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Piazza, Duomo Work : In Florence, It's Politics vs. Preservation

January 21, 1988|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

FLORENCE, Italy — Florence's slip is showing.

Major restorations at the town square that is the heart of Florence and inside the cathedral that is its soul are dogged by controversy in a blustery showdown between preservation and politics:

Is restoration reviving the past by robbing the future?

The dispute in a city that is the premier jewel of the Renaissance is leavened by antique graffiti, space-age monitoring instruments and table-thumping theatrics about the color of old bricks.

National Dilemma

Such sideshows underline a chronic national dilemma over how to deal today with the heritage of yesterday in the interests of tomorrow.

If the debate is familiar in Italy, where history beckons around every corner, it is especially stark in Florence, whose splendor draws millions of admiring visitors each year.

At issue are the two landmarks most beloved by Florentines: the 15th-Century dome of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo, which is the city's civic signature, and the majestic plaza around which city life--and perpetual intellectual bickering--has swirled for seven centuries.

"Everything in Florence is controversial," moaned master engineer Fabrizio Benucci, whose intricate and dizzying scaffolding inside the Duomo is hailed by some as an ingenious aid to art but damned by others for the damage they assert it is inflicting on the cupola.

Centuries-Old Fight

"We've been fighting over cultural decisions since the Renaissance," said Vice Mayor Nicola Cariglia, who capsulizes the dispute over the piazza without pretending neutrality.

Both at the cathedral and in the piazza, critics insist, good intentions have gone astray as municipal and national agencies defend a welter of divergent self-interests.

At the Piazza della Signoria, the government ministry responsible for protecting Italy's cultural heritage is defending new-found legacies of the ancient Roman Empire in a brawl with the Florence City Council, which unabashedly insists that whatever lies beneath the piazza is unimportant.

"Florentines care only about the Renaissance. They don't give a damn about anything else," snapped Giuliano de Marinis, archeologist in charge of a beleaguered dig in the piazza that has uncovered remains of an elaborate Roman textile factory.

The now torn-up piazza is Florence's ultimate magnet. On its flanks stand Michelangelo's David, the Uffizi Gallery and the Palazzo Vecchio, the former Medici palace that is now one of the world's most spectacular city halls.

At the Duomo, a feisty handful of experts insist that unnecessary restoration of frescoes underwritten by the Italian government jeopardizes the future of the cathedral's cupola. Virtually every picture of Florence is dominated by the Duomo's colored dome, they note, and not the so-so 16th-Century frescoes by Giorgio Vasari on the ceiling more than 15 stories above the altar.

"We were supposed to cure a cupola that had bronchitis, but instead we have managed to give it double pneumonia," said Lando Bartoli, a 75-year-old architect who has become a renegade member of a commission appointed by the Italian government in 1975 to safeguard the cupola.

Architectural Landmark

The Duomo is beloved by Florentines not only for its spiritual and historical significance but also as a monument to the visionary who rewrote the rules of architecture in building its dome.

Filippo Brunelleschi completed the dome, with its 148-foot diameter, in 1436. He, too, was a renegade Florentine architect, having twice been dragged from staid planning meetings for outlandishly insisting that he could build such a great structure without internal support. It had never been done, but he did it.

After World War II, Bartoli recounts, officials began monitoring four vertical cracks in the 13-foot-thick walls of the octagonal dome made of terra-cotta bricks. They learned that the dome "breathed"--the cracks widened in the cold winter air and closed in the summer. Lesions created by the expansion and contraction grew at the modest rate of about three-tenths of an inch every 100 years. The cracks needed watching, the researchers concluded.

Then, as Bartoli irreverently tells the story, "One day a piece of fresco painted on the inside of the dome fell in some tourist's eye. It was war--in the eyes of the Arts Ministry. They immediately decided to restore the frescoes. Nobody thought about the cupola."

By 1979, the city's art councilors had determined to restore the frescoes by using 48 holes left by Brunelleschi in the dome walls. The holes had supported the artist Vasari's scaffolds, but they were not strong enough for the network of modern metal scaffolding necessary to provide access for the restorers. To strengthen the scaffold anchors, Bartoli says, somebody committed the ultimate crime of lining the holes with concrete.

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