Healing a wounded culture

Buildings are symbols of national pride. Which is why Croatia has a job on its hands.

In 1992, a poster appeared which distilled something of the complexity of what Croatians must have been suffering at the time. It showed a sculpture of a beautiful young woman smiling, but the smile was a nightmare: half her face had fallen away, and in its place hung the remnants of a grinning skull.

This was an image about destruction, and not just the destruction of human bodies. As a new order is established, we should recall that while human beings are the most important victims of the Balkan wars, the symbolic aim of conflict is the destruction of a political and cultural identity. This poster image was composed from two objects integral to Croatian culture: the first, a Roman portrait sculpture of a woman from Salona; the second, the skull of a Neanderthal. Remember those who have died, the poster appeared to say, but also remember that the dead can live on in works of art, monuments, and archaeological remains. If you are going to wipe out a people, these must go too.

Nobody knows exactly how long it is going to take to rebuild the buildings and monuments in either Serbia or Kosovo, but some indication of the scale and difficulty of the project can be gleaned by examining Croatia's slow recovery from the last war in the region.

According to the International Trust for Croatian Monuments, roughly 2,440 buildings of historic and environmental significance suffered damage. Places such as Dubrovnik, Vukovar, and Osijek endured some of the worst attacks, while several other areas also experienced damage to monuments which had become their defining features. In Valpovo, a medieval fortress that had been reinvented as a museum was one of many cultural centres to suffer a direct hit: in a particularly bizarre attack in a church in Otavice, statues of the evangelists Luke, Matthew and John had their toes and thumbs partially hammered off.

To imagine the emotional impact of the destruction, think of what London would lose if bombs destroyed the British Museum, the BT Tower and Westminster Abbey. For us, these buildings are much more than the sum of their parts: as well as being monuments to the greatness of history, communication and religion, their visual domination of the London landscape has turned them into national symbols beyond words. No surprise, therefore, that St Paul's Cathedral rising above the smoke during the Blitz has proved to be one of the most enduring images of British resistance in the Second World War. It is an appropriate coincidence that today, in the shadow of St Paul's, a Croatian sculptor is learning restoration techniques which he will use in the Balkans to restore war-damaged buildings.

Miroslav Sabolic was at school in Zagreb when the air-raid sirens first sounded on 15 September 1991. Although he and his family were not seriously affected by the war, he knows the key dates that chart the deconstruction of his city. On 7 October 1991, bombs made their impact on the Banski dvori presidential palace. On 2 and 3 May 1995, cluster bombs struck the Roman National Theatre, as well as destroying a children's hospital, a pensioners' home, and several schools.

"Each nation has its own story," Sabolic says, "and buildings are part of this story. If a building is destroyed, then that story is eroded. It's important for people to be able to say my great-grandfather, or my great-great-grandfather was here, or that a certain event happened in this place. It gives them a stronger sense of their roots."

The turbulent history of the region has given the Croatians more varied roots than some. Sabolic illustrates this as he talks about the different regimes that produced the now vastly altered Zagreb skyline. "The oldest buildings are Roman. The National Theatre, which was hit, comes from the Roman empire. Croatia was a transit area, so it was influenced by many outside powers, including the Greeks and Napoleon. Several of its buildings also come from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

Tony Webb, master carver at St Paul's, explains that Sabolic is the second Croatian student to come to the cathedral under a scholarship scheme set up by the International Croatian Monuments Fund. After Sabolic has learnt some of the techniques involved in restoring Grinling Gibbons woodwork and Wren stonework, Webb will enable him to tackle the varied architecture in his country by taking him behind the scenes at other cultural centres such as the Victoria & Albert museum and the London Museum. "The project worked with his predecessor, Mihael Golubic, very successfully," says Webb. "I think once Miroslav gets a broad view of the skills needed in these places, he will be able to put them to important use back in Croatia."

This drive to produce a generation of skilled Croatian restorers (six will have been trained in Britain by the end of this year) is the brainchild of Jadranka Beresford-Peirse. A native Croatian, Lady Beresford-Peirse, who runs the International Trust for Croatian Monuments, now campaigns for the restoration of her country's damaged patrimony. In 1991, she worked with the Museum Documentation Centre in Croatia to appeal for protection of their cultural monuments from the Serbs. As the war progressed, the centre gathered photographs and video footage for the most moving exhibition Croatia will ever see: the presentation of its ruined culture.

Now both Serbs and Kosovars may require similar exhibitions in their own countries. The bombs may have stopped, but psychologically the war isn't over yet: once the bodies have been buried and mourned, there will be evidence for decades of the destruction that took place. Hostages and victims of torture often create buildings inside their heads in order to preserve their individual identities: and now, in the real world, buildings must be restored and rebuilt to reassert national identities. As Lady Beresford-Peirse points out, the violence which itself took so many lives will take more than a lifetime to eradicate.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence