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Meet the Woman In Charge of Conserving Every Single Inch of the Watts Towers, L.A.’s Most Iconic Landmark

1:42 PM PDT on June 17, 2021

Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)

Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for L.A. Taco (Brian Feinzimer)

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]ith gentrification on the rise comes the not always aesthetically pleasing money-over-culture approach to L.A.’s historically rich and beautiful architecture. As a result, old craftsman homes and California bungalows are becoming contemporary buildings planted like markers of systemic racial inequalities within Los Angeles neighborhoods. However, through Art Conservation, Elisabetta Covizzi is helping preserve the culture of native Angelenos through her most significant conservation project at the world-famous Watts Towers

Covizzi says, “When Abbot Kinney came to Los Angeles and built Venice, there were a lot of African Americans living there in these little bungalows. They were there because they helped build the canals and the Venice you see today, but just in the past ten years, people have been coming in and buying these little bungalows, taking them down, and building these cubic houses of cement and glass that are so horrible,” she notes.

“And by doing that, they are changing the face of the neighborhood.”

Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for L.A. Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
The Watts Towers in Watts. Brian Feinzimer for L.A. TACO.
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
The Watts Towers in Watts. Brian Feinzimer for L.A. TACO.
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)

Elisabetta Covizzi is a master art conservator born and raised in Milan, Italy, who has been working in Los Angeles since 2016. She has worked at the Getty, The Nirvana, and now the Watts Towers under LACMA since October 2018. “People always mistake this job. Restoration is when you make something prettier that is falling apart, but conservation is to conserve what’s there, so the original is very important,” she says. “I feel like more of a doctor of the walls because I fix something that was already there.”

Before the conservation of the Watts Towers, a team of engineers and researchers studied these complex sculptures for over seven years to decide the protocol and approach for conservation. “Usually, if you have a doubt on certain [projects], there’s always somebody else that has encountered the same problem on the other side of the world but not the Watts Towers,” says Covizzi. “They are completely unique and different from anything else because Rodia made up his technique, so there is nothing in the world that is built like the Watts Towers.”

Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Hollywood for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for L.A. Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at the Watts Towers in Watts for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)

The Watts Towers are a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, a California Historical Landmark, and a National Historic Landmark (NHL). “[They are] probably one of the biggest examples of folk art in the United States. There’s other gardens and sculptures here and there, but nothing this big,” says Covizzi. 

This massive art collection was built over 33 years from 1921 to 1954 by Sabato ‘Simon’ Rodia, an Italian immigrant born and raised in Serino, Italy. He built the entire site by hand using scrap materials such as pottery, seashells, railroad tracks, pipes, and other “found” objects, including an iron headboard. Covizzi says, “Rodia dug a foundation by hand of 14 inches and distributed the weight of the towers in a perfect way. He didn’t have any notion of architecture. It was pure instinct, and they are still standing after almost 100 years.”

Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for LA TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for L.A. Taco (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for LA Taco (Brian Feinzimer)

Once completed, the site was named “Nuestro Pueblo” (“Our Village”) and consisted of Rodia’s residence, three towers, 17 sculptures, structures, mosaics, and etched pavement with embedded objects throughout. Some of these materials, which no longer exist, have even turned the Watts Towers into an archive. For example, some of the pottery found in the towers are from the historic Malibu Pottery, a short-lived ceramic tile company established from 1926 to 1932.

Covizzi says, “Working at the Watts Towers is one of the greatest honors of my life, and I worked in Italy on buildings from the 1300s and 1400s that are so important by amazing artists, but somehow when I walked into that garden, it was almost like walking into this man’s mind.” 

“A lot of people come to visit [the Watts Towers] from Egypt, Iceland, Italy, but most of my friends from Los Angeles have never been to visit them, which is crazy to me...”

Covizzi’s mother was a homemaker, and her father was a mechanic who introduced her to the world of art. “The reason I love art is because of my dad. When I was a little girl he used to take me to museums.” When Covizzi was 13 years old, her father took her to an art exhibition from the Roman Empire where a set of dolls were showcased, with panels explaining the steps to conserve these ivory sculpted dolls. This inspired Covizzi to pursue art conservation as a career when she grew older. She later attended Politecnico di Milano to study Historic Preservation and Conservation, and later received her master’s degree at Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Italy, with a specialization in wall paintings and frescoes.

Growing up in Italy, Covizzi explains how people experience a shared value of art throughout their life, regardless of their class status. “I think it’s just part of the culture to be surrounded by beautiful things. It’s not necessarily just because you have money,” she says. “For me that’s beautiful. What your eyes see is very important.”

Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)
Elisabetta Covizzi at The Nirvana in Hollywood for L.A. TACO (Brian Feinzimer)

Covizzi’s love of art and science complement one another seamlessly in her profession to recreate truly spectacular works of art. She says, “The art conservation we know today that is backed up by science was born in Italy, and the reason why is because we have so much art. At one point, we had to find a way to take care of this art without messing it up, so this science was basically created there.”

We’ve also seen other examples of art and science with some of L.A.’s most iconic staples, such as the Urban Lights at LACMA and, of course, the Watts Towers. Interestingly enough, it is not likely for tourists and L.A. natives to visit the Watts Towers, and one can only assume why that is. “A lot of people come to visit [the Watts Towers] from Egypt, Iceland, Italy, but most of my friends from Los Angeles have never been to visit them, which is crazy to me,” Covizzi notes. “Think about it, when you come to Los Angeles, the Watts Towers are not one of the things that come to a tourist’s mind, but the Watts Towers, to me, is the number one monument in Los Angeles, and yet it’s so underrated.”

“My biggest drive in this job is that I want future generations to enjoy every piece of art there is because when I was a little girl, and I went into that museum, and I saw that doll, it inspired me so much. If we keep doing this, I feel like people can be inspired just by looking at the Watts towers and looking at what [Rodia] left behind.”

After two years, Covizzi and the LACMA team have completed three Watts Towers, but the site is far from finished. Covizzi hopes that between LACMA, the city of Los Angeles, and possible donors, there will be enough funding to continue performing routine maintenance and complete this entire collection, as these towers were not built to stand forever. She says, “It’s so important for the people in Watts. For them it’s everything and let me tell you, those towers are still there because they were built in Watts. If they were built in any other neighborhood, they would’ve demolished them.”

When Covizzi isn’t working at the Watts Towers, she’s focusing on her latest conservation project, the Nirvana, one of two other buildings in Hollywood built during the 1920s with the same architectural style as the Chinese Theatre. “It’s going to be insane. There isn’t a single inch that isn’t painted with decoration and gold, but at one point, they covered everything with white paint,” she notes. “I feel like in Los Angeles because there are so many people from so many different cultures, everything gets built and destroyed so quickly that I’ve never understood why but honestly, I feel like a little bit is changing. For me, the example is this building.”

Covizzi’s work extends from her home’s love of art in Italy. It stretches into Los Angeles to help us understand why we must continue to conserve our history intentionally, or we may find ourselves asking, what is left of our neighborhoods? She says, “My biggest drive in this job is that I want future generations to enjoy every piece of art there is because when I was a little girl, and I went into that museum, and I saw that doll, it inspired me so much. If we keep doing this, I feel like people can be inspired just by looking at the Watts Towers and looking at what [Rodia] left behind.”

You can keep up with Elisabetta Covizzi’s conservation projects through Instagram. For more information, visit her website.

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