In the height of irony, many priceless works of art and antiquities have been destroyed by the people who were trying to preserve them. Modern art can be especially susceptible to accidental destruction by well-meaning parties. Some things were destroyed by unthinking or unfeeling people. Some relics were destroyed for the sake of money, even entire pyramids. Some things were destroyed by people who think they’re more important than, ya know, the history of the planet and its people.
Ecce Homo, Behold the Man, was the name of a fresco, a watercolor on plaster, of Jesus Christ painted in 1930 by Elias Garcia Martinez on a church wall in Borja, Spain. For the past 6 years, people have been calling it Monkey Christ or Beast Christ, ever since a well-intentioned 85 year old woman who lived near the church took it upon herself to restore the priceless piece. She had no training in art restoration or even painting, but how hard could it really be? Pretty damn hard, as it turns out. In place of the Renaissance-style face was now a smeary circle, wreathed in what looks like a maribu balaclava, with a nose like a folk-art sock doll, the crooked, misplaced eyes of a failed anime sketch, and a mouth like a lipstick smear left by a bass.
The family of the original artist have said they will seek legal action against Gimenez for “destroying” the work. Senora Gimenez was sincerely trying to help and, in a way, she did. When word and pictures spread across the internet, tourists began to flock to Borja. The town with a population of 5,000 or so was hit particularly hard by the global recession. In the first three years after the abuela’s mis-strokes, 160,000 people, and their money, made the pilgrimage to see it. The church began collecting a 4 euro/ $5 entrance fee, raising 2,000 euros/$2,500 in the first four days. But even a silver lining can tarnish. Gimenez did not fail to notice the fresco’s huge popularity; now she wants royalties for her work. Her lawyers insist she should be entitled to a cut of the profits. “She just wants the church to conform to the law,” lawyer Enrique Trebolle said. “If this means economic compensation, she wants it to be for charitable purposes,” specifically Muscular atrophy research, since her son suffers from it. The Sancti Spiritus Hospital Foundation, which owns the church, has also retained lawyers to defend their right to retain the proceeds from visitors to the church.
“Unauthorized conservation project” was the euphemistic official term given to the restoration (read: un-lovely modification) of a fresco in a thousand year old temple in China. Whereas Behold the Monkey was undertaken voluntarily, this project was carried out by teams hired by the government. During a $133,000 revamp of Liaoning province’s Yunjie Temple, workers painted over the original work, turning it into a series of garish and “sloppily drawn modern paintings”, state media reported. It looks like something that belongs in a daycare center, not a sacred temple. Why restorers chose to paint over it is not immediately clear, but the government’s response was immediate. Senior official Li Haifen told the Global Times that once the mess became known authorities “immediately carried out an investigation and issued punishments”. The official in charge of “temple affairs” and the head of the local cultural heritage monitoring team had both been relieved of their duties, he said. Law enforcement teams were dispatched to the temple to prevent further damage. Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration Dunhuang Academy, said the intervention could not be called even a “destructive restoration.” “It really is a shame. I feel sad….[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist.”
These frescoes are far from the only members of the ‘artwork destroyed by restoration’ club and it doesn’t take much to get a piece its membership card. Even professional restoration artists can do as much harm as good. It can be hard to distinguish the dust that has settled on the painting over time, from dust that settled on the varnish when it was applied, from the actual pigments applied to the canvas. Varnishes also turn yellow over time, as they were classically made from the secretion or ground bodies of insects. This discoloration on top can make it difficult to know what the original shade underneath was. A number of da Vinci’s works have been damaged by attempts to clean them. The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne got several shades lighter when cleaned and had the details washed out, as if someone had bumped up the brightness, contrast, and soften tools. A badass-sounding sketch of Orpheus being tormented by the Furies was destroyed when restorers dipped the sketch in alcohol and distilled water, which took out the ink. If you find yourself saying, “Even I know not to do that,” get used to it, because you’re going to be thinking it a lot. Or saying it outloud if you have no inner monologue, like me.
