What Happens to Art in The Midst of Wars?

The art of each country represents part of its history, culture and identity. Over time, it has been the victim of political rivalries and has been caught in the middle of armed conflicts. In some times it has been the spoils of triumph among warriors. Since the origin of objects as pieces of art, they were the primary target of the conquerors who exalt themselves by returning with them as trophy objects, thus demonstrating their power over the other civilization.

Museums and galleries as exponents of art have had the task not only of exhibiting the works but of protecting them against inclement weather and possible social movements that put their physical integrity at risk. On the other hand, this space that shelters art has been compromised by the technology of war and has had to remove several works from its walls. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Prado Museum moved about 600 pieces of art in seventy-one trucks, mainly by Velazques, Goya, Titian, Rubens, among others, from Catalonia to France, due to the Civil War.

Sandbags protecting the cathedral of Amiens. (Photo credit: Biblioteque Nationale de France).

In mid-1939 the works returned to Madrid, but not before organizing an art exhibition with some of them at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. After its closure and while the works traveled to their museum of origin, World War II broke out. The return of art was meticulous, lights out, anxiety and fear accompanied the carriers on the return. 

When the art to be protected is the building itself, such as a cathedral, or it is a work such as a fresco attached to a wall or ceiling, it makes its transfer to safeguard it impossible. What remains is to use barricades and retaining walls to prevent its destruction. 

WWII, and the act of resisting the change to preserved
David immured in the Tribuna del Davide of the Galleria dell’Accademia. (credit : db.biblhertz.it).

During World War II, Italy and France did the same to prevent their heritage from suffering as little damage as possible. Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, was completely covered to avoid being touched by war cannons. The cathedral of San Marco in Venice was walled with a provisional structure so that it would not suffer damage.

Smaller pieces were transported and covered, while structures such as Michelangelo’s David were covered by a concrete shell so that they would not be damaged or could eventually be fully restored.

In Paris, the Notre Dame cathedral was walled up at its entrances; to prevent looting despite the damage it may have suffered.

The Last Supper protected by sandbags and reinforcements. Photo: Style (corriere.it).

Much has been speculated about the identity of the pieces after the war conflicts. Collectors and fraudsters, take advantage of the vulnerability of the moment to create a fog around the pieces; that have left the museum and generate speculation about their authenticity.

Another view of Notre Dame de Paris. (Photo credit: Biblioteque Nationale de France).

The smaller pieces have a double-edged sword. They are easy to move for safekeeping. But that works against them when the collector wants them for their personal collections. While the smaller pieces, or the heritage itself; do not go through that doubt. But they are an easier target to attack.

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