Mosaics play a small part in the history of Albanian lapidars but when they do appear they do so in an impressive and memorable manner. Although not strictly a lapidar the most impressive is the huge the ‘Albanian’ mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Also interesting and worth a visit is the mosaic in the Martyrs’ Cemetery of Durrës. Each of these have their distinctive aspects and the mosaic, near the village of Bestrovë close to Vlorë, is another unique monument in its own right.
The style of mosaic construction in Albania
Before discussing this particular example it might be useful to consider the technique used in the construction of these mosaics from the Socialist period – I’m not aware of any that have been constructed since 1990. Well, perhaps, not so much the technique but the materials used.
In all the mosaics I’ve been able to get really close to all the component parts have been natural stone, the design using the variations in colour found in different stones throughout the country. On the mosaic at the Durrës War Memorial these stones had been highly polished and you can see how much of a close-fitting jigsaw the artists have produced. On the other hand in Bestrovë they have also used natural stone but to create a different effect. It looks as if all the stones, of whatever colour, had been struck so that they broke off in the same way as ancient flint stone axes were made, with the same sort of uneven surface. Here all sizes of stone were used so it didn’t matter how irregular or how small the results were. Looking closely you can see that any gaps were just filled with tiny fragments. Not as precise as in Durrës because the desired effect was different.
The other use for the small stones was in picking out very precise decorations with thin lines. Perhaps the best example of this is the decoration on the lapel of the waistcoat and the separation of the tassels on the sash of the central figure representing Albania.
I’d love to know how this mosaic was constructed. It’s huge. The design is attached to a vast piece of rectangular concrete that I estimate to be about 4x9x1 metres (or about 12x30x3 feet). The image is on the north face, looking down towards the village of Bestrovë, but the geometric design is also on the narrow, side edges. There are only a few mosaics which come under the heading of ‘lapidars’ but this is the biggest I have seen – although still being dwarfed by ‘The Albanians’ in Tirana.
These monuments tell a story, or at least refer to a series of events and situations to remind the viewer of the history of the country. This particular monument is in three distinct parts.
In the centre, and almost as tall as the monument is high, is a figure of a male dressed in Albanian traditional clothing. He is there as a representation of the country, a father figure who in his imagery links the past to the present (at least at the time of its construction).
He’s dressed in a white fustanella (the dress like garment) and as both his arms are raised high this pulls open wide the black xhamadan (waistcoat). This has an interesting, geometric design embroidered on both the lapels of this waistcoat. The sleeves are much more voluminous than I’ve seen in other locations but this just adds to the dynamism of his stance. He has a red sash tied around his waist and even though it’s shown in stone you get the idea that it’s a fine piece of material, probably silk. On his head he wears a fez. As this is in the Vlorë region if he was just representing that area then perhaps he should have been wearing a qeleshe (very much like a skull-cap) but the desire here is to represent the whole country and not just one region. On his feet he wears the opinga (the hob nailed sandal) suitable for long days walking in the mountains. (A very clear example of these can be seen on the statue of the Drashovice Arch).
He stands on an uneven surface and so his right knee is slightly bent to maintain his equilibrium. This is a common device in Albanian lapidars, the mountains are such an integral part of the country’s history and culture that there’s always some idea of the terrain, especially when a figure, whether it be male of female, is an allegory for the country. One of the intricacies of the mosaic is that even the rock he stands upon is shown in a variety of colours, as it would be in reality. (This part of the mosaic is slightly obscured by spray can painted graffiti. This looks like the work of bored, but quite young, children, the limit of there attempts to change the art work limited by how high they could hold the can.)
In his upraised left hand he is gripping a long, straight pole, the bottom of which is at the level of his waist. To this pole is attached the Partisan flag, later to become the national flag of the country, and his hand is just where the flag starts. This is a large, fluttering red flag, the top part of which spills above the rectangle of the concrete block hosting the mosaic. This adds a little more movement to this part of the picture and complements the energy coming from the figure itself. In the centre of the flag is the double-headed eagle (long being a symbol of the country) and above that the gold, five-pointed star of Communism, but that’s missing. In its place is a grey circular shape but you can still see the outline of the star. This means that the mosaic has been a victim of political vandalism, as in a number of places the star (together with images of Enver Hoxha) being the target of the counter-revolutionaries of the early 1990s.
If you look at the eagle you can see that the artist has made the full use of the materials to hand and although the image has been created using, in the main, black stones white ones have been chosen for the talons and there are a random number of them on the chest of the birds, suggesting the light reflecting from the healthy plumage of the animal. That’s a nice and imaginative touch from the sculptor.
