Art lost in tragedy
This reportage is among the winners of the Newsroom Academy course held by Daniele Bellocchio.
When you enter an art exhibition, you expect to discover imagery and paintings about ancient times, a past era. The painting ‘Mary Maddalena’ by Artemisia Gentileschi, does the opposite – it tells the story of a far more recent part of our history: the explosion at the port of Beirut, August 4th, 2020.
Around 5:40pm on August the 4th 2020, a large column of smoke rose from the port of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. A fire had broken out in one of its large warehouses.
At 18:08, the city was shaken by one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. All that remained of the port was a crater. Within the 5km radius of the explosion, all glass, walls and roofs were damaged and the explosion was felt as far as Cyprus – 200km away.
218 people lost their lives, including firefighters who were called to quell the fire. 7,000 people were seriously injured and over 300,000 became displaced.
In the following days the cause of the explosion was discovered. There had been 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate left in the port; the hoard had been confiscated from a merchant ship in 2014. It was only meant to be deposited there temporarily, pending a definitive change of location.
It wasn’t only the human cost. The explosion destroyed schools, museums, historical and cultural buildings.
Among these was the Sursock-Cochrane Palace, the residence of the Sursock family. Inside which, at the time of explosion, there were two paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi – belonging to the family’s private collection.
“Maria Maddalena” and “Ercole E Onfale” by Artemisia Gentleschi.
“During the research for my master’s thesis, I attributed the two paintings to Artemisia Gentileschi, but who would have listened to a twenty-year-old recent graduate? They would have laughed at me,” says Gregory Buchakijan, an artist and scholar of Lebanese art history.
The history of the identification of these paintings dates back to the 1990’s. At that time, as part of his master’s thesis, Buchakijan had tried to catalogue and identify the paintings belonging to the family’s private collection held in the residential palace.
I knew the paintings were of Neapolitan origins. My guess was that they were brought from Italy towards the end of the 19th century, during the marriage between the Italian Donna Maria Teresa Serra of Cassano and Alfred Bey Sursock,” explains Buchakijan. “Most likely they passed through the same port, where the explosion that damaged the painting occurred centuries later.”
As difficult as the attribution was, due to a lack of adequate documentation, Buchakjian was certain that the paintings were the work of Artemisia Gentileschi. However the confirmation would only come thirty years later, after August 4th 2020.
“I entered the Sursock building a week after the explosion. Nobody had touched anything, it was as if time had stopped,” says Buchakijan. “The photographs released by the news do not do justice to what the palace and the city were.”
Buchakijan had entered the Sursock residence, accompanied by two colleagues Camille Tarazi and Georges Boustany, to assess the state of the building and the works in the collection. Upon their arrival, the artist remembers finding the Cochrane-Sursock family in a deep state of shock, unable even to speak. Lady Cochrane, daughter of Alfred Bey Sursock and Donna Maria, had been seriously injured by the explosion. She died shortly after on August 31st, 2020 at the age of 98.
With the hosts silenced, Buchakijan went to work.
“I moved around the palace as if it were my own home. I was equipped with a camera, a measuring tape and a notebook. I just knew I had to create an inventory of the works. This is where the question of Artemisia Gentileschie’s two paintings re-emerged.”
The paintings of the Sursock collection created by Artemisia Gentileschi are “Ercole e Onfale” and “Maria Maddalena.”
Thanks to an article concerning his work inside the palace, Buchakijan’s “discovery” received a lot of attention, and soon his attribution was confirmed by other scholars as well.
However, as a result of the explosion, one of the two paintings had initially become lost. “The first day I entered the palace, the work ‘Maria Maddalena’ was missing. Only the outline he had left on the wall remained. At the foot of it, a heap of debris.” This was how Buchakijan discovered that the work was underneath them.
“The pieces of glass, wood and ceiling were all wedged into one another. I feared that the fragile balance would collapse any moment, further damaging the painting. Getting him out of that debris was a decision that took seconds. I had to detach it from the original frame, which was stuck to a beam. It’s a miracle that the canvas was in such good condition.”
In fact, the work was much less damaged than “Hercules and Onfale.” This, on the other hand, had major damage, including a large tear in the canvas, which made its transport temporarily impossible.
“Maria Maddalena”, on the other hand, could be brought to Italy for restoration.
