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Life among the ruins

Margie MacKinnon interviews Mary Cochrane on restoration and rebuilding in Beirut, following the blast that damaged the Sursock family palace. Paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi were among the art victims, now in need of repair.

Sursock Palace, Effects of the blast. Ph. Dia Mrad

“I’ll call you back”

“I was talking on the phone to my brother-in-law … and I saw a huge plume of thick black smoke coming directly from the port. I told him, ‘I’ve gotta go, something is happening, I’ll call you back.’” From her home in Lebanon, Mary Cochrane, an American from Louisiana, is describing the moment on the 4th of August 2020 that a monumental explosion decimated the port of Beirut. “I opened the door and literally at that second the blast hit – and all I saw was white. I was propelled back and I broke the sofa behind me … I was knocked out and when I opened my eyes it was only a little after six o’clock but the house was almost pitch black. I noticed that the chandelier was swinging about three feet back and forth. I just thought, the house is going to collapse …”

Sursock Palace, Effects of the blast. Ph. Dia Mrad

The blast

In 2013, a cargo ship sailing from Georgia to Mozambique docked in Beirut after suffering technical problems. The following year, some 2,700 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate were offloaded from the stranded ship and stored in unsafe conditions in a warehouse at the port. When a fire broke out in the warehouse on that day in August, it detonated the cargo – to devastating effect. Over 200 people were killed, 6,000 others injured and some 300,000 were left homeless. Mary Cochrane witnessed this event unfolding from the balcony of her home, the 160-year old Sursock Palace. Built in 1860 in the heart of historical Beirut, the palace is perched on a hill that overlooks the now-obliterated port. It has been home to beautiful works of art, Ottoman-era furniture, paintings and statuary from Italy, collected by generations of the Sursock family.

A little bit of history

The palace had recently been the subject of a 20-year restoration, in part to repair damage suffered during Lebanon’s civil war of 1975-90, work that was undone in an instant by the blast. Among the art treasures that were damaged were two paintings attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi – one a rendition of Mary Magdalene, the other a version of the mythic story of Hercules and Omphale.

How was it that an American woman from Louisiana, married to a Lebanese-Irishman, came to be living in a palace in the Middle East filled with Italian Baroque artworks? As Mary explains, “I’m an interior designer by profession, and I was working with an architectural practice in London. I met my husband, Roderick Cochrane, through an Irish colleague of mine who was friends with Roderick and his brother. We married in London and lived there until the civil war in Lebanon ended. At the war’s end we were able to return to Beirut to live in Roderick’s family home, Sursock Palace, where we have lived ever since.”

Roderick’s father, Sir Desmond Cochrane, was the Honorary Consul-General of Ireland for Syria and Lebanon. Desmond’s wife, Yvonne Sursock, was the only child of Alfred Bey Sursock, the scion of one of Beirut’s oldest aristocratic families. The Italian connection arose from the marriage of Alfred to Donna Maria Teresa Serra di Cassano, the daughter of a Duke, whose family lineage is rooted in the ancient Neapolitan royal family.

Many of the paintings in the Sursock Palace collection were acquired by Alfred Bey and Donna Maria (Roderick’s grandparents) who made frequent trips to Naples and were advised on their art collection by members of the Serra di Cassano family. Mary notes that, “We have found some receipts for paintings in the family archives and it is kind of amazing. They would go and buy six paintings at a time – and these were not small paintings - they would have been large canvases.” Although no documentation has yet been discovered relating to the paintings attributed to Artemisia, “it is probable that they were purchased in Naples”, where Artemisia lived and worked, apart from her visit to London (1638-40), from 1630 until her death, believed to be sometime in 1654.

Magdalene and Hercules and Omphale, Artemisia Gentileschi, attributed.

Damaged in the Sursock blast. The Cochrane Collection

Hercules and Omphale

Along with scores of other works, the two ‘Sursock Artemisias’ suffered extensive damage in the blast. Soon after the catastrophic event, local art historian, artist and professor Dr. Gregory Buchakjian visited Sursock Palace and surveyed the extent of the devastation, a visit he described in an article for Apollo magazine. It was only on reading this article that Mary learned that, some 25 years earlier, Buchakjian had written his thesis for the Sorbonne University on the Sursock Magdalene and Hercules and Omphale which he attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi.

