by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, Ivo Hadzhimishev

Italian ambassador, art enthusiast and model maker, recreates ethnic and religious ambiance

Stefano Benazzo.jpg

"I am not more interested in tolerance than anyone else. I was just surprised to find that, in Bulgaria, there is such ethnic, linguistic and religious tolerance; a diversity without which Bulgarians would not have survived the last 800 years. I mean that this somehow even predates Ottoman rule, that something in the Bulgarian DNA made it possible for different people to live together. I know Katunitsa exists, and not only Katunitsa; I know what some people think. But I think that many of the ways in which Bulgarians have behaved during the ages are an example for tolerance," Stefano Benazzo surmises. He is sitting in his office in the Italian Embassy in Sofia, but he does not speak as the Italian ambassador to Bulgaria, which he has been since 2008.

Benazzo is talking about the main idea for an exhibition that he and three Bulgarians are mounting in the Archaeological Museum in Sofia. The show, which runs from 10 to 30 January 2012, features 40 models of significant religious and civic buildings in Bulgaria and a number of other countries. The Sofia Central Synagogue, the crumbling synagogue in Vidin and Tombul Mosque in Shumen are among them. A model of the Rila Monastery made by Plamen Ignatov from six million matches is another. It took him 17 years to make. There is a model of the Roman Theatre in Plovdiv by Vihren Mihaylov, because, as Benazzo puts it, "this building brings together the social and historical perspective of the exhibition – it introduces the Roman period and reminds of the entertainment aspect of life, which also implies tolerance from the audience." The models presented are made from wood, cardboard and ceramics.

In the beginning, the model makers considered showing mainly churches, both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic ones, covering the period from Late Antiquity to the 20th Century and several countries, plus Bulgarian Revival Period houses. But then Benazzo was struck by an idea. "I thought: 'Why only churches?' I decided to add some mosques and synagogues, and then the step towards tolerance as the concept of the exhibition became evident." Benazzo himself made the models of Tombul Mosque and the Sofia Central Synagogue, using photographs from Vagabond Media's book A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria as a reference for the latter.

Todor Nanchev made the Vidin synagogue model. "We chose Vidin because it was abandoned. Our decision is also a political statement; I wanted to include the synagogue in the exhibition as a gesture, to show that it exists, to raise concerns about the possibility of finding funds for restoring it. I don't care whether we are talking about a synagogue or a mosque, the point is to show that these things are there."

Besides Tombul Mosque, there is another model of a Muslim prayer house in the exhibition – an imaginary, fantasy construction. Old and worn-out, it was made 20 or 25 years ago. The imam of the Sofia Central Mosque gave it to Benazzo and asked the Italian whether he was experienced enough to restore it. "And I said, of course I am. I have more than a half century of experience," Benazzo says. Benazzo started making models when he was 13, although at the beginning he was only interested in ships. "I made models of boats and ships, specialising in tall ships with three to five masts from the 1860s, 1930s and 1940s."

Modelling buildings came later. Benazzo started with Eastern Orthodox churches. "I am a Catholic but I was always interested in the Eastern Orthodoxy, in some parts of this confession-like mysticism and other aspects which are missing in Catholicism," he says. While on postings in Moscow in 1980- 1983 and 1989-1993, Benazzo had a golden opportunity to study and construct models of several major Russian churches, including St Basil's Cathedral. Sadly, he was never allowed to travel north to see and study one of the most gorgeous wooden churches in Russia – the 1714 Church of Kizhi, on Lake Onega, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But Benazzo did not give up. "The KGB and the FSB never allowed me to go there, so I bought a book and made the model."

A model of the Church of the Saint Archangels (1766) in Şurdeşti, Romania

A model of the Church of the Saint Archangels (1766) in Şurdeşti, Romania

Throughout the years, Benazzo has found and explored other areas of the visual arts. He supplemented his education by working as a professional photographer, and later developed a life-long passion for sculpture. His office is full of his creations: an edgy and literally cracked self-portrait, a wooden stool which no one can sit on, and a kinetic sculpture of oscillating wooden circles, to name but a few.

He has travelled far and wide to feed his passion. Returning from Kabul during his years as an inspector in the Italian Foreign Ministry, Benazzo grabbed an opportunity provided by a stopover in Dubai. He hired a car and a translator, went to a local shipyard, and cut and bought eight pieces of teak wood, used for making the famous Dubaian dhows. He brought them back to Italy. "Teak wood is very heavy, and very good for sculpture," Benazzo explains.

He has not created any sculpture since he arrived to Sofia. "To sculpt you need to empty your head, so it's only you and what you have in mind. You need to be totally focused on what you are doing," he says. "In my position now it is a bit difficult to do this and I regret it very much."

Modelling also requires concentration, but is easier to handle if your working schedule is too tough. "I work at nights," Benazzo says. "You don't think about time when you model. Yes, it takes a lot of time, but I like it. I am very impatient, so modelling helps me be more 'normal', because it is the exact opposite of being impatient." Recreating a ship or a building from scratch is a painstaking process. The model maker has to find and study the plans, cut every piece of wood or cardboard, glue it and put it in its place. The model of the Kizhi church, an elaborate 22-domed structure, for example, took Benazzo six months. The building of the model of the tall ship Amerigo Vespucci consumed 364 nights.

When Benazzo arrived in Bulgaria, he soon made himself known to the local modelling community; his hobby of collecting models of electric trains helped in establishing useful contacts, too. This was how he met Todor Nanchev and the other participants in the exhibition. Living in Bulgaria has its own peculiarities, and after almost four years here, Benazzo is well aware of them, especially when it comes to food. "I hate Shopska salad and that's a statement," he says. "I like meat, but only when the chefs have the capacity to prepare the different types of meat you have ordered – pork, veal, lamb, chicken – more or less to the same level and at the same time. I want my meat hot, but usually they cook the meat dishes at different times and when they arrive, they are all cold. I like the deserts. And I like rakiya but not at the beginning of the meal, as the Bulgarians do. I have never understood why Bulgarians impose alcohol on their own unprepared stomachs, and those of their guests."

As for Italian food in Sofia, he notes that "a very limited fraction of the restaurants with an Italian name actually have real Italian food. There are several places where you can get excellent pizza, but most of the others maybe have a chef who spent six months in Italy, came back to Bulgaria and then adapted Italian food to Bulgarian tastes. But it's inevitable, it happens everywhere." Does he feel more comfortable in Bulgaria than anywhere else? "I'm half Russian and that makes me feel comfortable in the environment east of Trieste," Benazzo says. "And I have been connected with Romania through my wife for the past 37 years and, although Bulgaria and Romania are different, that helps."

Then he continues with the details of his family history, and you realise that the answer to the question is hidden in his genes. "I am also part German and I was born in Morocco. My mother was a Protestant and then she became a Catholic. My wife was an Eastern Orthodox and she became a Catholic. I am Catholic, but I have been to Mount Athos, the Eastern Orthodox monastic republic, three times. And the maiden name of one of my grandmothers was Rosenthal." Which brings us back to the tolerance issue. Benazzo is aware that Bulgaria's record for tolerance has its flaws, and that tolerance is clearly not always an inherent part of the Bulgarian psyche. But when asked to name a characteristic example of the Bulgarian ability to live together more or less peacefully, he is quick to reply.

"The best example is the Quadrilatero of tolerance in Sofia, where you have a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue. Go to that place one day and just let its spirit soak into you. Feel it. Feel it without any conscious thought. Don't play at being a theologian, or a social scientist, or a historian, or whatever. Just feel it. The very idea of being able to visit four different places of worship within less than a square kilometre will give you the best understanding of what tolerance is."


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