Cultural Heritage: our memory, our lives (Part I)

rose

Rose Valland (left) after WWII with recovered art treasures.

by María Magdalena Ziegler

The Centenary of the beginning of World War I was remembered in 2014. Till 2018 there will be remembrance events all over Europe. The consequences of this conflict were huge, even though it may seem an event so far away from our time.

Millions of lives were lost in the absurdity of the war. That could never be repaired. But the wreckage that WWI left in Europe concerning Cultural Heritage was tremendous. Entire towns with great historical value were practically erased from the ground.

A Cathedral agonizes

But there is one example that will help us understand the deepness of this massive destruction. The Cathedral of Reims, national symbol of France, the sacred place where kings – since the Middle Ages – were crowned and anointed, was bombed mercilessly by the German army just a few days after the war declaration.

This architectural gem lost its original roof and several of its beautiful stained glass windows. The restoration of the building began at the end of the war in 1919, but discussions on how to proceed fueled a controversy that would be settled, at least temporarily, with the provisions and principles set out in the Athens Charter.

The Athens Charter (final document of the First International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments) was issued in 1931. The International Bureau of Museums of the Institute promoted it with some help from the League of Nations.

It would be the first international document that expressed general principles and norms for the conservation and restoration of monuments. Besides, It would be the first declaration of international range to express concern for the conservation of property considered cultural heritage.

Cultural Heritage at risk

Where is all this leading? -You may ask. Well, It is clear that not only Reims Cathedral was affected by the war actions. I mentioned it here, because I want you to notice that for the French people it was not any building that had to be repaired. We are talking about the heart of medieval French culture.

We are talking about a patrimonial asset of incalculable value. The cathedral of Reims was the soul of the French wounded by the war, its restoration was the restoration of the moral of the country.

Somewhat later, in 1939, the French people were mobilized to safeguard what was most precious to them. And no, I am not talking about their lives. I’m talking about their artistic and cultural heritage.

Before the German army stepped on French soil, the Monalisa had already been taken in an ambulance, with René Huyghe (Director of the painting section of the Louvre Museum) as his personal bodyguard.

The Victory of Samothrace had been carefully packed and removed from its usual place in the same museum. The Venus of Milo, The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault and Liberty leading the people by Eugene Delacroix, they all went to the castle of Chambord, on the outskirts of Paris. If the Germans bombed the capital, the works of art would be safe.

Similarly, the Dutch people acted. Rembrandt’s Night’s watch and other of the Rijksmuseum’s most iconic works were moved to a castle in Medemblik on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Even before the masterpieces of the Prado Museum, including, of course, Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, had been sheltered in Geneva during the years of the Spanish Civil War.

Preserve it, always

During World War II, Adolf Hitler unleashed his demons to plunder Europe entirely and seize the greatest Western art treasures. The reason? Very simple: to take away the artistic heritage of a nation is equevalent to destroy its morale, to shatter its temperance and to bend its resistance to any domination. To take over his most beloved intellectual achievements could be similar to empty them from any meaning, just as a vampire sucks the blood of his victims.

The Athens Charter was the first contemporary attempt to aknowledge that without cultural heritage there would be a real danger to our memory. To preserve our cultural heritage is to streghthen our memory and thus, it would improve our identity links as a society.

In 1964, the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites remarked the calling made through the Athens Charter before. It enphasized that:

“the concept of a historic monument embraces not only the single architectural work but also the urban or rural setting in which is found the evidence of a particular civilization, a significant development or a historic event. This applies not only to great works of art but also to more modest works of the past which have acquired cultural significance with the passing of time.”

The conservation and restoration of monuments must have recourse to all the sciences and techniques which can contribute to the study and safeguarding of the architectural heritage.”

This ideas were fundamental for a much modern approach to preservation, conservation and restoration of architectural assets considered Cultural Heritage. In the years to come after 1964, Unesco would take the lead.

Principles, codes, procedures and concepts have been better defined. Cultural Heritage is today a matter that worries us more than 100 years ago. The damage Cultural Heritage suffers everyday around the world has not stopped though: Afganistan, Irak or Syria are very sad examples.

Have a personal story about Cultural Heritage preservation? Let us know in a comment below!

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