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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

What is the Definition of Preservation?

A few years ago I took the opportunity to go to Venice and study how mosaics were made in the traditional way. I was working in a studio next door to the 500 year old furnace that melted the hand pigmented glass into big pancake shaped slabs, and above the shops where women broke these slabs into imperfect but exquisite little “tesserae” of about 1 cm by 1 cm. This method of making glass was probably a thousand years old.

I learned how to break these tesserae into smaller shaped bits with a sharpened hammer, holding them over an equally sharp steel bit that had been wedged into a timber post that stood between my legs. Each of the shards of glass could then be used to fill another tiny spot on the elaborate drawing I had traced onto a sheet of modern plywood, slowly becoming the mosaic I had carefully planned. Once all the tiny glass pieces were glued into place, the entire piece was grouted with a thick black mortar, and then the glass carefully cleaned. My mosaic came out better than I thought, but the lessons I learned about authentic glass mosaic art, and traditional methods, were much more valuable.

As part of the course, we got to visit some of the mosaic restoration work being performed on the, one of the most famous landmarks in the world. The tour was given by an Italian Art History Professor, and she described the 1000 year old history of the church, and the amazing glass mosaics that covered most of the high walls and domed ceilings of the immense basilica that entombed the remains of St. Mark, one of the four authors of the chronicles of Jesus’ life. Like those gospels, the mosaics told of the life of Christ, as well as the adventures that brought St. Mark’s bones from Alexandria.

The mosaics are exquisite works of art, but that day I learned the secret of preservation. They were being painstakingly restored by artisans that could break glass as thin as eyelashes while we watched. The Professor then told us that almost none of the glass mosaics in the basilica were original! All of them had been replaced using the exact same methods as the original ones–several times–over the last six hundred years. Only once during this period had an artist conceived of doing something new and original, during the Renaissance, and it was limited to just one vaulted area. So what millions of people saw when they came to Venice’s most memorable landmark was really a replica, or more accurately replicas of replicas. Like the human body that keeps the same DNA but replaces every cell at least once every seven years, this holy place was just an authentic copy.

This blew my mind. After thinking about it for a while though, I began to understand that this was true of Venice itself. By now, probably almost every brick and stone in Venice had been repaired or replaced at least once since it was originally built. Most buildings, in fact, had evolved, becoming something different in purpose at least once every hundred years. And yet it was still uniquely Venice. It is very likely that Marco Polo could still have walked from his home to the Rialto without directions. So how could this be?

Because Venetians loved their city enough to keep remaking it as well and as it had been made, it remains authentic (like the mosaics at St. Mark’s). Each time some part of the whole was altered, it was thoroughly studied, and understood in its historic context. As much authentic building fabric as possible was salvaged, protected, and re-installed in the traditional way. Where it was not possible to salvage, the new bits were fashioned to be authentic replications of the old bits. The traditional methods were also preserved, so that future generations could remember how to keep this chain of authenticity unbroken. And wherever some new purpose was inserted into the old or original building, the old purpose was honored and re-interpreted so that the present generation could understand what it was before.

In Savannah we do not have as long of a history as Venice, but our history is even more important to Americans, because we think everything is disposable. In our architectural practice, we often encounter clients that say that they want to “preserve” our historic buildings, but what they mean is just that they don’t want to completely destroy them, or want to “recycle” old stuff into new stuff. This isn’t preservation. Just keeping the historic fabric that is convenient, and taking the rest to another building, or just throwing it away, is better than completely destroying it, but only a little better. Because new building functions will provide income, and the old building’s historic significance won’t, the old stuff usually gets lost, even though the shiny new thing will probably get remodeled in five years. And the old historic significance will be lost forever.There is another way of course. The new purpose could have been designed to embrace the history, and retell the story for many generations to come. That is what we try to do with our work whenever possible. Like the beautiful mosaics that last for hundreds of years, we try to find out how they were made, and how we can remake them in ways that will be authentic, even though they are not the original.

Patrick Shay, LEED AP, AIA President, Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects


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