“Each painting has its own story”, says Andrea Cipriani, responsible for the restoration of the painting.
“I think about that when I restore. Who knows what this painting has seen, hanging on a wall, has it changed owners and where has it been? Gentileschi’s painting, for example, left Naples following a wedding. This was chosen among others, for who knows what reason? Perhaps emotional, maybe economic.”
Not all works, however, can we know their history. For some we just have to assume the path that they travelled, the restorer explains, others are lost – even before arriving with us.
“We were lucky because this work could have been destroyed, as happens to many other paintings. I often happen to imagine the events experienced by surviving art. In this case, for example, I imagine that, obviously in an explosion, the first thing one saves is oneself, but, as he leaves the house, he manages to take three things with him – among them is this painting. Thus, the work reaches us, when probably, many others will never reach us, because for reasons unknown they are not saved.”
Of “Mary Magdalene”, some confirmation of its history came exactly through this restoration.
The first step is conservative restoration, also known as structural restoration, Cipriani explains. This includes, among other things, the disassembly of the painting from the frame, relining, repairing and suturing the tears.
It was during this first phase of intervention that the restorer was able to discover something that would otherwise have remained hidden: during the disassembly of the painting from the frame, he found small shards of glass. “Most likely coming from the explosion that hit the place where the painting was located,” explains Cipriani.
The conservative restoration was followed by cleaning which allowed the recovery of the original colours. As the restorer says, “from a technical point of view there wasn’t much to discover. The pigments and the technique used by Gentileschi were already known and coincided with what resulted from the analysis of the painting.”
The aesthetic restoration, which also includes the pictorial retouching, is completely reversible.
“This process must not be invasive and must be compatible with the original materials of the work. If in a few centuries another restorer is to work on it, they could just use a light solvent to cancel my intervention and bring the original state of the painting back to light.” In fact, the aim of the restoration is to give the work a uniformity – an ability to enjoy it as a whole.
Cipriani has been working as a restorer for 30 years, collaborating with four others in his workshop in Florence. “My work is that of a link, I am a link between one period in the history of a work and another.”
In the case of the “Mary Magdalene”, however, it is not only the restorer who acts as the intermediary, but it is the painting itself which, in its damaged state, makes a tragedy tangible. Bringing with him a small testimony to the destruction that was experienced in Beirut on the 4th of August, 2020.
The traces of the explosion have been erased from the surface of the “Mary Magdalene.” However, in Lebanon and amongst the people of Beirut, the consequences of that day have not.
“The port is in the same condition as it was on the day of the explosion. I took my cousin there on a visit from France. He was traumatized, as much as a direct witness”, says Jana Mahmoud, a student at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
“On August 4th I was at home. I live in the mountains, but I felt the explosion anyway. I started writing to friends to find out if they were alive. Uncertainty was the worst. News in Lebanon circulated slowly and it took hours until we found out what had happened.”
The management of the displaced was also shameful. The government barely intervened the next day. People who had just lost their homes, relatives and friends, spent the night on the street. Those who had the opportunity went down to the city to help, giving water and food to those who had just lost everything.”
On August 10th, the government, accused of being responsible for the explosion because of its knowledge of the ammonium nitrate cargo, resigned. 13 months later, on September 10th 2021, the formation of a new government was finally announced.
“We don’t have a government, a government is made up of good people, but these are not good people. They don’t care if more than 200 people died because of them,” says Mahmoud.
However, hope for political change remains sparse. Elections will be held in Lebanon on May 15th, but the sectarianism that divides the Lebanese by creed and politics is still far too deeply rooted in the population.
“They are frightening them again with the nightmare of civil war, saying that if we don’t keep the order created by sectarianism, we will go back to fighting each other on the street. The reality, however, is that we are currently worse off than during the civil war”, says Mahmoud – referring to the economic crisis into which the country is sinking.
Lebanese public debt reached 175% of GDP in 2021, with some estimates reaching 495% of GDP. The Lebanese pound continues to depreciate, with the Lebanese pound-dollar exchange rate reaching a peak of 32,000 pounds per dollar in January 2022. A kilo of bread, which in 2019 cost 1,500 lire, now costs 13,000.
If, therefore, the restoration of Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting could represent a small step on the way back to normal for a family, the reality for many of those in Lebanon remains harsh.