An artist uses his craft to restore sculptures damaged by vandals

Our interview took place under the gaze of eminent architect and town planner Stamatis Kleanthis, the domineering figure of statesman Constantine Karamanlis, the slender form of Athena and a headless bust of actress Kyveli. On the floor, I see the head of Dionysus Solomos, broken off after a branch fell on the statue in the National Garden.

I am in the workshop of Praxitelis Tzanoulinos, impressed by this strange collection of broken sculptures of great artists, poets, politicians and religious leaders from bygone eras. The renowned sculptor from the island of Tinos, a man who is well educated in the classics and traditional folk art, has taken on the weighty task of rehabilitating Athenian sculptures that have been damaged by time and, mostly, by incidents of vandalism, which have grown in frequency since 2008. So, at the same time as producing his own original artwork, Tzanoulinos is using his knowledge and skill to restore that of great sculptors who came before him, such as Lazaros Sochos, Costas Dimitriadis and Dimitrios Filippotis, among others.

Tzanoulinos is part of a team set up by the City of Athens and comprising experts from various disciplines for its program to restore 100 emblematic sculptures from public spaces in central Athens. The program is funded through the EU-backed National Strategic Reference Framework (known as ESPA in Greek) with a budget of approximately 740,000 euros. Thanks to this initiative – as well as Mayor Giorgos Kaminis’s general concern for protecting public spaces – the team was able to quickly start work on the statue of poet Costis Palamas and bust of Kyveli, the former smudged with black paint and the latter beheaded during a sit-in by anarchists at Athens Law School earlier in the year. The program also includes the restoration of other emblematic sculptures, such as the Woodcutter (1872-75) by Dimitrios Filippotis, Costas Dimitriadis’s Discus Thrower (1927), Greek War of Independence leader Theodoros Kolokotronis on his horse by Lazaros Sochos (1900), Yannis Pappas’s statue of statesman Eleftherios Venizelos (1971) in Eleftherias Park, and Sir Francis Chantrey’s depiction of George Canning (1834), the British politician who supported the Greeks in their bid for independence from Ottoman rule, at Kaningos Square.

So far, most of the statues have been cleaned of pollution and spray paint, though the most serious cases, where the damage is extreme, are taken to Tzanoulinos’s workshop in the eastern suburb of Argyroupoli.

“So is this a hospital for sculptures?” I ask Tzanoulinos as I enter the workshop. “Yes, and a maternity ward,” he says. “A few are born here. Look at this figurine of [Constantine] Karamanlis, which is a model for a bigger statue I made of the statesman that was recently unveiled in Thessaloniki, or this small group sculpture of the Olympian gods that I’m working on now.”

Tzanoulinos was born on Tinos, an island with a long and illustrious tradition in marble sculpture, where his father was a marble craftsman and he spent his childhood making sculptures with the clay he collected from the fields. Endowed with talent, patience and a love for his craft, he is just the person to take on the delicate task of restoration and all the more so because he appears to be the kind of artist who can set ego aside and has an enormous amount of respect for his predecessors, the artists who endowed Athens with such a wonderful legacy.

“Let me tell you a very moving story about the statue of [Costis] Palamas which shows just how deeply Athenians feel about the problem of vandalism. When we started working on its restoration, it was not just smudged with paint but several pieces had also been broken off during the riots of 2008. These had been collected by passers-by and handed over to the Palamas Foundation on Asclepiou Street. When the supervisors there found out what we do, they brought us his eyebrow and nose on a plate. We managed to reattach them very carefully; it was like precision surgery. Otherwise, we would have had to find the original casts made by Vasos Falireas, whose swan song was the Palamas statue, to replicate it exactly. We were very fortunate,” says Tzanoulinos.

“From 2008 on, only a handful of statues have managed to escape falling victim to acts of vandalism, be it graffiti or worse,” says the sculptor, who works with architect Dimitris Koutsoyiannis, chemical engineer Vassilis Lambropoulos and several art restorers under the coordination of the municipality’s special service and Deputy Mayor for Urban Infrastructure Giorgos Apostolopoulos.

The restoration program is in full swing, with work on the statues of Syntagma Square, Ermou Street and the City of Athens Cultural Center on Academias Street having been completed.

I sit on a chair beside the head of Kyveli, broken off a bust made by Nata Mela. The face exudes such serenity and beauty that it makes me wonder why someone decided to take their frustrations out on something so fine.

