Conservation as memorial — Mantegna’s St. James Led to his Execution

Conservation as memorial in the aftermath of U.S. bombing.

Mantegna, St. James Led to his Execution and the Ovetari Chapel cycle frescoes, 1448–57, Church of the Eremitani (Padua, Italy) reconstructed with photographs, original fragments, and inpainting after American bombs hit the church on March 11, 1944, an ARCHES video. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in the Ovetari Chapel

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the city of Padua, in the Church of the Augustinian Hermits, looking at a major fresco cycle by the great Renaissance painter, Andrea Mantegna — or perhaps I should say, what’s left of it.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] This chapel was destroyed during World War II.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] An enormous number of bombs were unleashed from Flying Fortresses. There had been real concern among church officials that the church might be hit.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] There was no intention to destroy much of this church.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] But nevertheless, reportedly four bombs hit this part of the church.

Dr. Harris: [0:37] That’s because right nearby were the headquarters of the reconstituted fascist government, so the Allies were pushing up from the south. The fascists were located in Padua in the north, and the Allies were bombing various cities in Italy. Now, more care was taken in cities like Rome and Florence, but Padua wasn’t well-known as a city filled with cultural treasures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] The loss really was tragic; even with the tiny fragments that have survived, it’s clear what a masterpiece this had originally been.

[1:11] Primarily, what we’re seeing are black-and-white photographs that were taken before the war that have been blown up. Overlaying that are actual fragments of the fresco.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] We’re also looking at attempts by the conservators to provide in-painting, paint in between the surviving fragments, in order to give us a better sense of what this fresco originally looked like.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] Now, we can differentiate the in-painting because of the vertical lines that have been added. Most of the color that we’re seeing is in-painting. That is, it’s modern restoration.

[1:42] The cycle tells the stories of two martyred saints, St. James and St. Christopher. Let’s focus on St. James being led to his execution.

Dr. Harris: [1:51] The composition is divided in two. On the left, we see St. James. We can recognize him because he wears a halo, and he has his right hand up in a gesture of blessing toward a man who’s kneeling.

[2:03] St. James has walked through this triumphal arch on his way to his execution and has healed a crippled man. But instead of showing us that scene, Mantegna shows us the moment when a scribe named Josiah witnesses that miracle, and drops to his knees and is blessed by St. James.

[2:21] It’s this moment of recognizing the divine, this moment of conversion.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] Our vantage point seems to be at the level of the feet of the figures as we look up.

Dr. Harris: [2:31] Mantegna made the horizon line of the linear perspective essentially at the top of our heads, so we’re looking up at these figures, and that architecture seems even more massive and heavy as a result.

[2:43] Now, a Roman triumphal arch celebrated Roman military victories, and so this Christian martyr has performed a miracle right before this symbol of Roman military power.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] He’s also making a point, [that] even with all of Rome’s military power, its architectural and engineering prowess, Christianity quietly is triumphant.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] We see a distinctly different scene on the right; a Roman soldier is pushing up against another figure who carries a banner and who is in turn assaulting the Roman soldier, and so we have this scene of violence. It’s so clearly intended to contrast with the saint blessing Josiah on the left.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] Even before this bombing, the United States had taken steps to preserve the cultural heritage of Italy, and committees were set up filled with art historians, archivists, librarians — experts to identify major sites that should be safeguarded whenever possible.

Dr. Harris: [3:42] We know one of these organizations as the Monuments Men.

Dr. Zucker: [3:45] After the bombing, there was a renewed effort to avoid destroying historic treasures. This event galvanized the Allied forces and essentially gave more credence, more power, to the committees that were working to safeguard cultural treasures.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Famously, the art historian Frederick Hartt had studied Mantegna and learned of the bombing and cried, but perhaps it’s best to read Frederick Hartt’s words: “The Eremitani Church has been very badly hit and the Ovetari Chapel with all the Mantegnas utterly wiped out. As a matter of fact, you can hardly tell there was a building there. The last of the stick of bombs missed the Arena Chapel by a mere hundred yards.”

[4:24] That reminds us that we are very close to a late Gothic masterpiece by Giotto, the Arena Chapel, and apparently the ground shook underneath that chapel when the Ovetari was hit.

Dr. Zucker: [4:37] Thankfully, the frescoes inside were undamaged.

Dr. Harris: [4:41] But that day we could have lost both Mantegna’s 15th century fresco cycle and Giotto’s early 14th century fresco cycle, faced with a pile of rubble, of fragments, of an incredibly important masterpiece by a great Renaissance master.

[4:59] What was the superintendent of monuments here in Padua to do? He collected those fragments, he stored them, they were photographed, they were cataloged, they were measured. There were several attempts to take these tiny two- or three-centimeter fragments and reconstruct the fresco.

[5:17] The Mantegna Project at the University of Padua worked for many years on the fragments of the frescoes. The reconstruction was based on an unprecedented use of computer technology. I have nothing but enormous respect for all the people who worked for over a decade to take those tiny pieces and restore whatever could be restored.

[5:40] Simultaneously though, the fragmented state of what we’re looking at makes it hard to experience the fresco. We’re distracted by the restoration.

Dr. Zucker: [5:51] My view is that it was the right choice to attempt a reconstruction. It’s a testament to the violence of the 20th century, and it becomes a kind of memorial.

Dr. Harris: [6:01] The fragmentary state of the fresco reminds us that this was destroyed, and in a way that text can’t do. Looking at a black-and-white reproduction in a book and reading a caption that says, “Destroyed during World War II” is not as powerful as being here in this beautiful church, with earlier frescoes all around it and seeing the damage that we’ve done.

Dr. Zucker: [6:27] This painting had survived for 500 years. We’ve destroyed it in the modern world.

Dr. Harris: [6:33] Since the war, there have been various measures put in place, for example the Hague Conventions, to protect cultural heritage during times of war, but clearly we know when we read the headlines that works of art remain endangered around the world due to war.

[6:49] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Conservation as memorial — Mantegna’s St. James Led to his Execution," in Smarthistory, July 17, 2020, accessed May 23, 2024,