The Suffering of Symbols: Giotto Frescoes and the Cultural Trauma of Objects

Publication Date: 
August 2012
Cultural Sociology




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Abstract: The loss of iconic buildings and artifacts can result in public mourning which may even overshadow the loss of human life. Cultural trauma theory examines how such processes are socially constructed, but has focused on events of great human suffering, ignoring the power of objects. Discourse analysis of two months of Italian media coverage following the 1997 Umbria-Marche earthquake and local interviews in Assisi show that a cultural trauma was articulated around the damaged Basilica of St Francis of Assisi and its fragmented Giotto frescoes. In addition to factors specific to Italy, I compare ten recent worldwide cases of artistic loss, some of which became cultural traumas while others did not, in order to determine the critical factors in creating a cultural trauma of objects: the comparative loss of human life, the object’s totemic significance to the collective, and the time-frame until the object can be repaired.