The days of scribbling â€œI woz hereâ€ on Florenceâ€™s historic monuments are gone: from now on would-be vandals will be able to graffiti via app instead, with their messages kept for posterity.
â€œWelcome to Giottoâ€™s Campanile!â€ reads a message on a digital tablet for visitors scaling the Gothic white, green and pink marble tower by the famed Italian architect, which stands at one corner of the Cathedral in the Tuscan city.
â€œWe have been protecting masterpieces for centuries: starting from today we are going to remove graffiti from the Campanileâ€™s walls. But if you â€” virtually â€” leave us a message, we will preserve it: just like a masterpiece,â€ it says.
The walls of the 14th-century bell tower, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been defiled down the ages by millions of messages left by people climbing the 400 steps to enjoy spectacular views of red-tiled rooftops.
â€œThree months ago, when we began cleaning the walls, which had never been done before, we asked ourselves how we could avoid all the work going to waste in a short time,â€ said Alice Filipponi, social media manager for Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, a not-for-profit organisation tasked with preserving many of Florenceâ€™s monuments.
Architect Beatrice Agostini, who heads up the organisationâ€™s restoration arm, said the bell tower â€œwas in an incredibly degraded and dirty conditionâ€, with all elements â€” marble, stone, wood and brick â€” damaged by graffiti.
Filipponi said she had â€œan idea for an app which would allow the visitor to choose the surface (marble or wood for example), the colour and the instrument they want to use (felt pen, paintbrush, aerosol) to leave a virtual message or drawingâ€.
â€˜PIETRO WAS HEREâ€™
The application, which is named â€œAutographyâ€ and launched last week, is â€œa firstâ€, she said, saying she hoped to sell it to other sites plagued by heritage hoodlums. Three digital tablets have been installed on the 1st, 3rd and 4th floors of the tower and the messages are stored online. Over 700 personalised scrawls were collected in the first week.
Just like on the towerâ€™s walls, where statues of kings and sibyls once stood, the messages range from declarations of adoration, despair over unrequited love and appeals for peace, to the simple â€œPietro was hereâ€. They will be printed out each year and filed away in the Cathedralâ€™s archives, alongside historic documents such as the deed appointing Renaissance designer Brunelleschi to build the Duomoâ€™s dome, and the birth certificate of Lisa Gherardini, widely considered to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinciâ€™s Mona Lisa.
â€œThe idea was to raise awareness among
visitors about vandalism, but also give them the chance to leave behind a record, an everlasting sign of their passing through, without damaging the monument,â€ the Opera said in a statement.
From smiley faces to hearts and doodled names, graffiti is the bane of restorersâ€™ lives and is laborious to remove. While the cleaning job on the towerâ€™s walls has managed to
wipe off most of the pen or paint scribbles, words etched into the stone are still visible despite all efforts.
Undeterred, conservators will turn their scrubbing brushes next year to the Cathedralâ€™s dome â€” the largest such structure in brick ever constructed â€” and install tablets with the Autography app there as well.