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Row ignites over Lucerne bridge paintings

Some paintings still grace the interior of Lucerne's covered Chapel Bridge

(swissinfo.ch)

Disagreement has broken out over whether a series of 17th century paintings - destroyed in a fire that consumed Lucerne's Chapel Bridge - should be replaced by copies.

Officials and politicians are at odds over whether the copies, commissioned by a local lawyer, should be hung from the rafters of the bridge rebuilt after the 1993 blaze.

The only paintings spared by the fire were those on display at the two ends of the bridge since firefighters were able to prevent the flames from reaching that far.

All that remains today of the majority of the 111 works are a few carbonised plates and numerous empty spaces beneath the rafters where they used to be.

"What happened is very tragic," said Lucerne's monument conservator Georg Carlen during a walk across the reconstructed Lucerne landmark.

"However, [the carbonised remains] lend the bridge authenticity and are a witness to its historical development," he told swissinfo.

Carlen was at the scene the morning after the fire in 1993. "The focus was on saving whatever we could and then to conserve and restore these works."

The rescued oil paintings were taken down and replaced by photographs, which quickly faded.

Once restored, the original works, depicting historical scenes from the town, were put back in the bridge heads. And a series of paintings that had been stored away when the structure was shortened in the 19th century were put up to replace those destroyed in the fire.

Surveillance

Carlen said the bridge and its current works of art are more secure than ever before. Surveillance cameras prevent theft, there are smoke detectors in place and boats have been banned from passing beneath the bridge or being tied up to the structure. The fire was believed to have been started by a lit cigarette in a small vessel that was moored to the bridge.

However, some local officials do not think the measures go far enough and have called for the original paintings to be locked away in a safe place and replaced by copies.

This has been an issue since lawyer Jost Schumacher took it upon himself to pay SFr2 million ($1.82 million) to have replicas made.

"I've lived my entire life in Lucerne and the city has been very good to me. Instead of bequeathing a lot of my money to my offspring, I'd like to do something for culture,"
said Schumacher.

"Therefore I took the initiative to have these copies made and to fund the work."

Unveiling

The pictures are based on photographs of the paintings taken a year before the fire. Schumacher unveiled the copies to the public at an event in November.

Carlen is not opposed to the idea of replacements but says the copies commissioned by Schumacher are not up to scratch.

"Most are badly done," Carlen said. "The colours of the copies are loud in contrast to the originals. The darkness of the originals lends a certain aged dignity to them."

Schumacher has countered that the paint on some of the originals has darkened so much that it is difficult to make out any details.

The monument conservator would like to see the 17th century works remain. "It would be a great loss for Lucerne and visitors to the city if the originals were replaced by copies."

He said it is now up to the town authorities together with the conservator's office to decide how to proceed.

The art lover and lawyer has decided to lay low with his demands for the moment: "I'm not going to try to force anything," Schumacher said. "The copies are available."

Members of the local parliament representing the Swiss People's Party and Radicals have called on the council to put up the copies. "It's up to the public and politicians to express their views," Schumacher said.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Susanne Schanda

Chapel Bridge

The covered wooden bridge built in the 14th century links both banks of the River Reuss at the point where it flows out of Lake Lucerne. It was originally planned as part of the town's defences.

In the 17th century a series of painted panels was hung beneath the rafters. The 34-metre-high Water Tower, dating from the 13th century, was also originally part of the fortifications of Lucerne.

The Chapel Bridge ranks as the oldest wooden structure of its kind in Europe. It was reconstructed within eight months after the 1993 fire.

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