After its stay at Trafalgar Square in April 2016, and six months later at the City Hall Park in New York, a clone of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, was installed Monday in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It will remain here until April 27 and will be one of the G7 cultural events (March 30-31), focused on the preservation of world heritage.
The original monument — which dated back to the third century AD — was destroyed by ISIS in October 2015 during a series of demolitions under Caliph Al-Baghdadi during the group’s first occupation of the city. In addition, the temples of Baalshamin and Bel were torn down, as well as some of the funerary tower features that used to soar above the hills of the southwestern necropolis. Add to this the barbaric execution of the archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, who was the site manager and director of the Palmyra museum for 50 years.
Although the copy of the arc in 1:3 scale was made by the Carrara, Italy-based company TorArt through the use of sophisticated technologies, such as the use of 3D printers and anthropomorphic robots, the result is not scientifically satisfactory.
Filippo Tincolini, founder of the TorArt laboratory in association with Giacomo Massari, admitted as much in an interview with Andrea Barrica that was published in Il Giornale Del Restauro e del Recupero dell’ Arte. He said that “the ornamental leaves were dug up at some point because we had no precise idea of how deep we could go.” Not even the collaboration with Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archeology (IDA), in charge of data collection, was enough to make a philological reconstruction.
So, in an attempt to evoke a symbol of the so-called Bride of the Desert, the fake arc becomes a clumsy performance, divorced from the original context and thrown amidst the triumphal Florentine Renaissance displays for political and commercial purposes (TorArt regularly receives commissions from artists, designers, architects and museums).
The race to snag a role in the reconstruction of the ancient Syrian city, while the war that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian victims is ongoing, divides the opinions of scholars between “interventionists” and “procrastinators.” Shortly before the regular Syrian army, assisted the Russian air force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, won back the ruins of Palmyra in early December, an agreement for the restoration and reconstruction between Syria’s General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg seemed a done deal.
Then, the first “liberation” of the site in April 2016, also supported by a Russian contingent, had been celebrated at Palmyra’s theater with a pompous concert by the Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Even Vladimir Putin took part in it with a video message.
The propaganda machine that transformed the Russian president into the “savior” of Palmyra has not yet managed to hide the presence of the pervasive military base installed inside the archaeological site. The damage caused to layers not yet investigated and the looting perpetrated under the watchful eyes of Putin’s soldiers have been documented by APSA — the Syrian Association for the Protection of Syrian Archeology, a group of soldier archaeologists who have been monitoring the status of assets and fighting illicit trafficking of relics since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.
Even if it is not clear whether the TorArt can transmit the values of respect and protection of heritage to the mass of tourists who throng daily in Piazza della Signoria, it is certain that its faded figure is far from the archaeological reality immortalized since the 17th century by painters and engravers, and later by photographers like Félix Bonfils and Tony André.
Thanks to this repertoire of images, enriched by travelers and artists from all eras, the arc that marked the beginning of the spectacular colonnaded street and shaded Bedouins and camel drivers from the oasis of Tadmor will always remain the dream gateway to Palmyra. Everything else is a pitiful set design of speculation.