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18 Feb 13

Albania Struggles to Protect its Vandalized Heritage

While authorities promise action following the shocking destruction of an ancient fresco by blundering thieves, activists and experts remain skeptical of their pledges.   

Ben Andoni
BIRN Tirana
The shepherd scene in the Onufri fresco of the church of Shen Premte in the village of Valsh.

Following public uproar after the destruction of paintings by Albanian medieval master Onufri, the Albanian Institute of Monuments has unveiled a plan to install 88 new security cameras in dozens of churches to protect them from looters.

The head of the Institute, Apollon Bace, says the Ministry of Culture might also consider recomposing the old system of guardians who used to patrol and protect heritage sites in remote areas, if more funds were allocated.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Culture, Aldo Bumci, has declared that his institution is reviewing a number of options to buff up security at heritage sites following the disaster with the Onufri fresco.

“After the latest incident, we are discussing a number of possibilities, like adding security guards and cameras and other security systems,” Bumci said.

“However, the financial cost of these systems is large and money has to be allocated for a long list of monuments,” he added.    

The destruction of the fresco is unfortunately not a singular incident in Albania.

Archeologists and activists alike say Albanian heritage sites are regularly targeted by looters, who in the past two decades have wrought terrific damage to the country’s historical patrimony.

They remain doubtful that a problem that has been going for so long can be resolved with few more security cameras.

Without creating new, well-funded administrative structures, they maintain, the tragic loss of the fresco is doomed to be repeated.   

Theft of antiques became rampant in Albania in the 1990s, as the country struggled through a period of anarchy and lawlessness following the collapse of the authoritarian Communist regime.

Onufri’s fresco was wrecked after thieves armed with axes and knives twice scalped through the painting in the church in the remote village of Valsh in late December and early January.

The looters tried to cut through the plaster in the 16th-century chapel, to remove the aureoles of the saints, but managed only to destroy them.

Widely considered Albania’s greatest icon painter, Onufri is renowned for his colours and style, which introduced greater realism and individuality into facial expressions, breaking with the strict conventions of Byzantine art.

“Onufri is for Albania what Michelangelo is for Italy; just imagine if someone attacked the Sistine Chapel with a scalpel - what would happen?” Auron Tare, an activist with the Forum for Protection of Cultural Heritage, asked.

The Forum panned the Ministry of Culture after the destruction of the fresco, accusing it of trying to sweep the incident under the rug.

The Ministry responded that despite its best efforts it could not protect all of Albania’s monuments, particularly those located in remote areas like the village of Valsh.

Mustafa Arapi, one of Albania’s most renowned restorers, says that because such sad incidents have happened so often in Albania, he almost has given up hope that the country is capable of protecting its heritage sites.

“The government has always underestimated cultural heritage in Albania and the ministry is now seen as more of an instrument to promote tourism,” he complained.   

Lorenc Bejko, professor of Archeology at the University of Tirana and former head of the Institute of Monuments, says the proposed security cameras project is a step in the right direction.

However, a combination of solutions is necessary to protect monuments from looters, he added.

“The cameras could help protect them, but any decision to install them should be taken only after a detailed study of each monument or group of monuments,” Bejko said.  

According to Bejko, the way a monument is protected should depend on a series of geographical, regional and social factors.

“In one place you might have the local community responsible for protecting a monument, and in others the church or a non-governmental organization could protect it,” he suggested.

Bejko says that since the collapse of Communism, the social and political changes that have occurred have forced the Ministry of Culture and its agencies to take a more proactive stance in protecting monuments and heritage sites.

“We should strengthen educational and promotional activities over cultural heritage and punish those responsible for damaging our treasures without exceptions,” he said.

“What’s needed is cooperation between local and central actors in the country; coordination and control of local circumstances that are ever-changing,” Bejko added.

Arapi, the restorer of many of Albania’s religious icons agrees, warning that in today’s complicated world of Balkan politics, heritage sites risk being damaged not only by looters but also by extremists.

“We need new structures that protect monuments and investigate crimes against them, possibly special police units,” he said.

“Although [extreme] groups don’t yet target our patrimony, with the rise of extreme right-wing groups on all sides, that could well happen one day,” he concluded. 

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