Tuesday, 19 June 2012

My grandfather's axe

When I read one day last week that the doors of the baptistry at Florence (pictured left) were not the originals, I was disappointed.  It was a totally irrational response, really, but I had thought when I saw the doors a few years back that I was admiring the craftsmanship of a medieval goldsmith/metalworker.  And all the time what I was admiring was a 20th century replica.  The original doors have now been cleaned and restored and are on display in a museum where they will not be subject to the ravages of the weather and the foul airs of the city.  But it got me to thinking.  (And yes, Skip, I do know that is a dangerous practice.)  How much of what we happily accept as historical objects is original and how much is modern replacement?

Take, as way of example, Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory.  Many thousand of people visit the ship every year and, as they duck below the beams on the gun deck, marvel at the way seamen lived and fought this ship at the Battle of Trafalgar way back in 1805.  But just how much of the ship was actually at Trafalgar?  i rather suspect that the rigging (and possibly the masts and spars as well) has been replaced and almost certainly there have been timbers scarfed into the hull where the original had rotted.

And what about Anne Hathaway's cottage at Stratford-on-Avon?  You can't expect me to believe that is the original thatched roof!  And the stonework of our medieval cathedrals is a patchwork of original stone and replacement.  Eventually all the original stone will have been replaced!  And that is where my title comes in.  "This is my grandfather's axe.  My father replaced the head and I have replaced the haft."

But does it matter that what we see is not original?  I suppose to answer that question we need to consider the purpose of these objects.  The doors of the baptistry at Florence (Firenze to the Italians) were not created for tourist to gawp at; they are intended to glorify God and whether they be several hundred years old or modern replacements is of no importance.  A work of art is a work of art no matter how old - and those doors are a work of art!

HMS Victory, however, is a bit different.  The principal raison d'etre of this preserved ship must be as a museum and therefore instructional or as place of entertainment (to put it crudely).  That being so, does it really matter whether it is entirely original or if bits have been replaced?  OK, so it might be pushing things a bit to claim this as the ship that fought at Trafalgar, but does it really matter?

The Battle of Britain Flight, consisting of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters and a Lancaster bomber from the Second World War, is another example.  I strongly suspect that there are parts of those planes which are modern replacements necessary if the planes are to fly at all.  But who cares?  Like the Victory, they remind those who see them of our country's history, our common British heritage, and that surely is important.

3 comments:

Uncle Skip, said...

Did I say it was dangerous for you to think?
I apologize because I am far from an expert when it comes to that subject.

BTW - the folks at Charlestown, more specifically the Navy Yard in Boston, claim the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, has much of its original timbers remaining. They haul it out into the harbor to turn it around so it weathers evenly.

Brighton Pensioner said...

Perhaps your throw-away off-the-cuff remark about thinking being a dangerous activity referred only to yourself. I'm sure you wrote it in a recent blog - give me a week and I might find it again!

bettyl said...

I believe that the works of art that are practical, as the doors or a ship, are to inspire the imagination to picture the event or time of need. It doesn't have to be totally authentic to do that.