Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not
For the second time in less than a decade the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana is obscured by scaffolding and sheeting. As on the previous occasion (in 2012) the reason is, supposedly, for the renovation of the ‘The Albanians’, the huge mosaic that celebrates and commemorates the struggle for independence through the ages, the victory over Fascism and the construction of Socialism.
Under normal circumstances such work would be a cause for celebration. The mosaic is a wonderful example of Socialist Realist Art and captures the spirit of the nation at the time it was created in 1982. However, this Albania in 2021 and nothing is that simple.
The present work in progress also asks a number of questions. If, indeed, there was work done in 2012 to repair the damage caused by time and the weather why was it so badly done that it has to be done again nine years later? Was the ‘restoration’ of 2012 nothing more than an excuse to cover up the revolutionary work of art at the time the country was ‘celebrating’ the hundredth anniversary of Independence from Ottoman rule? Events would have taken place in Skenderbeu Square and for the present capitalist rulers of Albania the image of the mosaic as a backdrop to the sham celebrations would have been an ‘inconvenience’.
What was certainly the case was that chunks of the mosaic seemed to be dropping off at an alarming rate and the more pieces that fell the weaker the the rest of the structure would become. Structural damage was obvious as soon as the scaffolding was removed short after November 2012, adding credence to the ‘conspiracy theory’. This situation was pointed out in a post on this site two years ago in September 2019.
As with many of the monuments that were identified in the Albanian Lapidar Survey (many of which have already been described on this blog) ‘The Albanians’ has suffered from both conscious neglect as well as episodes of political and cultural vandalism.
The Albanians Mosaic – National History Museum, Tirana
and up to 2020
‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana
At the beginning of this century one of the five original creators of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) was paid to destroy his own creation. So much for the integrity of the artist. During that act of destruction Nebiu changed three significant aspects of the original design. He removed; the large, gold outlined five pointed star that was behind the head of the central female figure; the small golden star that was situated between the heads of the doubled-headed eagle (that being the official flag of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania); and the book from the right hand of the central male figure, replacing it with what looks like a sack (the book would have represented both education and the written works of Enver Hoxha). In the process Nebiu created the most amazingly shaped flag.
So the question I’m posing here is ‘What sort of restoration will be carried out this time?’ The chances of the original imagery and intention being re-created is only marginally more likely than that of an ice cream surviving very long in Hell.
But there are further possibilities of ‘re-writing’ history. The War of National Liberation against the invading fascists, first Italian then the German Nazis, was led by and principally carried out by Albanian Communists. This fact is indicated by the images of the red star on the headgear of the figures on the right of the mosaic. As has happened on a number of lapidars these red stars could be made to ‘disappear’ and therefore ‘deny’ the Communists the victory.
There’s obviously a change going on in the official approach to the Socialist Period in Albania. The present (September 2021) ‘Archive’ exhibition of Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures in the National Art Gallery, the covering up of those paintings that have, for years, formed the permanent exhibition in the gallery and the closure of all the rooms and galleries devoted to the National Liberation War in the National Historical Museum itself all seem to indicate that the involvement of the Communists in the war is going to be completely obliterated.
… for the failed assassination attempt on Victor Emanuel III of Italy in 1941
Below is a reproduction of an article that first appeared in New Albania, No 1, 1970. [There has been some correction of the translation and grammar – but with an attempt to capture the tone of the original.]
The Attempt Upon the King’s Life
‘We glance through the May 1941 issue of the fascist magazine ‘Tomorri’. In one of its articles we come across a photo of Victor Emanuel the Third, the then King of Italy, taken in an open car. Having paid a visit to Albania, which was then occupied by the Italian fascists, he was on his way back to Italy. Though beneath the photo the words ‘A royal smile’ are written his face expresses terror and anxiety. On looking at this photograph the question naturally arises in one’s mind – ‘What’s wrong with the King?’
This photo was taken immediately after the 18 year young man, Vasil Laçi, had attempted to assassinate the King. He had fired five shots, but none found their true mark, but they did there bit, Radios worldwide echoed the news. The world over learnt, through Vasil Laçi’s deed, the words and the will of the Albanian people who hated the fascist heel. Vasili carried out this heroic attempt and he also heroically faced horrible tortures. Ten days in succession he endured the tortures. The fascists had anticipated that the son of the people from Piqerrasi, in Himara, would give up his comrades. But it was all in vain. The only answer they got from him was; ‘I deeply regret I didn’t shot the King dead’.
The tortures continued repeatedly. When he was given a pencil and a piece of paper to write on all he wrote were insults to the occupiers. It was May 27th, 1941 when the prisoners of Tirana Gaol saw the young man walking to the gallows in the centre of the yard. A little later a long procession of guards was seen. The young man who had been bound hand and foot was singled out. The procession stopped in the front of the gallows. When the senior lieutenant was loudly reading out the death sentence the patriot cast a long look at his fellow prisoners and raised his head aloft. When the reading was over, the whole jail echoed with revolutionary songs. At this moment, the doctor and the priest approached him. He didn’t let either of them near him.