Modern tastes can lead people to alter classics while they restore them. The cool white marble of ancient Greek statues that we see isn’t what people saw when they were created. The statues were originally painted with vibrant colors. Nineteenth century art curators didn’t care for the traces of garish paint that they found and blasted them away in order to make the statues look more appealing by their standards. The period did a particular number on the world-famous David. First he was covered in wax to put a nice white surface on him, and then the wax was removed with hydrochloric acid, along with the original patina of the statue. Sometimes it’s the morals and mores of the era. A group of restorers properly saved most of a mural called The Tree of Fertility. The Tree of Fertility is an enormous, 16ftx20ft/5mX6m, medieval fresco that had been hidden under chalky concrete on a wall of the Fonti dell’Abbondanza in the Tuscan town in Massa Marittima. Sorry, Italians, that’s as good as pronunciation is going to get from someone who took French twenty years ago. The eagles in the fresco got their feathers back; the people got their faces back. The restores just left out the tree in the middle. Because the tree happened to be heavily fruited with penises, dozens of them, carefully and purposely painted. I’ll wait while you do a Google image search. The penis has had a tough time in art in the last few centuries, what with being knocked off statues or painted over with clothing. Bonus fact: Greek statues feature small penises, even on their burliest hero, because a large penis was deemed a characteristic of Goths and other barbarians. Aren’t you glad you taught your mom how to download podcasts now?
One complication the restorers can’t be blamed for is a dearth of original materials. Paints and pigments used to be made by grinding things like precious minerals, lapis lazuli and cinnabar for example, or odd-ball ingredients like ground Egyptian mummies, though you know all about that already from listening to our Mother’s Day episode. Even canvases aren’t made the same way or from the exact same material. If your approach is to fill in a missing section, not only must you recreate the materials as closely as possible, you have to artificially age them to match the original areas seamlessly. Mess that up even slightly and people will notice. The master art restorer who discovered a Caravaggio painting that had been lost for centuries was unable to import a canvas backing that approximated what was used in the 1600’s. Trying to curtail the delay in the project, he got a high-quality but modern canvas. That canvas backing shrunk, cracking the paint all over. He was then forced to carefully remove the backing and tackle twice the job he’d started with.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time; even when a project is skillfully done, it’s going to upset somebody. In 2010, a duo statue of Venus and Mars, (the deities, not the planets) was installed in front of the residence of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Between their creation in 175 CE and 2010, Venus lost her right hand and Mars lost his right hand and his penis. You thought I was done with all that, didn’t you? You trusting creature. I’m probably done now, though. The PM ordered them to be restored and a masterful job was done of crafting and attaching the missing limbs. Art critics didn’t appreciate it as much as the laity probably would. Critics contend that remodeling monuments is more akin to vandalism than restoration, because we don’t know how the figures looked originally. After much criticism, Mars and Venus were returned to the state in which they were found. I don’t have information on whether the same artists did the removal or what they thought about what became of all their hard work.
Is there a more fun word than “decapitation”? There’s a lot of them if you are of fan of the sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus that stands outside a church in Sudbury, Canada. Someone thought it would be a keen idea to hack off the baby’s head and abscond with it. A few months later, a local artist volunteered to make a new head, but the result of her work provoked discontent among the locals. It looked more like a reasonably talented middle school art student’s rendition of a goblin from Labyrinth, than a beatific child. It was also the conspicuous orange-red of terra cotta on a pale gray statue and it began to erode in the rain almost immediately, with the run-off further besmirching the statue. Like the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the baby Jesus eventually got his head back. After about a year, the culprit got embarrassed and returned it. The church declined to press charges; they were simply happy to have it back. A benefactor paid to have the original head to be restored to its little shoulders.
Modern art can be especially susceptible to accidental destruction by well-meaning parties. Here’s a super-cut of some unfortunate greatest hits. A German art gallery janitor cleaned up what he thought was a dirty bathtub; it was actually an installation by artist Joseph Beuys. An exhibit by Damien Hirst at London’s Eyestorm Gallery consisted of a one-assumes-carefully arranged pile of beer bottles, ashtrays, and coffee cups on the floor; the custodians swept them up and threw them away. Over at Tate Britain an employe found a plastic bag of trash sitting next to an artwork and chucked it in the bin; the bag was part of an exhibition by Gustav Metzger. Porters at the famous Sotheby’s auction house tossed a box in their cardboard crusher, apparently unaware that the box contained a painting by Lucian Freud worth about $160,000. Leaving galleries for a moment, an employee of on-air character Glenn Beck vigorously scrubbed a dingy fish bowl they found in his office. It had actually been painted and signed by Orson Welles in 1940 and had arrived from an auction mere hours earlier.
