WMF in Venice

I first came in contact with the International Fund for Monuments—as it was then called—in Venice. The great flood of November 3–5, 1966 was still a recent and terrible memory. The waters had risen to well over two meters above their normal level and had remained there for more than 24 hours, undermining the foundations of many of the city’s most important buildings and leaving most them on the verge of collapse. The disaster had prompted an exhaustive inquiry by UNESCO into the present condition of the city—which, it reported, could hardly have been worse. Unless a huge conservation program could be launched on a global scale, they said, it seemed likely that within a hundred years the Venice that we all knew and loved would effectively cease to exist. UNESCO accordingly appealed to its members to rally all their resources to avert catastrophe, and some two dozen countries responded by establishing special foundations with the preservation of Venice as their object. One of these was Britain, which established the Venice in Peril Fund, with which I have been affiliated since its founding in 1971. The United States did not need to start from scratch since the World Monuments Fund—which I shall call it throughout this article, although until 1985 it was still operating under its old title—was already in existence. Superbly equipped to operate in Venice, it created a Venice Committee, a body dedicated to carrying out restoration in the city and funded by various local “chapters” throughout the United States. Under the chairmanship of John McAndrew, of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the Committee wasted no time in buckling down to the job. By the end of 1969, it was hard at work on two major projects. The first of these was the restoration of the façade of the Ca’d’Oro, the finest and most elaborate late Gothic palazzo in the city. The second was one of the six scuole grandi of Venice—that of S. Giovanni Evangelista, just behind the great Franciscan church of the Frari. The scuole grandi were the principal private charitable foundations of the Venetian Republic, founded by confraternities of rich citizens who were determined that the buildings in which they were housed should adequately reflect their wealth and splendor. S. Giovanni Evangelista, which was established as early as 1261, was lent particular distinction by its possession of a fragment of the True Cross. The side façade, with its Gothic windows, dates from the middle of the fifteenth century; but the front is a superb example of early Renaissance work, featuring a marble screen by Pietro Lombardo. Inside is a vastly impressive double staircase by his contemporary Mauro Coducci, the only one of its kind in Venice. Sadly, the building was systematically stripped by Napoleon, who actually stabled his horses in the Gothic entrance hall. By the time WMF appeared on the scene, its condition was little short of desperate. The outer walls were on the point of collapse into the canal, and everywhere there was a deep and dangerous infiltration of water and salt. WMF introduced damp courses, restored beams and pavements where necessary, and undertook a complete rewiring. In gratitude, an apartment in the building was made available for the organization’s Venice office

Open PDF