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

Times Staff Writer

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.

"Now the cracks are getting bigger," he said. "The cupola can no longer breathe, but Florence's cultural Mafia won't understand that modern cement is stronger than 500-year-old bricks. There is too much invested, too many reputations, to back out now. As a result, as measured by the growth of the cracks, the cupola is aging 50 years for every year the cement remains. How much longer will it stand?"

16 Floors of Scaffolding

The new scaffolding is itself a marvel. An elevator runs from the cathedral floor to a first walkway 181 feet high. Then, 16 floors of scaffolds unfold like a high-rise Erector Set to the dizzying top of the dome. Restoration will include obliteration of ages-old graffiti scrawled by strong-legged tourists who trekked to a balustrade around the base of the dome.

"Moe Doyle, New York City," says one memorial scratched next to another reading "Kathleen Ryan, Chicago, 1880."

After years of stonewalling Bartoli and some colleagues, the Arts Ministry, which is underwriting the work, has issued a statement lamenting the hole-filling concrete but insisting that no permanent damage has been done.

"The monitoring system we have established for the cupola is unique in the world. From now on, it will register every movement," says the ministry's Gastone Petrini.

"Nonsense," Bartoli retorts. "The fancy machines will simply say what we already know, that the cracks are getting worse. All this on behalf of frescoes that are too high up to be seen well and are ugly to boot."

Eight years after the scaffolding was erected, restoration is only just beginning with the final approval of the structure from Italian government safety inspectors.

In the Piazza della Signoria, trouble began with the City Council's seemingly innocuous decision to repave it, a job that was last undertaken in 1792 at the behest of the Grand Duke of Florence and completed in nine months.

In 1982, a commission was formed to decide whether to redo the current paving of big gray stones or to revive a medieval design of red bricks outlined with gray stone. The commission decided on red.

"Then we made a bad mistake and submitted the plan to the Arts Ministry in Rome. They're crazy. They might as well be living in Bangkok," said Cariglia, the vice mayor. "First, they said, 'No red.' Then they decided that the old gray stones had to be photographed, numbered and relaid. Stupidity! We've had meetings in Rome that ended in shouting matches just short of violence."

Archeologists Involved

Since the 9,600-square-yard piazza was going to be torn up anyway, enter the archeologists, who work for a different secretariat within the Arts Ministry. They planned to examine what lay beneath the piazza and cover it up in time for the repaving.

The giant square that in later years became the venue for civic spectacles and executions, such as the hanging of the hellfire-and-brimstone Friar Savonarola in 1498, was created in the 13th Century when victors in a Florentine civil war tore down the houses of their defeated enemies.

So far, the digs have turned up the expected remnants of medieval Florence. But beneath them were also found Roman ruins, including the biggest textile processing and dyeing factory--44 yards by 22 yards--yet discovered.

"For the first time, here is proof that Florence was a major Roman center and an important supplier of cloth to the whole empire," De Marinis said. To preserve the ruins, the archeology secretariat suggested transforming the excavation into an underground museum while allowing for further digging to hunt Etruscan remains thought to lie beneath the Roman ones.

Florence Officials Outraged

To this, the 60 Florence city commissioners representing 12 different political parties rose as one in outrage.

"We know what's there. Nothing that can't be found over and over in the rest of Italy," Cariglia said. "A museum would disfigure the piazza, and they'd have to destroy about 20% of the excavation to give enough headroom for people to walk. Also it would cost many times more than straightforward repaving. If they want to spend that kind of money, there are homeless artworks in need of repair in the basement of the Uffizi. There are palaces and monuments falling into ruin all over the city."

Countered archeologist De Marinis in disgust: "You can't give a museum to a city that doesn't want one. The City Council is only afraid we'll discover something so important that we can't cover it up."

The digging continues, and so does the dispute over the color and design of the repaved piazza.

"The museum idea is dead, but only officially dead, which means it is alive," Cariglia said.

Still, the piazza drama must end by 1990:

-- Because, says the City Council, that is when Florence will be even more an international showcase as one of the host cities for soccer's World Cup competition.

-- Because, say the archeologists, that is the date of piazza-loving Florence's next municipal elections.

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