‘Have you anything to say?’ they asked.
‘Yes, I have a demand. Bring me a comb to brush, my hair.’ They where nonplussed. How strange! He is on the point of dying and wants to have his hair combed!
But when Vasili said it, he meant it. All he longed for at these moments was to carry on the tradition of Albanian heroes, who scorned death by combing their hair before breathing their last. But this last desire of his was not permitted. In spite of that, he despised death until the last moment. He climbed up the gibbet, to the gallows, casting a glance at the windows of the jail. The prisoners never forgot this. Everything was ready. The yard of the gaol echoed with the fair words of Vasil Laçi: ‘Long live free Albania!’ ‘Long live Stalin!’ ‘Down with the fascists’. As soon as he finished these words, he pushed himself off the gallows. The revolutionary songs of the prisoners followed.
In one of the main streets of the capital a slate plaque attracts the attention of the passers-by. It says that this is the place where the attempt on the King’s life was made by the young man, Vasil Laçi.’
Monument to Vasil Laçi – Thoma Thomaj
The artist who created the plaque is Thoma Thomaj – who was also the sculptor for the Monument to Sixth Brigade – Përmet, Grenade Ambush – Barmash and the newer sculptures of the Martyrs’ Cemetery – Borovë.
On the plaque are the words;
Atentati i djaloshit Shqiptar qe qelloi Viktor Emanuelin e III ishte fillimi i nje kryengritjej e te madhe qe po pregatite
which translate as;
The execution of the Albanian boy, who shot at Victor Emmanuel III, was the beginning of a great uprising that was being prepared
Vasil Laçi in Socialist art
In 1974 Agim Zajmi made a painting of him
Vasil Laçi – Agim Zajmi – 1974
and Kristaq Rama created a statue
Vasil Laçi – Kristaq Rama
The statue that is supposed to be of Vasil Laçi by Kristaq Rama is on public dispaly, next to the main library, in the centre of Korça – however there is no reference to Vasil on that lapidar.
Location of the commemorative plaque
The corner of Rruga e Durrësit and Rruga Mihal Duri, Tirana.
Description and photos of the Lapidars (Monuments), statues, bas reliefs and mosaics
Here you will find a list of those Albanian Lapidars which I have been able to visit, photograph and then write about what the images represent. The numbering system is that established in Volume 1 of the Albanian Lapidar Survey – carried out in 2014 by researchers and photographers of the Department of Eagles.
After the list of the lapidars recorded in the Albanian Lapidar Survey there is a list of other Socialist Realist art works, statues, bas reliefs, mosaics, etc., which were outside the remit of the project of 2014 but which complement the major monuments.
This is followed by a few examples of how reaction seeks to fight back against Socialist advances by the promotion of ignorance, mysticism and even a return to pre-Christian superstitions – sometimes using the tools of the Socialist period to do so. This includes a couple of monuments to those who were in the country to seek dominance of the people and their land and not for the independence of the country from foreign control but to seize the wealth of the people and the country’s resources for the interests of capitalism and imperialism.
ALS 1 – Monument to the Partisan, in central Tirana, commemorating the liberation of the city on 17th November 1944, the work of the sculptor Andrea Mano. The first of the sculptural lapidars, being installed in 1949.
ALS 2 – To the victims of fascism – Tirana market.
ALS 3 – To the fighters who fell from the bullets of the Nazi occupiers.
ALS 13 – Monument to the Artillery – Sauk, in the hills above Tirana, at the point where the Partisan artillery fired upon the Albanian Quisling government, by the sculptors Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri and Muntaz Dhrami (1968).
ALS 21 – Memorial to the Peze Conference of 16th September 1942 which established the organisational structure for the forthcoming struggle for liberation against the Fascist invaders, first the Italian and then, when Italy fell to the Allies, the Germans (1970).
ALS 504 – Mushqete Monument – Berzhite. In the last days of the fight for the National Liberation of Albania by the Communist led Partisan army a crucial battle took place along the road from Elbasan to Tirana, south-east of the capital. To commemorate this battle the Mushqete Monument was erected at Berzhite. The work of sculptor Hector Dule and the architect K Miho.
This article first appeared in New Albania, No 4, 1976. It is reproduced here to give more information about this crucial battle against Hitlerite Fascism in the final days of the National Liberation War – and only a matter of days before the liberation of Tirana and the effective end of hostilities in Albania.
ALS ? – Bas Relief and Statue at Bajram Curri Museum – one of the last of the major Socialist Realist bas reliefs beside a statue of the Independence fighter who gave his name to the town. This all sits in front of the (now looted and closed) city museum.
