Woodworm threatens Venice's precious artworks

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The Independent Online

Forget the high tides, the daily tourist stampede, and the risk of sinking into the lagoon. Venice and its artistic jewels, are facing a new and even more insidious peril - woodworm. The most recent victim is one of Venice's most precious churches, the basilica of Santa Maria dei Frari, which houses masterpieces by Titian, Bellini and Donatello.

Forget the high tides, the daily tourist stampede, and the risk of sinking into the lagoon. Venice and its artistic jewels, are facing a new and even more insidious peril - woodworm. The most recent victim is one of Venice's most precious churches, the basilica of Santa Maria dei Frari, which houses masterpieces by Titian, Bellini and Donatello.

The local cultural heritage authorities have confirmed that priceless choir stalls dating from 1468, have been attacked by woodworm. The three-tier stalls are considered to be the last remaining example of Venetian carving in the florid Gothic style.

The 124 seats, carved by Marco Cozzi in 1468, carry intricate figures of saints and famous Venetians, including the Doges who ruled the Venetian Republic.

"There is constant attention and monitoring, but its normal that in wood two or three centuries old there can be worm. We take immediate action but this year the risk is greater because of the climate," the Venetian cultural superintendent Giovanna Nepi Scirÿ told Milan daily Corriere della Sera. An unusually hot and humid summer has seen the woodworm population grow exponentially.

Ms Nepi Scirÿ said the basilica would be closed for disinfestation, as soon as funds were available. Santa Maria dei Frari houses The Assumption of the Virgin by Titian, considered one of the most evocative works of his mature period, a famous triptych of Virgin and Saints by Giovanni Bellini, and a wooden statue of John the Baptist by Donatello. Titian and Canova are also buried there.

The authorities are examining various methods of disinfestation, including an experimental method of sucking out air and blowing in a nitrogen mix.

In mid-August, a Tiepolo Virgin and Child on the ceiling of the Scuola dei Carmini tumbled to the floor during the night after the wood surrounding and holding the painting in place was nibbled away. Miraculously the work was not seriously damaged in the fall.

The near tragedy has had some positive effect however; biologists inspecting the work to see in what way the worms attack paintings discovered that it was a new type of woodworm, not the same ones that ate their way through precious antique volumes in the Biblioteca Marciana in San Marco.

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