wellheads are located on the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello, Lido, Malamocco, San Pietro in Volta, Portosecco, Pellestrina, and Chioggia. Rizzi originally cataloged 231 public wellheads in the sestieri of Venice (50 in Cannaregio, 58 in Castello, 20 in Santa Croce, 23 in San Polo, 48 in San Marco, 29 in Dorsoduro, and 3 in Giudecca).
There are many types of fountains throughout Venice, some mass-produced and others unique and handcrafted. In 2004, a WPI project team gathered data about fountains and calculated that all the fountains in Venice collectively dispense about 135,867,600 liters (41,307,500 gallons) of clean, potable water every year. The team also calculated a condition rating for each fountain, which included a multitude of factors like rust, algae, graffiti, surface damage, grime, and missing pieces. The team formulated an algorithm based on the condition rankings, subsequently determining the overall damage ranking of each object17.
In Venice, fountain ownership is marked by the lack or presence of a service panel. Fountains that have a panel are owned by the city; the panels are installed by VESTA, a public works contractor, to keep track of the amount of water used for billing purposes. VESTA owns outright the fountains without a panel. The city owns 60 percent of the fountains, and VESTA owns the remainder. However, 70 percent of VESTA's fountains are functional, while only 60 percent of those owned by the city are. The question of ownership is important to those wishing to pursue restoration, or wanting to report a broken or unserviceable fountain.
Public art, because its ownership is ambiguous and it is usually exposed to the elements, endures daily threats from a variety of different sources. The Venetian climate is a hostile environment; art is exposed to salt spray, direct sunlight, high humidity, and erosive factors. Venice experiences freezing temperatures in wintertime. Liquid water that has entered porous stone can freeze then crystallize and expand, often producing a cascading effect of cracks throughout the stone18. In other seasons, high humidity and the warmth of the sun combine to cyclically hydrate and dehydrate the stone on a daily basis, increasing the stresses upon it and, consequently, its rate of erosion. Bacteria, algae, and other organisms that thrive in damp environments have also made homes on many pieces of outdoor sculpture, and their byproducts are typically corrosive in nature.
For centuries, Venetian households and vaporetti burned dirty wood, coal and oil, causing black grime to accumulate on white marble surfaces; much of it is still present today. Although Venice now burns exclusively natural gas and boat engines are held to increasingly strict emissions standards, mainland industrialization has had a negative effect on Venetian public art. Venice is fortunate enough to enjoy prevailing onshore winds, but it is not immune to acid rain and fog, both of which cause the deterioration of marble and other similar materials. As erosion occurs, the outer surfaces of sculptures are chemically altered, eventually detaching and falling off completely.
Unfortunately, the greatest source of damage to public art is human-related. Neglect, theft, disregard, and vandalism have all had significant roles in the accelerated deterioration of many objects in the Venetian public art collection. In the past twenty years, 49 pieces of the original documented collection of public art in Venice have disappeared. Routinely, objects are removed behind scaffolding during renovations, only to never be replaced afterwards.
People sit on public wells and kick their feet against them, spray graffiti on sculptures, touch statues, all without consideration of the fact that many pieces of outdoor sculpture in Venice are as important, historically and artistically, as objects found in museums or art galleries. Venetian utilities have strung up wires, cables, and drainage pipes in front of public art pieces, sometimes attaching infrastructure directly to the sculptures. One hundred and eighty pieces are affected by this particular problem19.
Perhaps the ignorance stems from perception; if an object is in a public space, is already visibly degraded, and has no owner nearby to abscond visitors, tourists and Venetians alike will take public art for granted and continue to abuse it.
With the wealth of information that has been collected over the years concerning public art, little action has been taken to protect these precious pieces. Data collection has, at best, brought us to this question: should Venetian public art be restored?
This is a relevant argument that can be defended from both perspectives. Those in favor of public art restoration would agree that it is necessary in order to preserve Venetian heritage and culture. In some cases, public art contains historical information that would be lost forever if the pieces were allowed to deteriorate. Furthermore, public art that has existed for centuries is a testament to the accomplishment of the artist; it has great intrinsic value to the city community, and its presence will benefit future generations of Venetians and tourists alike.
Those against the restoration of public art have strong arguments as well. For instance, botched restoration jobs often negate all good intentions, and cause irreversible damage and loss. In such cases, the original intent to preserve is canceled out by poor methods, usually utterly destroying a piece of sculpture. There are also many pieces that have deteriorated to such a degree that repairing them would be a fruitless endeavor. Italian restoration philosophy excludes the possibility of replacing features that have been lost from the original work, which applies to many pieces of Venetian public art. If a piece cannot be restored entirely, then, some feel it is best left alone.
Public art needs to be preserved. The sheer number of pieces alone, constituting one of the world’s largest collections of outdoor sculpture, justifies the expense and sometimes hassles of restoration. Public art in Venice plays an important role in the lives of Venetian citizens, and restoration is crucial to maintain the city's unique character and legacy.
Restoration and Preservation
Current preservation techniques include treatments to stone – the material that makes up most of if not all the pieces of public art. The ultimate goal of stone preservation is to protect it from moisture by sealing the pores that exist on the surface of the object. If the object is not fixed in place, it can be detached from the wall and immersed it in a solvent to seal the stone’s pores. More often than not, however, the pieces are mounted on the side of buildings, and removing them would do more harm than good. In these cases, the restorer is limited to a paint or spray application. This only applies to the exposed portions of the piece; some faces are inaccessible, and many have parts that abut the building to which they are mounted, occasionally leading to further structural damage rather than conservation. The damage happens during freeze and thaw cycles that happen naturally with the changing seasons, when the moisture contained within the object changes state and causes the piece to crack or even separate from the building to which it is attached. Moisture that seeps in to the inaccessible face is not able to escape because the front of the object is sealed. All public art is exposed to nature; hence, the only useful techniques for conserving public art are comprehensive cleaning and protection from the elements as much as possible.
There are other preservation techniques used for more seriously damaged pieces (e.g. a break in the stone). When the broken piece is small and relatively lightweight, adhesive is applied and the piece is fixed back in place. If the break is large and heavy, a metal dowel must be used to hold the weight of the piece, in combination with an adhesive. For this type of conservation, restorers must use non-corrodible metal, or else as the metal corrodes, it will split the break open. A copper alloy called Delta metal is commonly used in cases like this.
Organizations including UNESCO, Save Venice Inc., and the WPI Project Center have initiated conservation efforts, notably establishing criteria for the condition of stone pieces. These span many categories including cracking, flaking, chalking, biological growth, grime and human impact. The data gathering methods of WPI students include photography, compiling catalogues and datasets, systematic sweeps of the city and cross-referencing their findings with other organizations and catalogs.