In his upraised right hand he is holding a bolt-action rifle. This seems slightly out of proportion to his size but in such an image it’s the message that’s important, not the exact representation of reality. Here the weapon signifies that there was no chance for real independence for Albania without fighting for it under the leadership of the Communist Party (which changed its name shortly after the war to the Party of Labour of Albania).
This figure is in the centre of the tableau and on either side of him, radiating out at about 45 degrees are wide bands, of different colours, which go to the edge of the image and form a background to the other groups of people depicted. This gives an impression of a kind of metaphorical light emanating from this central and pivotal figure and what he represents.
The Partisans and the National Liberation War
The story of how the country gained its independence is illustrated on the right hand side of the tableau. Here we have images which remind the viewer of the war that Albanian fought between 1939 and 1944 against, first, the Italian Fascist and then the German Nazis – defeating both.
Here the story is told through the stance, actions and demeanour of three male partisans and a young boy.
All the character in this image are static, as if they have just arrived and are waiting to meet up with others. None of them are in uniform so their dress is very individual, reflecting the reality of a guerrilla army. The Partisan on the extreme right is wearing a large, flowing cloak over a neck less shirt and ordinary working trousers. On his feet he has a pair of ordinary sandals, that is, not any version of the traditional footwear of the countryside. (It’s interesting to note that on many of the images is this unique collection of Socialist Realist Art the variation in footwear is often an issue and something which the artist has obviously thought about. What you have on your feet telling a lot of your class background, financial situation and where in the country you might have come from.)
In fact, all these three fighters look more like workers than peasants or farm workers. That would make sense here as the young (yet small in numbers before the construction of Socialism) working class would have been concentrated in the port towns of the coast, and Vlorë is only a few kilometres from Bestrovë.
Back to the Partisan on the right. He has his rifle slung over his right shoulder and his right hand is gripping the strap of that weapon, close to his chest. Coming diagonally from his left shoulder is a bandolier full of bullets. He has a neatly trimmed, black moustache, again an indication that he was a town dweller. He has dark blue eyes and on his head he wears a soft cap.
Now the cap is an indication of the re-writing of history that some are attempting in present day Albania. To me it is totally inconceivable that there were no red stars on the caps of any of the three Partisans. If most of the colours could be achieved with actual stones the crimson red of the star must have been painted on. The red of the flag is more of a rust colour than the red it would have been in real life, as is the scarf around the neck of one of the other Partisans. With such large areas it would be possible to use the stone, on the specifics of the star it would have been less realistic. Looking at other areas where a good, strong red was needed there are still remains of red paint.
This means that these stars were also the target for the vandals of the recent past.
But a communist is not just indicated by the iconography of the movement, he shows his allegiance by his actions and body language. Standing close to his left hand side, pressed up against him, is a young boy. The Partisan’s cloak partly wraps around this youngster and the left hand of the Partisan is resting on the boy’s left shoulder – three of his fingers can be seen peeking out from under the cloak. In response to this sign of affection the boy’s left arm is bent back towards his body and his fingers rest on the fingers of the Partisan’s on his shoulder. So here we have a mutual sign of respect and a giving from both of them.
Another important aspect of the image of the boy, apart from his youth and vulnerability, is the way he is dressed. His trousers are ragged at the bottom of the legs and are too small for him. Also, he wears nothing on his feet. Just as footwear can tell a lot the lack of shoes is an indication of poverty.
This simple combination of images, on the very edge of the tableau says a huge amount about the National Liberation War, why it was fought and by whom. This Partisan didn’t just fight in the war and risk his life to rid his country of the foreign, Fascist, invaders and for the independence that many of his ancestors had struggled to achieve in previous years. This Partisan didn’t fight for a ‘king’ – who ran away to safety in Britain as soon as the Italians invaded in 1939. He didn’t fight for a ‘god’ who only promised heaven after death, he didn’t fight for a ‘country’ which was ruled by landowners and collaborating industrialists, he didn’t fight to maintain the status quo. This Partisan fought for the poor and the end of poverty and another reason why he would have had a red star on his cap as he was a Communist.
This image of offering protection for the boy at the end of the war is reinforced by the link that he makes between his rifle and the young boy. The war against Fascism was won by arms and the war against poverty cannot be won unless there is the willingness to resort to arms. As Mao said: ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ and without political power nothing can be done to end the reasons for poverty. This idea is represented in a number of other sculptures throughout the country, including the beautiful sculpture of the Partisan and Child (this time a young girl) in Borovë and in the impressive image of the female Partisan at the Lushnje Martyrs’ Cemetery.
