30.05.2014 - UNESCO Venice Office

Safeguarding of Venice: Activities of the Joint UNESCO-Private Committees Programme

© UNESCO-Private Committees Joint Programme for the Safeguarding of Venice - Restauro della figura con elefante

Venice’s unusual location poses a number of challenges, both to its historical heritage and to the renewed demands of a modern city. This became all the more apparent in the wake of the devastating floods that swept through the city in 1966 causing untold damage and prompting the then Director General of UNESCO, René Maheu, to make an impassioned appeal to the international community. The private committees established around the world to collect and channel contributions in response to this emergency are currently cooperating with the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture, Venice (Italy), within the UNESCO-Private Committees Joint Programme for the Safeguarding of Venice, which has funded innumerable restorations, research grants and laboratories throughout the city of Venice and its lagoon. A number of these committees are currently engaged in a diverse range of projects around Venice.

Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – Madonna of Ca’ Pesaro

In 2013, Save Venice Inc. (United States of America) raised funds to restore the Pesaro altar and painting in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The project, endorsed by UNESCO in June 2013, has now entered its final stage, with the painting due to be returned as soon as structural repairs on the altar have been completed.

Titian’s ‘Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro’ was commissioned in 1518 by Jacopo Pesaro, Bishop of Paphos (Cyprus) and commander of the papal fleet, to commemorate his naval victory against the Turks (one of whom features in the painting as his captive) in the Battle of Santa Maura in 1502. He is depicted with his family as they kneel and wait for St Peter to introduce them to the Madonna and Child. The humanity and realism of the work, unveiled in 1526, represent a clear departure from the static, symmetrical style of the sacre conversazioni typical of Titian’s contemporaries – not least owing to the unusual choice of placing the devotional figures to one side rather than in the centre.

Over the centuries, however, this artistically and historically important piece has suffered the joint effects of time and climate. Restoration work was initially carried out in 1978 with funding from Save Venice founder John McAndrew, yet new concerns linked to the conservation of the altar and painting have since emerged. As part of the present project, the painting was taken down and transported to a temporary laboratory set up within the Basilica. Preliminary studies were conducted to determine its state of conservation and document the damage caused by various environmental agents and by previous restorations. The surface of the painting was then cleaned and dusted and the paint was touched up in places.

The altar that frames the painting and the window above it, which had already undergone emergency repairs following earthquakes in 2005 and 2012, were cleaned and studied to determine their original appearance and track the various stages of deterioration, and further structural work is currently under way.

Winged figure with elephant

In the third courtyard of the former Royal Palace commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Procuratie Nuove sits a curious statue: a winged female figure resting her hand on the head of a small elephant. Its history and attribution remain unknown, owing in part to conservation issues but largely to its unusual iconography and to the complete lack of clues as to its original setting. Based on the statue’s current location, it has been suggested that it formed part of the royal estate; its composition, meanwhile, indicates it may have been intended as an outside ornament.

Venice in Peril, the British Committee for the preservation of Venice, has taken on the task of funding the conservation project, within the framework of the UNESCO-Private Committees Joint Programme for the Safeguarding of Venice. Attempts will be made to contextualize the statue historically and geographically prior to the restoration. The latter will seek to counteract the effects of years of exposure to the elements that have contributed to superficial deposits (a green mossy film covers the statue), cracks and erosion. A preliminary study has revealed signs of more-or-less ineffective attempts to put the damaged sections back together. Once the surface has been cleaned, the restoration will endeavor to repair sections that have been damaged in order to return the statue to its former state.

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