The sculptor rests his hand gently on the head and says: “We are cleaning it right now and soon I will reattach it. You need to take a different approach with every sculpture because you have different problems that need different solutions. It is a complex team effort that I could never have done alone. We make a map of all the damage and then proceed with the restoration,” he explains.

The evidence shows that the sculptures most at risk are those along the route normally taken by protesters, stretching from Kaningos Square to Syntagma, in front of Parliament. Much damage was wreaked on Athens’s sculptures during widespread rioting in 2011 and 2012, especially during the anti-memorandum protests.

In December 2008, when the police killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in the downtown neighborhood of Exarchia sparked violent riots that lasted more than a week, the damage to such emblems of public property by rampaging hooded youths was not as widespread as it later became. In 2011, for example, vandals practically destroyed Syntagma Square, ripping up marble paving stones and smashing sculptures, as well as the fountains on Ermou Street and the marble finish of the City of Athens Cultural Center. A replica of the ancient and emblematic Garden of the Muses that was located across from Parliament in memory of the garden of Theophrastus was completely destroyed.”

In 2012, extensive damage was wreaked on Athens’s sculptures and marble architectural elements. Protest slogans were scrawled on the statues of Kolokotroni, Palamas and Canning at every rally. Kyveli’s destruction this year was the second time the sculpture’s head was knocked off. And it is not just the sculptures around the City of Athens Cultural Center and Athens Law School that were targeted, but also the three beautiful buildings that compose the so-called Neoclassical Trilogy on Panepistimiou Street – the University of Athens, the Academy and the National Library.

Vandals also attacked area off the main path of protest rallies, such as the Epirus sculpture on Tositsa Street near the Polytechnic, the early 20th-century cherubs that graced an old lamp post in Exarchia Square, and the sculpture in Victoria Square of Theseus saving Hippodameia by Johannes Pfuhl.

How does Tzanoulinos feel when he’s brought an artwork that has fallen victim to violence?

“The garden in front of the Cultural Center also has a couple of my sculptures – of [writers] Costas Bastias and Pantelis Horn – which I now have to restore,” he says. “The amount of effort I put into my work makes me consider the efforts of my fellow artists. How many months did they spend bent over a piece of marble that wouldn’t be tamed? I get angry every time I hold an injured sculpture in my hands. Then I feel sadness, not so much for the sculpture but for the souls of these people who vent through vandalism, who enjoy destruction. We got the black marks off Palamas’s face, but the black mark on their souls will not be removed that easily. Unfortunately, there is a lack of education and cultivation in Greece that makes us unable to see the beauty of art. I don’t think these young people have any idea why they vandalize.”

Tzanoulinos adds: “These sculptures have life inside them, baggage. They are not lifeless, soulless objects; they are not rocks. They are witnesses of the history of the city, of the country, of our very lives. Often, when I’m here at the workshop working late into the night, I feel as though I can hear the voices of the statues. Voices? More like cries. Not just against the violence they have suffered but the overall disdain they have felt for public property.”

If he could speak to the vandals, what would he say?

“I’d give them a lesson in the history of art. If they spent just one day trying to sculpt a piece of marble, they would never touch a sculpture again,” says Tzanoulinos.

“Art could help them heal, from their anger, their disappointment, their bent for violence. I have often thought that bronze statues that have been damaged, for instance by metal thieves who have hit them with hammers, should be left as they are in memory of the times we are living.”

Athens has a good number of bronze statues but they are far fewer than its marble sculptures as bronze foundries were late appearing in Greece. Since the start of the crisis, there has also been a rash of thefts of bronze sculptures by scrap collectors.

“I had done a bust of the academic Menelaos Pallantios while he was still alive,” says Tzanoulinos. “It was stolen from Piraeus and has never been found. I hope that some day the municipality will have the money so that we can make a copy. Unfortunately, in many other cases, masterpieces have probably been melted down and sold for their weight in bronze.”

Sculpture is the highest of all art forms for Tzanoulinos.

“Just consider how many centuries it has survived. And if you look at the tools used by ancient sculptors, they are practically identical to mine. The time it takes to produce a sculpture has not become any shorter either. It is an arduous, time-consuming process. You need to be intimately acquainted with your material, the stone, because you have to tame it. If you don’t understand what’s inside, you can’t give it a form. So imagine how much it hurts when I see this kind of destruction,” he says.

Another important parameter is that many of Athens’s public sculptures are the work of great artists.

“They have been made by great sculptors who are no longer alive, no longer able to defend their creations, remake them or add anything to them,” Tzanoulinos says. “I only hope that this madness passes, like a cloud. The only protection that public sculptures have is the love and care of the people who live with them.”

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