In a clearing amid the trees close to the lakes in Palermo’s Tres de Febrero park, four men work under the blazing sun studying from different angles a large bronze sculpture of two deer. They’re working out how to reproduce the figure of a third, smaller animal that has gone missing from the piece and all they have to go on is an old photograph of the complete work, which they’ve annotated with measurements of angles and dimensions. In the workshop behind them, shelves overflow with marble limbs, bronze busts, and plaster molds. Work benches overflow with tools and instruments. A resident cat wanders through unfazed by a pair of mute wounded giants, one missing an arm, the other missing a nose, that look like they might move the moment one’s back is turned.
This is the city’s so-called Statues’ Hospital where a 25-strong team from the city government’s Coordination of Monuments and Art Works works day in, day out to maintain the city’s more than 2,000 monuments in a ceaseless battle against vandalism, theft and the elements. Buenos Aires is a city of monuments; silent witnesses to the city’s history forged from marble and bronze decorate parks, squares and boulevards across the 48 neighbourhoods, from grandiose homages to Argentina’s founding fathers and allegories to the ideals on which the city was founded, to effigies of modern-day celebrities. Keeping them all in good health involves a huge amount of work. “You could compare it to a surgical operation,” says Jorge Grimaz, the operations coordinator who’s been with the team since 1985. “It’s painstaking but fascinating and rewarding work.”
When possible the team works on pieces in-situ, but when the job is too big, the monuments are brought to the workshop, on the premises of what were the servants’ quarters in the farmstead of former Buenos Aires governor Juan Manuel Rosas (1835-1854). Their work ranges from cleaning or repainting pieces to restoring parts of works that have been damaged or even reproducing missing pieces from scratch. Some pieces may be ready in days while others, like the deer, will take months to repair.
The city's wealth of monuments include pieces by Rodin, Luis Henri Cordier and Botero. Some contribute to the city’s Belle Epoque grandeur, dating back to the boom in the construction of public monuments in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, while others raise a smile or provoke curiosity. All of them have to be looked after, and like at a regular hospital, all patients are equal: “We treat all sculptures the same irrespective of the author,” Jorge says. “Whether it’s a Botero or a Rodin, for no us piece is more important than another. They Have history as well as artistic merit; each has its history, whether you like it or not, it’s our history and that of the political leaders of the day, and our future comes from this. Monuments carry our history and identity against the erosion of time and the elements”
Patio de Esculturas, Plaza Sicilia, Palermo.