One layer at a time

Students give back through restoration

Michelle Brewer
November 30, 2006

In a city where people come from all over the world to feast their eyes on the most classic bits of art, hurried tourists and eager students have become quite commonplace. To keep its masterpieces viewable, Florence is constantly in a state of restoration under the watchful eyes of its many visitors. The very idea of neophyte students crossing the velvet rope and actually touching, let alone restoring, such amazing works seems, for most, nothing more than a remote possibility. Yet, for the students of SACI, Studio Art Centers International, restoration is a dynamic reality. And thanks to their painstaking efforts, the Conservatorio di Santa Maria degli Angioli has recently emerged as a bril-liant jewel of the Baroque.

Soon after its founding by noblewomen in 1517, the Conservatorio became, in the Napoleonic period, a working school for young peo-ple. Centuries later, the flood of 1966 severely damaged the precious building; sections were closed off, many of which have yet to be re-opened. Until recently, the Conservatorio’s chapel was among them. This spiritual conservatory houses stunning paintings, frescos, vaulted ceilings and various altars, all of which have been restored by SACI students from different countries.

SACI has been affiliated with the Conservatorio since 1995, when they first offered to help restore the building’s classical interior. Upon submitting the request, SACI received permission from the Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Culturali for students of conserva-tion to work on five huge semi-circular paintings by Francesco Curradi. Students began work under the supervision and guidance of Paolo and Alessandro Gori, Stefano Garosi and other restoration professionals. Seven years later, all five pieces were beautifully restored, with-out ever removing the pieces from the conservatory. The Holy Year of 2000 saw the Conservatorio open its doors for two masses, which celebrated the progress made on the chapel’s resto-ration thus far. Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli and Father Timothy Verdon each celebrated a mass within its walls, allowing Italians and for-eigners alike to marvel at the evocative ‘new’ beauty of its paintings.

Appreciation for the work of the students stems from their true recognition and genuine enthusiasm for the Italian community and its art. Father Verdon spoke highly of this relationship, saying, ‘It is so rare that American programs in Florence succeed in participating in the reality of Italian life, and rarer still that they find a way to make a significant contribution.’

Due to the unpredicted success of the first restoration project, SACI began to receive funding to continue the process. In the last three years, grants in support of the project included, among others, 190,000 euro from the Ente Cassa di Risparmio bank of Florence and 50,000 euro grant from the International Music and Art Foundation, Vaduz, Liechtenstein.  

After completing Santa Maria degli Angioli’s paintings, each new wave of students (who alternated every year) would spend their energy restoring everything from frescos and altars to wood work and choir books. Their dedication to one of their host city’s more ‘hidden treasures’ is currently on bright display inside the walls of the Conservatorio. In a recent symposium of events moderated by SACI founder Jules Maidoff, the Fondazione Conservatorio di Santa Maria degli Angioli celebrated the ten years of the chapel of the conservatory’s resto-ration. Several conferences spotlighted the convent’s architectural development and the history of the Conservatorio from the Baroque age to the 19th century. Restoration experts Brunella Teodori, Stefano Garosi and Alessandro Gori spoke on preservation and restoration of the complex and church from the 19th  century to present. After years of silence, the music of Frescobaldi, Monteverdi and others rang through the chapel, as the organ, restored in 1793 by Luigi and Benedetto Tonci, found its chords once more. ‘These commemorative events have offered the chance for the Florentines to rediscover a place that very few people actually knew about,’ said Ente Cassa di Risparmio Presi-dent Edoardo Speranza, ‘This project is important even for non-believers. It is our duty to maintain a connection with our civilization. Sacred art is fundamental for everyone.’

It’s apropos that a conservatory which once enhanced the lives of countless young people is finally getting its due. A group of students in our time has given its all, to give something back to the host city of Florence, and restored some of the last complexes that had remained damaged by the flood 40 years before.

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