‘There is no security’: is heritage doomed to become collateral damage of climate crisis?

Written by Zoë Vandenhende

The consequences of a flood in Italy are devastating, for humans, nature and heritage.

The climate crisis is here, with its consequences being felt everywhere. When extreme rain caused flooding in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, cultural heritage was not spared from the destruction it left in its wake, European Heritage Youth Ambassador Zoë Vandenhende witnessed herself. How does a community step up when faced with such an emergency and its accompanied losses? And is it possible to protect our cultural heritage at a time when similar destructive events are happening at an alarming rate?

On Tuesday, May 16th 2023, the region of Emilia-Romagna in the North of Italy experienced more rainfall over the span of 24 hours than it normally does during the entire spring. The excessive rain caused riverbanks to break and intense floodings in various parts of the region, claiming the lives of fifteen people and forcing thousands to flee from their homes. In the days that followed, as the water started receding, the full extent of the destruction was revealed. Aside from people’s homes, several roads and bridges were severely damaged, as well as museums, libraries, and other cultural sites.

A volunteer covered in mud. Image: Courtesy of Zoë Vandenhende

Mud, mud, and more mud

At the time of the disaster, I was studying and living in Ravenna. While the historic city centre of Ravenna was mostly spared from the flooding, we saw images and videos pour in of the ravages in places merely twenty minutes away from us – and we felt a sense of collective action emerge.

WhatsApp groups started popping up sharing details of places that needed help, and people offered to drive volunteers over, since it took some time before the public transportation system recovered. In the weeks that followed, many students, myself included, joined countless other volunteers in cleaning up the debris and pushing away the water and residual mud that covered everything as far as the eye can see.

I spoke to Pauline, a fellow student of the Master in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage, who went to the Carlo Zauli Museum in Faenza – a nearby town – twice. “I could not do nothing, it felt only normal that I went to help.” She explains how surreal it was to see works of art covered in mud and the overall destruction of the museum and its artefacts. “There was mud everywhere and I was handed a toothbrush to attempt to get it off of the casts as much as possible, it felt very bizarre to deal with art objects in this way.”

Volunteers in Faenza. Images: Courtesy of Rebecca Rapparini

Shattered ceramics

The city of Faenza is world-famous for its traditional ceramics, with the Carlo Zauli Museum being dedicated to the life and works of the famous Faentino sculptor Carlo Zauli. It houses his sculpture collection as well as more contemporary ceramic artworks. The Museum is located in the historic city center, which was heavily affected by the flooding.

A spokesperson for the museum told me about the havoc left behind in the museum. “The first days after the flood were very shocking. Two floors of the museum – the basement and the ground floor – were completely submerged by water and mud.” This meant that at first, they couldn’t do anything but to wait for the pumps to get the water out. “The wait of those days was very stressful for everyone.” However, once the water had been drained, the residual mud proved to be an even tougher challenge as it is not easy to clean off and had spread to every nook and cranny.

Museo Carlo Zauli after the flooding. Images: Courtesy of Alena Lobyzaeva

The immense task of cleaning up also led to some small discoveries, such as several casts of some of Zauli’s early works from the 1950s that had been hidden behind bags of clay. Nevertheless, the flood lead mostly to destruction: there is considerable damage to the paper archive and the artworks it houses (some 15,000 pieces have been recovered, washed, and dried – over 500 of which were completely shattered), and a large part of the building, the garden, and the electrical infrastructure will need to be entirely restored.

No security for the future

The Carlo Zauli Museum is just one example of many in the region, illustrating how extreme weather events caused by global warming are threatening cultural heritage. The spokesperson for the museum let me know that “at present, in the event of a possible future flood, there is no safeguard plan either for the city or for the museum.”

They explained how the necessary precautionary measures, such as the creation of drainage basins for the rivers, are very difficult to implement in the area. In short, “there is no security for the future.” The irreversible loss of cultural heritage from the May 16 flooding in Northern Italy should be an urgent call to action for both national and international measures to be taken to protect and adapt cultural heritage in this global climate emergency.

If you can donate, Museo Carlo Zauli has set up a gofundme to support their efforts in restoring the museum: https://gofund.me/51e5a625.

About the Author

Zoë Vandenhende – 23 years old from Bruges (Belgium) – holds a MA in Art History and is a recent graduate from the MA ‘International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage’ at the University of Bologna, campus Ravenna. She’s especially interested in safeguarding cultural heritage in times of crisis and digital heritage. She’s an European Heritage Youth Ambassador of the 2023 cycle.