But this idea doesn’t end here. The boy is looking up to, and smiling at, the next Partisan in the group. Also the boy has his right hand around the crook the that Partisan’s left arm. Here we have a continuation of this unity, this solidarity, this common ideology. The boy acts as a link between the two fighters, whose mutual support during the war would have been crucial in their survival to the time of victory.
The second Partisan is wearing the closest of the three to a uniform, not the formal uniform seen on other lapidars, such as ‘Shoket – Comrades’ in Përmet Martyrs’ Cemetery or the Monument to the 22nd Brigade in Peze, but not quite civilian clothing either. He’s wearing an open, light coloured jacket, over a white shirt, and green, military style trousers, with puttees over heavy socks inside heavy boots. He’s wearing a cap (where the star has been erased) and a red scarf tied around his neck, which is fluttering over his left shoulder, as if caught by the wind. Around his waist there’s an ammunition belt, with three pouches visible and on his right hip is a British made Mills bomb (pineapple grenade). (There seems to have been a preference for the British model over the German as the Mills bomb appears in many of the finer and more ornate lapidars, for example, at the Peze Martyrs’ Cemetery.) The artist has added a nice little touch here by using dark, almost black stones for the grenade itself but lighter stones for the actual firing pin.
He stands facing the viewer, his legs wide apart and in his left hand he is holding his rifle, which has the butt resting on the ground, by the top of the barrel. (It’s this arm which the young boy is holding so there’s another connection between the solidarity of the figures and arms.) It’s what he’s holding in his right hand which makes him stand out in this tableau – he holds a trumpet and he has the mouthpiece to his lips.
This scene is building up to be the arrival of the Partisans into a village (Bestrovë) at the time of liberation and he is blowing a signal for the population to come out of their houses. During the war he would have been using this trumpet to sound attack or a call to arms (as can be seen on the right hand, 1943, side of the Drashovice Arch) but now the victory has been won it has a different use. His jacket on the right hand side is raised and fluttering as if he has only just brought the trumpet to his mouth. He has his head looking up so that the noise will travel as far as possible. On the mosaic in Durrës it is the local people who are playing musical instruments and making a noise. This Partisan has a strap hanging from his neck which doesn’t seem to be doing anything but it’s possible this is how he would have carried his instrument.
The last of the fighters looks fairly relaxed. He’s also wearing a semi-military uniform, a green, open jacket over a red jersey and light coloured trousers, the bottom of the legs tucked into his long socks. His footwear can’t be seen, either behind his comrade or mixed up in the graffiti mess at the bottom of the panel. He also wears a cap and its possible to see a light mark where the star has been obliterated. He appears to be an officer as there is a rope lanyard hanging from his neck attached to a pistol in a holster over his left hip. Hanging loosely from his right shoulder is a strap at the end of which looks like a map case – this and the pistol singling him out as an officer. However, he has other non-officer attributes and that’s the light machine gun that rests on his right shoulder, the barrel of which extends behind and high above his head. He nonchalantly holds it in place with his right hand on the wooden butt.
There’s another aspect of this lapidar which is quite unique in my research on the monuments in Albania. On every other statue, bas-relief and mosaic I’ve seen, if there are a group of Partisans there is always at least one female and EVERY time that female has been armed. Here there are only male Partisans. I find this somewhat strange when one of the principle ideas of the construction of these monuments during Albania’s Cultural Revolution was emphasising the role of women in both the National Liberation War and the construction of Socialism.
The third part of the story, depicted on the left hand side, is of the construction of Socialism. Here we have a group of four, consisting of one adult female, two adult males and a young girl, each one representing an aspect of the efforts to create a different type of society. They are the heirs of the liberation of the country shown on the right hand side of the tableau.
On the tight of this group is a woman from the countryside. She’s shown in profile, as if she is looking over to the rest of the individuals already described. She’s dressed in the working clothes of a farm worker, probably from a collective farm, with a loose, white blouse with ample sleeves over which she has what looks like a green waistcoat. Her mauve skirt is topped by a white apron, and both these are fluttering in the breeze – again providing an element of movement in a static picture. She wears stockings, elasticated at the top, which come to just below her knees and on her feet she wears modern style sandals. On her head she wears a white scarf which has gathered her hair, just a little of her dark, brown hair peeking out of the material at her forehead..
