Depending on who you talk to, the world’s environmental future runs the gamut from doomed to irrelevant, but one thing’s for sure: it is seldom poised to inspire anything less than rapturous anger in its discussants. Scientists say we have about a decade to turn this ship around, but Republican-inflected corporate interests and run-of-the-mill hubris seem fully prepared to sink us whole. It’s hard to focus on the preservation of art when the preservation of life itself seems so precarious, but it’s in our creative reflections of self that we embed life, fiery, punishing, and circuitous as it is. Art is as vital as it is deeply, deeply dumb.
The intersectional tectonics of politics and privilege have everything to do with how our cultural imprints are treated, protected, and lost. In her landmark 2019 text, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Dr. Kathryn Yusoff makes a case against the assumed neutrality of a colonized geophysics, stating that “a material and temporal solidarity exists between the inscription of race in the Anthropocene and the current descriptions of subjects that are caught between the hardening of geopolitical borders and the material destratification of territory.” This speculation on the effects of “geotrauma” buoys post-humanist studies to its most radical conclusion—prejudice is a function of the anthropocene’s hubris, not some incidental symptom. Human cruelty finds its own sedimentary foundation, then; our tabular bifurcations bloom forth from thingness, from mineral existence. As we glance over the precipice of imminent disaster, our idiomatic assignation of female pronouns to the natural world seems all the more fitting, really; the aforementioned “geotrauma” of our earth parallels the brutalities that have been enacted upon women for centuries. Geology is humanity. Humanity is deeply flawed.
It’s little wonder, then, that when cultural legacies bow to nature’s vengeance, or sickness, or both, erasure typically lives downstream of accessibility. We rescue or reconstruct what we believe is important, often to racist, imperialist ends. Classics scholars regularly remark on translation’s inherent gatekeeping problem. Were the caustic, petty poems of Catullus the only remnants of Latin poetry left, or just the texts monks deemed worthy? What went unrecovered?
Here are five times nature has won against art, itemized.
I. Venice Underwater
In November, the Venice Biennale was temporarily canceled as rainstorms pushed water levels to the second-highest points on record. The Instagram stories of the art elite mirrored the flooding they documented, an endless stream of tourists wading through the wreckage of a city that had already become a symbol of itself. The mayor declared the disaster a direct result of climate change, a statement that flew in the face of many high-profile deniers in power all over the world. While none of the contemporary fare was inextricably damaged, over 50 churches, including St. Mark’s Basilica and Santa Maria Assunta, were. There’s been a world-wide outpouring from nonprofits and private foundations alike, but the reality of Venice underwater was sobering nonetheless.
II. Cimabue's Crucifix
In 1966, the beautiful crucifix of Santa Croce in Florence, which had been installed at the end of the 13th century, was damaged to the point of unrecognizability when the Arno river burst and flooded Florence. The Crucifix lost 60% of its paint, and it took a team of restorers led by Umberto Baldini to bring the masterwork back to the brink of legibility. Working in a pointillist, painstaking manner, the restorers eventually created a working semblance of the original, and the Crucifix was placed back on view in 1976.
III. Colossus of Rhodes
The bronze Colossus, erected on the Greek island of Rhodes by Chares of Lindos in 280 BC, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, standing at 108 feet high. It collapsed during the earthquake of 226 BC. After consulting their local oracle, the Rhodians did not build it again, although John Malalas implied, incorrectly, that Hadrian rebuilt it during his reign.
IV. Ribeira Palace
The stately Ribeira Palace in Lisbon, Portugal was home to the Kings of the country for around 250 years and housed one of the most beautiful and significant art collections in Europe at the time of its destruction in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In its wake, King Jose I suffered an understandable hit to the system and chose to live out his life in a pavilion compound in the hills of Ajuda; as a result, the Palace was never rebuilt.
V. The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince
The world did not respond quickly or thoughtfully to the 2010 earthquake that decimated Haiti, leading to death tolls in the 300,000s. The Holy Trinity Cathedral in its capital, founded by African-American abolitionist bishop James Theodore Holly in 1861, boasted a variety of brightly colored murals, painted by local artists on its walls between 1949 and 1951. Only three of the 14 powerful images were left intact, and Haitian conservators sprang into action within 24 hours of the initial disaster. This incredible gesture of resilience became a symbol of hope in the city. The Smithsonian-led Haiti Cultural Recovery Project arrived months later, rehabilitating roughly 25,000 artifacts over the course of 18 months and training 150 locals in the art of preservation and restoration in the process.