A lot of artwork is damage by accident, such as the billionaire who elbowed the $139 million painting he had purchased the day before while showing it to reporters, or the 12 year old boy in Taiwan who tripped and, in trying to brace his fall, put this hand through a $1.5 million Italian painting. You may be thinking, “Ugh, these kids today, never looking up from their phones, with their Face-tweets and Pokemon Go.” Nope, he just lost his balance when the edge of his sneaker hit the dais below the painting. To his credit, he didn’t try to scuttle away, as a lot of us would have at age 12. Such understandable faux pas were not on display in at the National Gallery of Ireland in 2012. Whereas many of us feel the urge to discuss artworks or try to take a picture of them, one man framed his critique of Monet’s “Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat” by punching straight through the 143 year old canvas, valued at $12 million. When asked why he did it during his arrest, he replied “to get back at the state”. …K. The man was sentenced to 5 years in jail and banned from visiting museums after he gets out. It would take two years of careful restoration to properly repair the hole.
In case you didn’t hear on our strategic reserves episode, Like Butter in the Bank, today’s topic comes from super-fan Michael K. The YBOF ideas file is already a bloated 13 single-lined pages of bullet points, plus copious scraps of paper on my desk, so how did Michael’s idea elbow its way to the starting line? He left us a review. (He also did some of the preliminary research and that definitely didn’t suck.) His review was on our Facebook page (url), which is still greatly appreciated, but it’s actually strategically advantageous for us if you can leave it on iTunes-slash-Apple Podcast. The more positive review people leave, the more likely this podcast is to be put in front of people who are searching for something new to listen to. No matter where you leave it, it’s going to be read on the show, like having your name read on Romper Room on your birthday. Please tell me someone else remembers that. This week’s feature review comes from Council of Geek(s?), who not only have a podcast of their own — a great project called Punch Like a Girl, about strong female characters in comics — but they also have a YouTube channel. They were kind enough to leave us five stars and the review: “This show has become a way for me to unwind pleasantly after a rough day. The titular facts are delivered […] in a wonderfully pleasing tone. They come quickly but also flow smoothly as she transitions from one fact to another around the theme of the week. You won’t be disappointed.” So if you’ve got an idea for an episode you’d like to hear and you don’t want to risk waiting 17 years to hear it, leave your honest thoughts on your platform of choice, then drop us a message on the FB page or an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Without art, you can’t spell artifact. These remnants of history are usually far older and proportionately more precious. I’ve got our entries sorted into a few categories, but it won’t include artifacts destroyed by the agents of oppression or terrorism, like Nazis, the Belgian colonization of the Congo, the British colonization of India, ISL… wow, I’m already getting bummed out talking about how I’m not going to talk about it. Let’s go back to people who sort of meant well, with the Elgin marbles. Originally part of the Parthenon and other ruins in Greece, they were removed and shipped to the British Museum in the early 1800s. Initially, the marbles, which are not little round spheres, but in some cases huge bas reliefs, would be cleaned with water-only to wash away the soot that would accumulate, but later the curators decided the public should see the marbles in glorious white. Museum staff scrubbed the Elgin marbles with nitric acid, which dissolved the outer layer of the marble, in order to restore them to what was believed to be their pristine state. Imagine if your teeth were discolored and you scoured the protective enamel off — not a good scene. Some years after that, they were also washed with ammonia and later unskilled workmen scrubbed the marble with wire brushes. This removed many distinctive features from the marbles and, the museum has admitted, may have ruined them.
Methamphetamines carry lots of dangerous side effects, like rotting teeth, a feeling of bugs on the skin that causes users to pick holes in themselves, the prioritizing of your next fix over the value of a 3,500 year old tree. You know, that old chestnut. Though it wasn’t a chestnut, it was a 125ft/38m tall bald cypress in Florida called “The Senator.” It was the 5th oldest tree in the world, until a meth addict, fully high and hiding in a hole inside the tree’s trunk, as you do, lost control of her lighter and set The Senator ablaze. Being in the middle of the park and nowhere near a hydrant or main, the fire brigade had to use 820ft/250m of hoses just to reach it. When the literal smoke cleared, only 20ft/6m meters of the tree remained. The accidental arboreal arsonist was found and arrested some days later, after they, naturally, bragged to their friends about it. Bonus fact that would be a more enjoyable irony if it weren’t such a shame: A pine tree planted a Los Angeles park in 2004 in memory of former Beatle George Harrison was killed, by an infestation by beetles. All you need is love, and bug spray.
