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A World of Fragile Parts

As the Architecture Biennale at Venice draws to an end, the final events verse on the fleeting nature of exhibitions and, generally, all things that are created.

A World of Fragile Parts is part a book and part of the homonymous exhibition curated by Brendan Cormier at the monumental Arsenale in this city. The theme is reproduction, a topic we addressed this week, as means for preservation.

This is especially relevant in Venice, that most fragile of cities, and it is part of an agreement between the Biennale and the Victoria & Albert Museum of London. Yet there is so much one can do to preserve.

As Biennale President Paolo Baratta with a bit of gallows humor in his opening remarks at the book’s presentation, cooperation between both entities is most welcome but unlikely to survive a final flooding of Venice should ocean levels rise by fifteen feet. “We are not going to refloat the entire city just to honor the agreement,” he said.

In introducing Cormier’s work, Bill Sherman, a Renaissance art expert at the Victoria & Albert, observed that plaster, the original copying technique of the 19th century, was used as a teaching instrument. Only over time reproduction came to be seen not only as an educational aid but as a goal in itself, to preserve the legacy of what previous generations have bequeathed us.

Upon entering the Sala d’Armi where the exhibition is displayed, it is eerie to see an old  document, a little quaintly titled: “Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of Museums of all Countries.” The date is missing but by looking at the signatories you can guess it was an era or two ago:

  • Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, for Great Britain and Ireland
  • Frederick-William, Crown Prince of Prussia, for Prussia
  • Louis, Prince of Hesse, for Hesse
  • Albert, Prince royal of Saxony, for Saxony
  • Prince Napoléon (Jérôme), for France
  • Philippe, Comte de Flandre, for Belgium
  • The Césarevitch, for Russia (the signature is missing)
  • Nicolas, duc de Leuchtenberg
  • Oscar, Prince of Sweden and Norway, for Sweden and Norway
  • Humbert, Prince royal of Italy
  • Amadeus, Duke of Aosta
  • Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark

That one commitment from royal houses and principalities that for the most part have ceased to exist survived the world wars that swept them away a little later after this paper was signed, in 1867 as a search indicates.

Paper and words, seemingly among the most fragile parts of a frail world, are the most powerful vaults for preservation. As it turns out, Sherman said during the presentation, Renaissance thinkers saw in books and the printed word the quintessential key to hand down to the future what our ancestors unmade and made.


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