On Restoring... or Not
Late last year I received, with no great delight but without any deep despondency, a small, plastic, credit card-sized authorisation of the fact that whatever I might think to the contrary I am no longer aged fifteen. The blue letters across the top of the card, spelling out my newly acquired status "SENIOR CITIZEN", brought me face-to-face with this reality. Admittedly my suspicions had been roused when observing over the years a vaguely familiar countenance in the mirror that I had been hoping might be an uncle. Aging is, if not desirable, at least as the saying goes, preferable to the alternative. And having known some elderly seven-year-olds and some youthful nonagenarians, I am convinced it is more a state of mind than body.
Old buildings might not have a state of mind, but rather like people they age best when they have a purpose. What that purpose might be hardly matters. Places of worship can remain functional for thousands of years. Houses and marketplaces often survive and continue to be used over hundreds of years. Even a building abandoned or in ruins can fulfil a function, that function often being to present to an interested public evidence of how things used to be. And as such they can have an additional, practical worth as a source or revenue for their owners. And these can include not only great monuments of ancient or medieval date, but sometimes rather dismal and not quite so old places like the abandoned apartment buildings of Hashima Island in Japan, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, or Pripyat, the abandoned nuclear city near Chernobyl, a site that attracts tourists who are perhaps not too greatly concerned with their own future state of health.
Restoration can convert a ruined site that would have little appeal and provide little remuneration into a major attraction. Extensive restoration has been carried out in several European towns and fortresses. Entire bombed out medieval city centres have been restored, at least externally. I recall, when travelling in Poland several years ago having mixed feelings but mainly disappointment when being informed that many of the beautiful medieval facades I had encountered had been completely reconstructed after World War Two. They were nothing more than facades built onto modern characterless structures, which made them in reality no better than a Hollywood movie set... a mirage of the past, and worse perhaps because they pretend to be more. But I admit that I also felt that it was a pity to see modern buildings in places where no effort had been made to restore the past. It was a conflict of mind, and it is disingenuous to condemn restoration and at the same time want more of it. I suppose it all comes down to degrees - how much you recreate and how authentic your recreation is, how soundly it is based on evidence. Worse than restoring a building to a partial state of what it had once been, is extensive restoration that does not sufficiently attempt to preserve authenticity. Such over-restoration is usually the consequence of tourist dollars being the chief motivation. The result is worse than the type of intentional invention or make-believe encountered in amusement parks. It is deceit, and no better than the doomed efforts some people make with Botox or toupees to preserve what is irredeemably lost.
It is, after all, sometimes best to allow nature to take its course. I recall reading and observing in photographs the pretty face of a two-year-old child named Rosalia Lombardo who died in Sicily in 1920 and whose body was preserved and placed in a box in the catacombs of a Capuchin monastery in Palermo. There are few things that I have found more disturbing than observing how she appears to be in innocent slumber, while knowing that beneath the softly closed eyes, the plump cheeks and sweet lips, and below the brown cloth that covers her tiny body, there is only lifelessness and an impeded decay that chemicals have been holding back for nearly a century.