If you look closely at her face you can see that there are traces of red pigment on her lips, as if she was wearing lipstick. In her arms she holds a substantial sheaf of corn. This is quite a common way to demonstrate that she is a farm worker, such images appearing on the monument to the First Party Cell in Proger and in a monumental manner on the ‘Toka Jonë – Our Land’ statue in the main central square of Lushnje. Although common I can’t remember seeing men carrying the sheaves, either in statuary or painted representations.
Moving to the left we find a young male. He is obviously a town dweller. He’s wearing a white shirt, the sleeves of which have been rolled up. His light brown trousers are kept up by means of a leather belt. In the centre of the buckle there’s a reddish decoration which could mean to represent a star. His feet are wide apart and he’s wearing modern, leather town shoes. He’s entirely absorbed in his book. This is a large red book that he has open and at the level of his chest, close enough to read. His right hand is wide open and rests flat against the back cover of the book, giving it support, whilst his left hand holds the other side of the book, his thumb on the pages, his fingers on the front cover. This is the representation of the new type of intellectual, one who has come from the people and who should be working for the rest of the population. Whether they were always carrying out the task in a selfless manner is one of the issues that needs to be analysed when considering how the situation in the country was allowed to develop in the early years of the 1990s.
Behind his right shoulder is the figure of another male, this time representing the industrial proletariat. His jacket is open and you can see he’s wearing a reddish-brown t-shirt. Over this is the heavy, protective clothing those who worked in heavy industry wore. He’s also wearing heavy protective boots, the top of them having been rolled back down just under his knees. On his head he has the hat that spreads out at the back and on the sides, providing protection to his neck and the side of his face. This is typical of the clothing worn by those in the oil and metallurgical industries. Those latter industries were centred around towns such as Elbasan and Fier but oil production took place near to Vlorë so I assume that is who he represents here. He has his right arm raised at the level of his shoulder in the clenched fist salute of solidarity.
The final figure on the mosaic is that of a young girl. She’s at the extreme left hand side of the image. She wears a pinkish dress that reaches to just below her knees which is, again, fluttering slightly in the breeze. She has long reddish hair and she looks straight out towards the viewer. In both her hands she clutches a green book closely to her chest, as if it is something of real value to her. This is a book of the writings of Enver Hoxha. Originally the name ‘Enver’ would have been highlighted in red, but only a few flecks of the pigment still exist.
This book has been the victim of very conscious vandalism. The ‘En’ has disappeared but it’s still possible to make out the ‘ver’ running from left to right along the book cover, just below the top edge. This act of vandalism says quite important things about the country’s counter-revolution of the 1990s. First is that there was a personalisation of the reaction. There was no desire to try to work out what had gone wrong so as to make matters better, to find a solution to the problems. In Albania all the hated and venom was directed against someone who had already been dead for five years by the time things fell apart. For this reason there are no public images at all of Enver in the country today, from the statues that were erected in his honour or on any of the lapidars commemorating events in the historical past.
What this vandalism also shows is the quality of the work that was employed in the making of the mosaic. Presumably using modern metal tools the vandal gave up his/her destructive endeavours after only managing to obliterate two letters.
Condition of the Mosaic
Apart from the political vandalism already mentioned, together with the spray can graffiti along the bottom edge, the mosaic is in very good condition, considering its age and the fact that no one has paid any attention to its condition for more than 25 years. This is definitely a testament to the skill and dedication of the artist and those who helped in the installation of the art work.
The mosaic is north facing and that has encouraged the growth, albeit slow, of mould on parts of the design. In general this has had the impact of effecting the vibrancy of the colours but does not seem to have had any detrimental effect upon the structure of the mosaic.
Who and when?
Unfortunately I can’t answer either of those questions at the moment. I couldn’t find any clues to the artist, as was the case in Durrës, but this isn’t surprise, signatures on the majority of such public works are few and far between – even when the name of the artist is recorded.
One point it might be worth mentioning here is that in my investigations so far I have not come across any major lapidars which were the work of a female artist. This doesn’t mean they were not a part of this massive public effort in monument construction but there have been no positive confirmations of this involvement.
Beside the road on the route from Vlorë to the village of Bestrovë. As the road climbs, olive trees on both sides, you come to a summit with a petrol station on the right. The mosaic is on the other side of the road as the road starts to go downhill, about a kilometre before the village of Bestrovë itself. It’s difficult to see notice if you are coming from Vlorë as all you see is a large, nondescript concrete wall. There’s a bit of a pull-in right in front of the mosaic.
40° 30′ 26.0820” N
19° 29′ 6.2339” E
How to get there by public transport:
Bus that goes past the mosaic leaves from a stop on Rruga Demokracia, Vlorë, a hundred metres or so after the Historical Museum, heading north, cost 50 lek.