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How to cut a statue down to size

3 January 2023

From the January 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

The frieze adorning the municipal offices on Piazza del Tribunale in Bolzano in northern Italy, lays claim to being Europe’s largest surviving fascist artwork. The 198-square-metre bas-relief depicts, in cod-Roman style, the highlights of Mussolini’s pre-war political career. At its centre is an image of the dictator himself, mounted on horseback, above the Fascist Party slogan credere, obbedire, combattere – believe, obey, fight.

The work survived Italy’s partial post-war purge of fascist imagery (in fact, it was only fully finished in the 1950s) and even today, amid heated debate, Bolzano’s current administration has chosen to preserve it. Yet rather than allowing its objectionable political content to go unchallenged, Bolzano has now overlaid its frieze with a new artwork, a set of illuminated letters that spell out a gnomic phrase from Hannah Arendt: ‘No one has the right to obey.’ In this context, it undercuts the pomposity of the original message.

For the writer and heritage consultant Robert Bevan, this stands as an exemplary approach to a controversial monument. The subversive addition does not obscure the history of the original – instead, it highlights it, transforming the meaning of the artwork in the process. As Bevan puts it, a monument glorifying a dictator has become what Germans call a Mahnmal, a reminder of events never to be repeated.

Bevan believes this kind of imaginative, yet honest approach to public space is urgently needed today. ‘When our cities are reshaped as fantasies about the past, when monuments and statues tell lies about who or what events deserve immortalisation, the historical record is being manipulated,’ he writes in his new book, Monumental Lies.

As he sees it, the built environment is under attack from two directions. A ‘resurgent and reactionary architectural traditionalism’ has emerged at the same time as new technology enables architects and designers to make digital copies of lost or destroyed structures. In Britain and the United States, there is a conservative backlash against demands to remove or recontextualise monuments to slavers, colonialists and other historical villains. In Germany, a craze for ersatz reconstruction of pre-20th-century city landmarks (the Humboldt Forum in Berlin being the most prominent – and grotesque – example; see January 2022 issue of Apollo) has nationalist undertones. Even in the sensitive field of protecting heritage in wartime, conservationists have been lured by the promise of superficial reconstruction – after ISIS destroyed much of Palmyra in the last decade, UNESCO announced plans to rebuild before it had even been able to survey the damage.

Instead, Bevan argues, we need to revive the spirit of authenticity in the built environment and ‘forge a clearer understanding of the past while safeguarding evidence of the reality of historical wrongdoing’. Our monuments, after all, are part of the historical record – and ‘if we fake or destroy that record, how can we ever learn from it or guard it against those who would use an absence of facts against us?’ The authenticity he favours is not politically neutral. Rather, Bevan wants to recover the original spirit that animated William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and institutions such as the National Trust – ‘a socialist resistance to capitalist spoilation and not Little Englandism and country house tours’.

The argument in Monumental Lies is aimed primarily at the cultural left. Bevan is sympathetic to calls to rethink our public architecture so that it more fully acknowledges past injustice, or becomes more representative of the society that surrounds it – London, he points out, has more statues of animals than of named women. But he also cautions against placing too much importance on symbols as agents of social change, questioning ‘the degree to which changing the built environment genuinely alters our lives and values’.

This may seem at odds with his insistence that we take heritage seriously, but Bevan would rather we saw the less salutary of public architecture as ‘a crucial witness to dark events’. Removing a monument may sometimes be justified, but Bevan believes it’s more important we remain alert to ways in which ‘critical layering’ can keep us in dialogue with history. In Bolzano, for instance, Italy’s fascist heritage is not denied – but neither is the fact that people opposed fascism.

Although Bevan insists at the outset that Monumental Lies won’t simply be a retelling of famous recent controversies, much of the book does in fact tread that somewhat familiar territory. What’s more, his insistence on ‘evidence’ as the guiding principle for good approaches to heritage, in contrast to ‘the more unreliable and problematic idea of memory’, is something of a false opposition. The revision of Bolzano’s fascist monument works precisely because it plays with memory – rather than simply dismissing an emotionally-driven story (the myth of Mussolini), it introduces a rival one, about resistance.

Grinling Gibbons’s statue of James II in Trafalgar Square as it appeared in Rachel Reid’s Royal Slavery installation of 2020. Photo: David Gill

But Bevan makes a knowledgeable and thought-provoking intervention into what has become an overheated yet also frequently boring debate. The most interesting parts of the book are where he talks about alternative approaches to memorialisation. Aside from Bolzano, there are unofficial interventions, like those of the artist Rachel Reid, who placed branding irons in the hands of the central London statues of Charles II and James II to draw attention to royal involvement in the transatlantic slave trade (Fig. 1). Or there can be pointed expressions of collective disgust, like the statue of Paraguay’s former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, whose broken-up fragments were reassembled in a new monument to his victims.

Taking this flexible attitude to monumental architecture is an acknowledgement that since our societies change over time, our ways of remembering should reflect that. In ancient Greece, Bevan points out, battlefield trophies were built from timber rather than stone, so that they would decay over a generation to avoid enmity between Greeks, or hubris in victory. Repairing them was forbidden. Perhaps, he wonders, ‘we should be allowing our monuments to fall into ruin, let them fade from history in their own time’. Now, there’s an idea.

Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth about the Past by Robert Bevan is published by Verso.

From the January 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.