Liri Gero – Tirana Art Gallery
Socialist Realist statues, mosaics and bas reliefs
‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana – the finest, and without a shadow of doubt the biggest, revolutionary mosaic in Albania. Has been the victim of reactionary ‘rewriting of history’ – more exactly cultural vandalism. One of the artists involved in its creation was also responsible for some of those post-Socialist changes. Possibly the model for the Judas character in the Sacred Heart Church after taking his thirty pieces of silver. Pieces fall from it every winter and might eventually disappear as it will be considered too dangerous to allow to remain and no money found for its proper restoration. Ranks with the Arch at Drashovicë as being one of the truly monumental examples of Socialist Realist art in Albania.
Gjirokastra College Bas Relief – This small relief, at the bottom of the stairs into a high school in the old part of Gjirokastra, commemorates an event in 1942 when the local students from the gymnasium (college), together with their teachers, demonstrated against, and clashed with, the occupying Italian fascist forces.
The ‘Hanged Women’ of Gjirokastra – This is a statue of Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima, two Partisans, who were executed by the German Nazis in 1944. From that time they became known as the Hanged Women of Gjirokastra.
The bas reliefs and mosaics of the Vlora Palace of Sport – both the inside and outside of public buildings were often decorated with images promoting the new society. Here there are images, in bas relief on the external walls and mosaics in what would have been the main entrance hall.
Bashkia Mosaic – Ura Vajgurore – a mosaic beside the main entrance to the town hall in Ura Vajgurore – a few kilometres north of Berat. It depicts the activities that made the area prosperous during the Socialist period – now all virtually abandoned and left to rot.
Traditional Wedding Mural in Peshkopia – a large mural in the restaurant of what used to be the main state-run tourist hotel in the north-eastern town of Peshkopia. It shows a local wedding which combines the traditional practices of the region together with the new social relations that were being established during Socialism.
Radio Kukesi bas-relief – a simple, yet striking stone bas relief on the facade of the (still) radio station in the north-eastern town of Kukes, close to the border with Kosovo. The radio station broadcasts the news of the new Albanian man marching towards the future.
Emblem over Party HQ, Peshkopia – Socialist imagery took many forms but this (now rusting) large metal cut out of the map of Albania, on which is superimposed a pickaxe and rifle (the symbol of the Party of Labour of Albania) is quite unique. It stands atop what used to be the Peshkopia Party headquarters.
Krrabë Miners Panel – a stone bas relief that is located on the side of the entrance to what used to be the community centre in the mining village, to the south of Tirana on the road to Elbasan. The mines have long since closed but the existence of the bas relief reminds us of the history of the region under Socialism. Also there’s an example of the decoration that would have been outside of buildings that had a connection to the Party of Labour of Albania.
Tobacco Factory, Durrës – a stone bas relief which celebrated the uprising and strike in 1940 of Durrës tobacco workers against the Italian Fascists who had invaded the previous year. Unfortunately the long abandoned tobacco factory was demolished a few years ago to make place for one of the many, incredibly ugly and massive private universities that have sprung like an infestation throughout the country. The fate of the panel is, at this time, unknown.
Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier – Liri Gero was one of the many teenage Albanian men and women who joined the Partisans in the fight for National Liberation against the Fascist, first Italian and then German, invaders. She ended up being captured and tortured to death. The statue hidden away behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana is dignified in its depiction of the young peasant woman. The contemporary statue in the centre of Fier is an insult to her (and that of the other Partisans’) memory.
Bourgeois, reactionary and religious art, sculpture and architecture in post Socialist Albania
Anti-Communist paintings – Shkodër Franciscan Church – not in any sense Socialist but an interesting example of how the reactionary forces in a post-revolutionary society use the cultural development of that Socialist past to attack it. If nothing else it demonstrates the anti-progressive nature of the Catholic Church. Unique pictures – at least I haven’t seen their likes elsewhere – and worth the trip to Shkodër to see them.
German Fascist Memorial in Tirana, Albania – Albania was probably the first country in Europe to establish monuments to the Fascist invaders between 1939 and 1944 – but unfortunately not the last (Poland and Ukraine having also decided to curry favour with Western capitalism in such a manner).
The English Cemetery in Tirana Park – British involvement in Albania in the latter years of the Second World War wasn’t to assist the Albanian people in their battle against German Fascism – but to try to ensure that elements within the Albanian establishment that were favourable to the ideas the British ruling class were attempting to spread across post-war Europe would eventually gain control. The activities of the British in the immediate post-war years, especially with what is often referred to as ‘The Corfu Incident’, and their attempts to undermine the new Socialist government in Albania into the 1950s demonstrates their true intentions. The English Cemetery brings with it a twist that’s missing in the German cemetery – the large, red, marble stone that dominates the space was originally the grave stone of the great Albanian Communist and Marxist-Leninist, Enver Hoxha, when he was interred next to Mother Albania in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills above Tirana.