News 09 Jan 13

Albanian Minister Blamed for Precious Fresco's Destruction

An MP has said that the Culture Minister, Aldo Bumci, should resign after failing to protect the frescos of a 16th-century Albanian master that looters recently destroyed.

Besar Likmeta
BIRN
Tirana
The destroyed frescos in the church of Shen Premte | Photo courtesy of Auron Tare

The fresco, work of the celebrated master Onufri, 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 of the 16th-century chapel to remove the aureoles of the saints, but managed only to destroy them.

“Onufri is for Albania what Michelangelo is for Italy; just imagine if someone attacked the Sistine Chapel with a scalpel - what would happen?” Socialist MP Auron Tare asked.

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.

MP Tare, who is also a heritage activist, says the authorities are failing to protect the country’s patrimony and accuses them of trying to sweep the incident under the rug.  

“After the first attempted looting, the authorities, including the Ministry of Culture were notified but did nothing to protect the church,” he complained.

“The Ministry of Culture was well aware of this theft, but kept quiet so no one would speak about it,” he added.

In a statement on Wednesday the Ministry of Culture said that despite its efforts it could not ensure protection of heritage sites like the church in Valsh.

“Considering the large number of religious heritage monuments, it’s impossible to protect them 24-hours a day,” the ministry said. “It would require a large number of people and a special administrative structure,” it added.

Tare disagrees, arguing that after the ministry in 2007 dissolved the former system of custodians, which oversaw churches like the one in Valsh, things have got worse.

The custodians, who were paid some €30 per month, provided a level of protection, he claims, and cost the state only €40,000 every year.  

“Even with the custodians in place there were thefts, but they provided a sort of buffer,” he said.

“Albanian churches are being totally destroyed, because after the icons and the iconostases were stolen, now they are coming back for the frescos,” Tare concluded.  

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