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Under Threat: irreparable damage to Albanian historical site

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.pravmir.com/under-threat/ Under Threat Jan 15th, 2013 Following destruction of ‘Albania’s Sistine Chapel’, state officials say they don’t
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 17, 2013
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      http://www.pravmir.com/under-threat/

      Under Threat
      Jan 15th, 2013

      Following destruction of ‘Albania’s Sistine Chapel’, state officials say
      they don’t have the ability to protect all of the country’s heritage jewels

      TIRANA, Jan. 10 – The medieval frescoes of St. Premte Chapel in central
      Albania survived the Ottoman Empire, various uprisings, two world wars
      and the world’s only officially atheist regime — but they could not
      survive one or more amateurish thieves who tried to chisel them out of
      the wall in the evenings of Dec. 30 and Jan. 4.Most of the frescoes at
      the small church in southeastern Elbasan County were the work of Onufri,
      a painter of the 1500s considered to be Albania’s Michelangelo for his
      work on Orthodox churches in central and southern Albania.The attempt to
      steal the frescoes has made irreparable damage to the historical site,
      authorities say.Gifted with a great wealth of cultural damage,
      post-communist Albania has seen a trend of destruction and theft at its
      cultural monuments in the past 20 years. Experts say investment, better
      infrastructure, tougher punishments and more education are needed to to
      protect the country’s historical, cultural and art heritage.

      Site unguarded, authorities slow to respond

      St. Premte Chapel is located in a very rural mountainous area in the
      Shpat region of Elbasan County. Its walls are covered in Biblical
      depictions of the Virgin Mary and various saints, including that of St.
      Premte, an indigenous Albanian saint whose name is carried by several
      Catholic and Orthodox churches across Albania. The Onufri paintings were
      dated at 1554 and contained an inscription by the author, which is now
      gone.On Dec. 30, the chapel was closed and unguarded, and it took some
      time for state and church authorities to be notified by the area’s local
      residents who first discovered the damage. But the local media reported
      the authorities were very slow to act, which allowed the thieves to
      return to the site on a different night and do more damage.

      Authorities have yet to identify the authors, but experts say they were
      likely amateurs.

      “They used none of the tools a professional would use to dismount art
      works like these,” said a Culture Ministry official.

      The thieves used an ax-like tool to go after the heads of the saints in
      the frescoes, leaving behind the bare walls. Many of these parts were
      taken — likely for illegal sale — and some were left destroyed because
      they had crumbled on the floor. It is the fact that the chiseled
      paintings were taken away from the church that has led authorities to
      believe they are dealing with thieves rather than vandals or something
      more sinister, like a religious hate crime.

      Activists demand accountability

      Two heritage experts, Artan Shkreli and Auron Tare, traveled to the area
      after they heard of the incident and notified the media of what had
      happened, accusing authorities of trying to keep the damage quiet and
      demanding accountability.

      Shkreli, who heads the Forum for the Protection of Heritage, told the
      local media this is possibly the worst crime of its type to Albania’s
      cultural heritage in the past 20 years.

      “In a way, this is the Sistine Chapel of Albanian frescoes, one of the
      most extraordinary scenes in all the manuals of medieval Albanian art,”
      Shkreli told the local media.

      Tare said the Onfri frescoes, in the Albanian context, are as important
      as those Michelangelo and Da Vinci to Italian heritage.

      “Some has to be held accountable … The Culture Minister and the Director
      of Heritage should resign,” Tare, who is also an opposition MP, told the
      Gazeta Shqiptare newspaper.

      The activists are calling for far tougher punishment of those who damage
      or steal from cultural heritage sites, pointing out that prosecutions
      and punishments have been rare and have not served as a deterrent.

      Authorities say they lack resources, infrastructure to protect rural
      monuments

      Olsi Lafe, who heads the heritage department at the Ministry of Culture,
      said in a press conference that his institution simply does not possess
      the money and infrastructure to protect all cultural monuments 24 hours
      a day.

      “We manage a very large territory. Given that the number of monuments is
      large and many of them are located in very rural areas, away from
      residential centers, it is impossible to control them 24 hours a day,”
      Lafe said.

      Lafe added the ministry is working with police to apprehend the people
      who caused irreversible damage to the church and Albanian medieval art
      heritage.

      Theft highlights fate of Albania’s cultural heritage

      Heritage experts that work for the government and civil society
      institutions say this is a grave incident which is part of a trend of
      destruction and theft of Albania’s cultural heritage in the past two
      decades.

      They say investment, better infrastructure and tougher punishments are
      needed — in combination with better education for the population at
      large on how to protect and value the share heritage of the community.

      Albania, which for hundreds of years has been at the crossroads of
      different cultures, has a vast wealth of cultural heritage, much of
      which is known and appreciated worldwide.

      Due to Albania’s difficult post-communist transition, many international
      institutions and the embassies of the several EU countries have offered
      funding to reconstruct monuments of culture in Albania. In fact, much of
      the reconstruction work that has taken place in large and small heritage
      sites has been done thanks to funding provided by UNESCO, governments of
      EU members states and the other friends of Albania.

      But experts note taking local ownership is very important and providing
      proper education and manpower to protect and restore monuments is
      imperative.

      Available options for the future discussed

      Lafe said the ministry needs the help of the religious communities (in
      this case, the Orthodox Church) and the public to protect such
      monuments. He also added it needs more funding, pointing to requests
      made to the Ministry of Finance in the past.

      But Lafe underlined that the ministry needs an entirely different
      infrastructure in the place if it were to protect all monuments across
      Albania from such damage.

      Apollon Bace, the head of the Institute of Monuments, the state body
      charged with protecting and restoring moments, told the local newspaper
      Mapo that ideally a system of overseers should be in place to protect
      each monument, a variation on the system used before the fall of
      communism. An overseer is a semi-volunteer position where the state pays
      a small sum every month to a local inhabitant to keep an eye on the
      monument and the area around it.

      Others say local authorities should interfere, creating a regional
      system of protection brigades that doesn’t entirely depend on the
      central government.

      “The local government should definitely have a guard at these monuments
      of culture. But these mountain municipalities have no funding to do so,”
      Kristaq Shqau, head of the Gjinar Commune, where the chapel is located,
      told private television channel, Albanian Screen.
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