The American flag that still waved over Ft. McHenry in the war of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem was a real thing and not a metaphor. Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead acquired the original flag, and then passed it down to his daughter, Georgiana. When people started to ask Georgiana for pieces of the flag, she began to snip off hundreds of swatches, including one of the stars. Eventually, 20% of the flag had fluttered away. Perhaps she thought she was helping people to share history, I don’t know. Her son donated the flag to the Smithsonian, where the the only scissors that come near it will be in the hands of restorers. Bonus fact for those who like to bend their elbow, to wet their beak: the melody for the Star-spangled Banner is an old English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” with several verses. People judge how drunk they are by how many verses they can make it through correctly. For a quick laugh, look on YouTube for the Farmer Michael video where a passionate Irishman explains that there an no alcoholics in Ireland.
Even artifacts deep in mountainsides or below ground aren’t safe from nudniks and nogoodniks. Two boys in Norway used a sharp object to outline a 5,000-year-old cave carvings on the island of Tro, thought to be among the earliest depictions of skiing anywhere in the world. They claimed they were trying to “fix” it by making it more visible, but instead permanently defaced the carvings. Norwegian officials described the episode to the media as a national tragedy. A similarly old cave painting in southern Spain was irrevocably damaged by would-be thieves who tried to steal the Unesco World Heritage-listed artifact by chipping it off the cave wall where it had rested undisturbed for millenia.
Above ground in Spain, an even older artifact was dismantled and rearranged. A parks department work crew stumbled across a pile of seemingly abandoned slabs of rock. Those rocks were actually the markers of a Neolithic tomb, built by the ancient Celts that had somehow survived eons of erosion. The builders assumed the tomb was just a broken picnic table and decided to throw away the old rocks, fill the ground with concrete and stick a new bench on top. To be fair, there was no signage on this historically important site; even the town’s mayor didn’t know what it was until archeologists started complaining.
Some things were destroyed by unthinking or unfeeling people, you know, morons. Some relics were destroyed for the sake of money, even entire pyramids. The 2,300 year old Mayan pyramid called Noh Mul, situated on the Caribbean island of Belize was an impressive 55ft/17m tall and 164ft/50m wide. In 2013 Noh Mul was bulldozed by the De-Mar Stone Company to harvest the limestone for a new road they were building. Locals were understandably outraged. Belizean law protects all ancient site and the pyramid was even on private property. After a legal challenge, the De-Mar Stone Company was eventually assessed a fine of… $5,000.
The Atacama Desert in Chile, also talked about in our Mother’s Day episode, is home to more than 5,000 geoglyphs, huge prehistoric works of art carved into the ground of nearby hills, the kind of thing that so enormous that some people think only aliens could have put them there. Built between 600 and 1500 CE, these impressive creations are also extremely delicate and require careful protection. They sound like an ideal spot for four-wheelers and dirt bikes, no? The Dakar Rally is an extreme off-road race that relocated when its original home in Senegal came under threats of terror. Since 2009, thousands of motorbikes and cars spin tires over antique artworks. Studies performed after the 2012 race found that as many as 207 sites of historical significance were damaged. It took until for the Chilean government to bar the tournament.
Speaking of geoglyphs, in 2014, 20 members of Greenpeace made headlines after trampling all over the Nazca Lines. Nazca Lines are a series of Peruvian geoglyphs, some upwards of 1200ft/370m long and dating to 500 BCE, depicting among other things a monkey, a spider and strange beasts and beings. The most famous of the glyphs is the hummingbird, which is presumably why Greenpeace chose it. Before the UN climate summit in Peru, Greenpeace snuck onto Nazca Lines and plastered a giant message on the ground. Their hope was to draw attention to the need for renewable energy, but what they managed to do was irreparable damage to a World Heritage site with their stomping footprints and the residue from the letter stickers. Experts believe Greenpeace’s damage will be visible for centuries to come.
In 2007, construction workers in Nanjing China were bulldozing and backhoe-ing away when they stumbled across 10 of tombs, early 2,000 years old, under their buildings site, complete with skeletons. Experts believe it to be the final resting places of a wealthy family from around 220 CE. Unfortunately, bulldozers are anything but delicate and discriminating. By the time they stopped, every tomb had either had its top shorn off or had collapsed completely. Archaeologists asked the builders to stop construction until the crushed tombs could be properly excavated, but the builders plowed on regardless. So what building was so important that was worth plowing over hundreds of years of history? An IKEA.