The latter is a large painting that recalls the story of Hercules who, having killed his friend Iphitus in a fit of rage, visits the Delphic Oracle for guidance. In order to expiate his sin, the Oracle declares that he must be sold into slavery to the Lydian Queen Omphale who requires the mighty hero, known for his virility and strength, to practice humility by performing traditionally female tasks, including spinning. This was a popular subject amongst Baroque painters who played on the theme of gender reversal by sometimes portraying Hercules in women’s clothing, while Omphale wore the skin of the Nemean lion and wielded a club. The figure of Omphale fits within the ranks of heroic women, like Judith and Jael, portrayed by Artemisia – although in this case, the heroine did not murder her co-protagonist but, rather, married him.

In his study of the work, Buchakjian notes that the skill with which the clothing details are rendered identifies the work as belonging to the Florentine school. He also highlights similarities between the figures of Omphale and Artemisia’s Judith of Naples, including the reflection of light on the face and hands. Artemisia was known to have been commissioned to paint Hercules and Omphale by Philip IV of Spain (possibly one of three versions of this subject), and an inventory drawn up in 1699 of the goods of Marchese of Laino, an Italian diplomat who resided in Naples, includes a painting of similar dimensions ‘by the hand of Artemisia Gentileschi’. All of which information provided clues to the painting’s origins.

Artemisia and the accident, The Cochrane Collection. Ph. Gregory Buchakjian

Mary Magdalene

Earlier this year, the smaller of the two Artemisias, a penitent Mary Magdalene, although damaged, was sturdy enough to travel to Milan to be included in ‘The Ladies of Art. Stories of women between ‘500 and ‘600 at the Palazzo Reale. Planned as a showcase of art by women including Artemisia, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Elisabetta Sirani, Fede Galizia, Giovanna Garzoni and others, the exhibition was suspended due to Covid restrictions not long after it opened its doors. Comprising 130 works by 34 women artists, the exhibition has since re-opened and will continue until the end of July 2021.

Expert conservators at the Palazzo Reale were able to examine the Magdalene and make a detailed assessment of the work that will be necessary to repair tears in the canvas, deal with paint losses and restore scratches and other injuries suffered in the blast.

Sursock Palace, Effects of the blast. Ph. Dia Mrad

Recovery and Loss

Mary Cochrane’s first thought when she came to after the blast was for her daughter, 18 year-old Ariana, who had been in her bedroom at the front of the house, packing away art supplies in preparation for university. “I yelled for my daughter because I knew she was upstairs in her room … Are you ok? Leave the house …” Very frightened, but otherwise uninjured, Ariana escaped to the safety of the garden. With the help of one of the gardeners, Mary made her way across a sea of broken glass. She eventually joined Ariana in the garden, and only realised the extent of her injuries when a friend insisted she go to the hospital. “I wasn’t even going to go to the hospital. I was very short of breath but I thought maybe I was just in shock … in fact, I had a punctured lung just from the force of the blast”. In addition, Mary had suffered a broken arm which required surgery.

Mary’s mother-in-law, 98 year-old Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, was also at home when the explosion hit. As Mary recalls, “She was directly below me on her own balcony with two guests.” The guests were not hurt but Lady Sursock suffered internal injuries from the force of the blast and, sadly, passed away about a month afterwards. The circumstances of her death are all the more poignant considering that for many years she had championed the preservation of Beirut’s historical buildings and cultural heritage.

Now fully recovered from her injuries and “very grateful to be alive”, Mary is confronting the task ahead. “There is still so much to do, there is devastation on so many different levels. It is very sad and will take a long time to recover. Everybody says the Lebanese are so resilient - but for once that is not the right word … If it had been a natural disaster, then I think the normal resilience would have been there, but because it was a case of neglect, the soul of Beirut has been broken.”


Mary and Roderick Cochrane

This article, by Margie MacKinnon

was originally published in Inside AWA magazine, Summer edition, 2021.


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