In an era when the planet is being perpetually polluted, centuries-old landmarks are being casually demolished, and religious conviction is often invoked to countenance these vile acts, there are, gracias a Dios, some high-minded folks working to preserve what we still have left.
Among these heroes is the World Monuments Fund, the leading nongovernmental organization trying to protect the Earth from the loss of its architectural and cultural heritage. Since 1965, the WMF has completed 600 projects in 100 countries.
To mark its 50th anniversary, under the leadership of its honorary chairman HRH The Prince of Wales, the WMF published a book spotlighting “50 irreplaceable sites to discover, explore and champion.” It contains entrancing photographs and eight essays about some valuable and endangered cities, to wit Cairo, Rome, Venice, Agra, Krakow, Cusco, Mexico City and Beijing. The book also features 42 other places where the WMF has done conservation work, such as Kyoto, Easter Island and New Orleans.
To celebrate the book and heighten awareness of WMF’s annual fundraising gala, a reception was hosted in New York by ultra-glamorous couple Juan Pablo and Pilar Molyneux. He is of course the distinguished interior designer who is based in Paris and New York and works on every continent. She is his indispensable helpmeet, a woman who exemplifies poise. They glide in tandem like Fred and Ginger, like blinis and caviar. As Mr. Coward said, I went to a marvellous party.
Who was there? Mary McFadden, the ex-couturieuse who herself is a venerable institution; Susan Nagel, the literary detective who uncovered the histories of the daughter of Marie-Antoinette and the wife of marble importer Lord Elgin; impeccably turned-out arts patroness Margo Langenberg; and Diego Arria, a former ambassador to the U.N. from Venezuela, who was married to two of the top beauties in international society. He is being touted as a leading candidate for president of his country once the commies are ousted, which, Inshallah, will be imminent.
Others that I noticed were WMF president Bonnie Burnham; art world lawyer Ashton Hawkins; the esteemed antiquaires Louis Bofferding and Carlton Hobbs; and WMF v.p. George McNeely, who first became famous as a Christie’s auctioneer, wielding his gavel like a spiked mace.
Standing out in the illustrious crowd were four of the authors of the essays in the book. They were Fernanda Eberstadt (Cusco), André Aciman (Rome), Justin Davidson (Mexico City), and Andrew Solomon (Beijing)–or, as we say in The Bronx (Peking).
Let’s finish with the art historian John Julius Norwich (the WMF honorary chairman who happens to be the son of Duff and Diana Cooper). His essay on the perils facing Venice is galvanizing. Here’s a sample: “There is nothing new about climate change; nothing in nature stands still, and climate is no exception.There is one danger in particular, however, that is causing serious anxiety to scientists: the rise, all over the world, of the level of the sea. Now it is self-evident that rising sea levels can cause flooding; unfortunately, they can do much more than that. In a number of low-lying areas they could—if not drastically controlled—cause wholesale destruction. This could occur in Bangladesh, in Bangkok—even, I am told, at the southern end of the island of Manhattan—but the greatest threat is to the loveliest and most sumptuous of all cities: the city of Venice. Now Venice is not a city by the sea, she is a city IN the sea; in no other community on earth are the people so dependent on the waters that surround them.”
Viscount Norwich discusses the “ingenious system” of mobile gates (78 in all) now being devised to protect the lagoon, and concludes that even this vast expense will only buy time: “There should be no doubt that the sea level will eventually rise to a value that will not be sustainable for the lagoon and its old city. The planned mobile barriers might be able to avoid flooding for the next decades, but the sea will eventually rise to a level where even continuous closures will not be able to protect the city from flooding. The question is not if this will happen, but only when it will happen.”
Another threat: “Venice is now being almost literally suffocated each day by 15,000 extra day-tripping tourists that are being disgorged by giant cruise ships, some fifteen decks high, looming above the churches and the campanili. They normally remain in Venice for only a few hours, and their passengers, who have paid for all their meals in advance on board, spend virtually nothing in the city. Few of the tourists venture beyond the main public square or visit the cultural destinations. Why are these leviathan ships allowed to come in such numbers? Why, indeed, are they allowed to come at all? They pollute the air, they blot out the view, and what their immense vibrating engines and huge drafts are doing to the waters of the lagoon hardly bears thinking about. But they make money for the Port of Venice, and that—apparently—justifies their existence.”
What can you do? Purchase this book ($50 at Rizzoli). Donate to the World Monuments Fund. And buy your ticket to Venice during the three months of the year that the buzz-seeking hordes are not inundating the Piazza San Marco.