The quiet Somerset village of Dunster used to be able to law claim to one of the world’s oldest and best preserved cobblestone paths, virtually unharmed since their creation in around 1200 BCE. But residents complained of twisted ankles from on the uneven ground, so the council tore up the prehistoric path in favor of bog-standard pavement. The locals then immediately started whining about the replacement path. Dunster Council then spent another £90,000/$120,000 tearing up the second path and lying a new one.
Some things were destroyed by people who think they’re more important than, ya know, the history of the planet and its people. Ever since the mobile self-portrait was born, there have been people trying to make their mark online. Two tourists visiting Cremona, Italy in 2015 decided they’d be internet famous if they climbed up on an 18th century statue of Hercules. They got their wish in a way, when they made the news for knocking the statue’s crown clean off to shatter on the ground below. The police investigated the matter, although it is not known what action was taken afterwards. Nor are they the only ones to desecrate ancient monuments for a selfie. A Russian tourist was fined $25,000 for scratching a giant ‘K’ into the wall of Colosseum for his selfie opp, as did a pair of American tourists carve their initials. At The 14th Factory gallery in Los Angeles, a woman taking a picture knocked one piece of art on a pedestal, which, like something out of a sitcom, prompted an entire row to topple like dominoes. The damages rang up to $200,000 and three sculptures were “permanently damaged.” A Brazilian tourist at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal, walked backwards into a priceless 18th century sculpture of Saint Michael and send it crashing to the floor, which was the second time in a year that a priceless sculpture in Lisbon was destroyed by a someone taking a selfie. In 2014, a student tried to take a selfie sitting on the leg of a copy of the famous Drunken Satyr statue in Milan, but statues aren’t designed to bear extra weight, even of people with empty heads, and one of the legs snapped off mid-thigh.
Knock it off with the selfies already. Your Instagram followers won’t remember that you were in the same room with a piece of art one time for two minutes. Also, if you film your child mucking about with a priceless antique or someone else’s artistic creation rather than stopping them, you may be a garbage person. Consult your physician for more information.
A good rule of thumb is: unless you’re in a children’s or science museum or the exhibit has a sign encouraging interactivity, maybe don’t go around touchings things. Video footage from the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA captured a man admiring a sculptural wall clock on display, by touching and pulling on it repeatedly. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what would happen next. The wooden clock, made by the artist James Borden, fell off the wall and collapsed into pieces. The unidentified visitor was decent enough to alert museum staff and confess.
A 90-year-old woman visiting the Neues Museum in Germany, used a pen to fill in the spaces in a $90,000 artwork. To give her the benefit of the doubt, the art in question depicted part of a crossword puzzle and had the phrase “insert words” on the sign. According to the lawyer she retained after the museum reported the incident to police, she legitimately thought patrons were invited to add to the piece.
Steve Keller, a four-decade veteran of museum security and consulting, working at the Art Institute of Chicago, recalled a visitor who wanted to take a photo with a particular sculpture in the foreground and a nearby painting in the background. When the man couldn’t frame the photo to his liking, he wrapped his arms around the man-sized abstract sculpture and turned it on its pedestal to get the best angle. On another occasion, a teenage boy lifted a girl so that she could put a lipstick kiss on a portrait. Keller chalked that up to “kids being stupid,” rather than an act of willful destruction. “You can’t protect every object on display and guarantee it will not be damaged,” he added. “That is the nature of display.”
The grounds of Prittlewell Priory, a museum and park in Southend-on-Sea in Britain features gardens, buildings, and exhibits depicting what life was like there centuries ago, including an 800-year-old sandstone coffin that was damaged after a family put their child into it for a photo and broke off a piece. The family left without reporting the damage, which was unfortunately not caught on the museums closed-circuit TV.
And that’s where we run out of idea, at least for today, though I’ll leave you with one case of not-exactly-restoration that I think we can all enjoy. There is a gargoyle on the 13th century Paisley abbey in Britain in the shape of a xenomorph from the Alien movies. Reverend Alan Birss said most of the gargoyles were replaced during a refurbishment of the crumbling grotesques in 1991, and he thinks that one of the stonemasons must have been having a bit of fun. Were church officials mad about a sci-fi character being added to a historic church? Not terribly, since it’s brought the abbey attention and tourism. Church officer Matthew McIntosh said: “People will be surprised and delighted by everything they see outside and inside.”
Music by Kevin MacLeod and sound effects from freesound.org.