In the summertime I visited Padua and went to the Scrovegni Chapel, dated 1305. In the past 40 years the frescos have begun to crumble, and curators have researched atmospheric problems in order to counteract the decay. Long story short: this chapel is OLD. The air on the globe has totally changed since 1305 and the frescoes are being choked by a myriad of climate issues.
So the museum curators put millions of bucks into sealing the whole chapel, purifying the air, and building a special bio-vac entrance that sucks out all airborne impurities. These days, they only allow 15 people into the Chapel at once, for an interval of 15 minutes at a time, so you have a to make a reservation and it is totally up to luck if you get in or not. If you do get a reservation, you have to go into the pre-entrance, another bio-vac room, and sit there for 15 minutes as they purify the pre-entrance air, then finally you get to see what all the fuss is about.
I had luck. I got in.
The Scrovegni Chapel is surprisingly small. The frescoes depict various Biblical scenes (including the featured image for this article, a badass fresco of Jesus socking a moneychanger in the jaw). The best part about the Chapel is the story behind it: it was built by a guy born into a family of usurers, who had been one too and was guilt-wracked throughout his career, so he used his earnings to build the Chapel to repent for his immoral livelihood.
Dante puts usurers in the lowest rung of hell. The chapel was built about the same time Dante was writing, and inside there is a fresco full of images straight out of the Inferno: all the usurers are depicted in variously compromised positions of mad torture in the depths of Hell. It’s deliciously, delightfully gory–they are hanging by their own entrails, crawling around in their feces, sucking on the tits of devils, having their genitals gnawed off by wolves, buried headfirst in scalding sands, etc. Usually I would gaze a bit and then move on, but we were locked in the Chapel for 15 minutes, so I had to relax and scrutinize the demons as they supped on banker brains and rammed their thorny tongues into financier derriere.
I felt confused when I left the Scrovegni Chapel. I couldn’t stop thinking about the million billion clams they had put into building a special vacuumed microclimate for the frescos. Something about it seemed so Western to me–so wealthy and decadent–and for me a questionable expenditure. I could feel the anxiety behind it: we have to hold on to everything! put it on a wall! lock it in a vault! take a picture! Tweet about it every five minutes! create a vacuum for the air! make rules and charge people to follow them! Fame! we’re gonna live forever!
The fresco preservation project seems completely inimical to the lessons of a Buddhist mandala–in which the monks painstakingly lay grains of sand in intricate patterns for 18 hours a day for 7 days…then they destroy it. They simply sweep it up with a broom into an urn and dump the colored grains into a nearby river. The mandala symbolizes impermanence and change, and so does the doctrine of anatta, the non-self. It says that we are not selves that can be painted on a wall and preserved forever. We are grains of sand that are placed more or less carefully, then swept up and released into the great waters, to take a new form.
As an artist myself, I knew I was supposed to support the preservation of culture and that it was a noble and lovely thing that they had saved the frescos and postponed their demise. But I wondered, for how long? 100 more years? 200? In some ways I wish they’d let it crumble. Let it be a cave painting. Allow for some mystery. Let future humans put together the pieces. Preserving the art for some notion of posterity seemed to me to be a justifiable testament to “knowledge” or “culture” but also a misapprehension that a) these things are supposed to last forever or b) that we can know everything about the past or c) that amassing historical and logistical knowledge will make us happier or better people.
Even if we lose those frescos, don’t you think some enterprising artists will figure out a way to make something else beautiful in some other place with some other resources and motivations, and that too will be amazing? Don’t you think in every age people write their own story with their own creativities and resources and geist? Why do we need relics to feel human, or to feel like we can control the future? Do we have so little trust in ourselves to seek out and create the beauty we need?
Eventually I calmed down about the issue when I asked myself where else that money would have gone. Probably it would have sat in a museum endowment or trust fund, or have been spent on some useless banquet for rich dudes who congratulate themselves for being great people because they are sitting next to great art. I decided that if the money was there, it was okay that it was used in this way. Certainly it wouldn’t have been sent to Darfur, and even if it had been, it would have been spent on a few laptops for some American Red Cross workers anyway. So, fine–let’s spend a gajillion zillion bucks on a purified chapel.
Nevertheless, the spirit of the preservation confused and bothered me. Do we really need the past to understand the present? In terms of warfare, yes, we need to know about things like the Holocaust to understand the capacity of normal human citizens to do unthinkable monstrous things. In terms of cumulative empirical biotechnical developments–yes, we obviously build on technical knowledge to innovate and make our lives healthier in some ways.
But art? Old art? What if we never saw old art and made something right out of our own conditions and consciousness?
Old art connects us to truths of human nature–that human beings need beauty, and if we can’t find it we make it. That we flow out of ourselves, that even physical boundaries of bodies and skin are permeable and we can transcendently expand endlessly beyond our conditions, that we are created and creative animals, that we have opposable thumbs and that has really made a difference in the way we see the world and narrate it to each other. Old art preserves certain skills–sculpture, fresco painting–that are not so ubiquitous these days. There is a lot to be said for the concentrated discipline of skill-based art–scored music, instrument mastery, fine art, ballet–that people put their love and strength into–and it’s revealing to see how these forms change over time. It gives us a view into how people used to interact with the Bible and literature and visions of Hell and mercy. Old art has its place.
I left the Scrovegni Chapel disturbed by the expenditure and perfectionism required to control a microclimate.
Nevertheless I was really, truly, very pleased to have acquired such a righteous picture of Jesus socking a moneychanger in the jaw. Probably he would have socked the Chapel Scrovegni trustees in the jaw.
But then the frescoes would never have lived to tell the tale.