Pietro Lorenzetti altarpiece restoration in Arezzo

Laboratory now open to visitors

Oonagh Stransky
May 20, 2016 - 12:10

A plucky team of professional art restorers in Arezzo have recently decided to open their laboratory for a rare and valuable opportunity to witness the restoration of a fourteenth-century Pietro Lorenzetti altarpiece and to talk to the restorers—an experience that would, in any other circumstance, take place behind museum walls.


Restoration in progress Restoration in progress


RICERCA studios, headed by Isabella Droandi, Marzia Benini and Paola Baldetti, began work on the gold-background polyptych in 2015. What was supposed to be a routine cleaning of the 1300s masterpiece has turned into a passionate exploration of Lorenzetti’s technique and a scientific assessment of past restorations.


The “Arezzo polyptych” by Lorenzetti, which is usually the focal point of the Pieve di S. Maria, is one of the most celebrated works of the fourteenth century and is regularly featured in textbooks on Italian art. The multi-paneled work depicts a three-quarter length Virgin and Child in the central panel, flanked on the left by Saints Donatus (the patron saint of Arezzo) and John the Evangelist and on the right by Saints John the Baptist and Matthew. The second register shows eight half-size male saints framed by arches with portraits of prophets. An image of the Annunciation fills the second-tier space above the Virgin and Child. Four half-size female saints fill the pinnacles of the side panels with the Assumption of the Virgin in the central, topmost pinnacle.


Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1280–1348) is one of the great artistic personalities of the 1300s after Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio di Buoninsegna. Other great works by the artist include his Virgin in Majesty (Maestà) altarpiece in Cortona and his fresco cycle depicting Christ’s Passion in the lower church of San Francesco in Assisi, which he completed before receiving the commission to paint the Arezzo polyptych.


The “Arezzo polyptych” by Lorenzetti, usually the focal point of the Pieve di S. Maria The “Arezzo polyptych” by Lorenzetti, usually the focal point of the Pieve di S. Maria


The Arezzo polyptych shows how Lorenzetti understood Giotto’s groundbreaking naturalism and Giovanni Pisano’s dramatic expressiveness. It also relays his own innovative developments in creating compelling human figures. The altarpiece points toward his later Birth of the Virgin altarpiece, which was painted to adorn one of the transept altars in Siena Cathedral, shortly before the artist’s death during the great plague of 1348.


Another exciting historical aspect of this masterpiece stems from the survival of the contract between Bishop Tarlati and Pietro Lorenzetti, signed on 17 April, 1320. It stipulates that Pietro must paint beautiful figures with high-quality colors on gilded backgrounds, while the patron was responsible for having the framework prepared by local Aretine craftsmen. The contract also stipulates iconography and payment schedules.


Moved at least twice since its creation, the painting has since lost its original frame, including columns at the ends painted with small figures, pilasters between the panels that ended in pinnacles, and a predella, which Vasari described as containing “many small figures, all very beautiful”.


The altarpiece was cleaned when the Pieve di Santa Maria was restored in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, a modern frame with gilded colonnettes was added. These were removed during a 1976 restoration, which was necessary when a vandal tried to set fire to the altarpiece from behind, fortunately only burning parts of the central and left panels down to the level of the primer. During this restoration, conservators decided to replace parts of the support structure with Mansonia wood and used strong solvents typical of the period to remove heavy pigment, varnish, linseed oil, seventeenth-century graffiti and thick splatters of black paint. The gold leaf was mostly left alone. Despite these heavy-handed interventions, the picture has held up well. However, the time has come to undertake a revision of the 1976 restoration.


Restoration underway Restoration underway


One aim of the current intervention is to improve the picture’s resistance to seasonal changes in humidity and temperature within the Pieve di Santa Maria church, which includes replacing the supports added in 1976. The panels have been treated to prevent future insect damage and the paint layers have been assessed to find the best organic solvents, aqueous solutions and emulsions to remove dirt and consolidate the picture surface. Gaps will be filled with polychrome artisanal stucco and rabbit glue. Painting will be done with watercolor and a minimal use of synthetic varnish. All processes will be documented and photographed, and RICERCA will produce a final report, which will become the basis for a catalogue and international conference on the restoration.


Throughout the restoration, scholars have and will continue to visit the labs, including Christa Gardner von Teuffel, Julian Gardner, Giorgio Bonsanti, Franca Falletti, Roberto Bartalini and Alessandro Bagnoli.


The restoration of the Lorenzetti altarpiece requires time and funding. To date, the team has spent more than 1,200 hours working on the restoration. Their discoveries under the microscope, which they are eager to recount and explain in person, have made it possible for them to plan a path towards the full restoration of the piece.


The restoration of the Lorenzetti altarpiece requires time and funding The restoration of the Lorenzetti altarpiece requires time and funding



Dr. Droandi, Benini and Baldetti are happy to host small groups of visitors in the laboratory for specialized visits. Please make an appointment by contacting the email below. The laboratory is conveniently located in the center of Arezzo, not far from the Pieve di Santa Maria, and at the corner of the street that leads to piazza San Francesco.


Art restoration is a costly and time-consuming practice. To date, the only funding they have received has come from a local private company. All donations from individuals who care about world-famous Italian art and the meticulous work of restoration will be gratefully accepted.


Via G. Mazzini, 1

52100 Arezzo

Tel: +39 057528670

Email: [email protected]

Website: https://ricercarestauro.wordpress.com

Contact: Marzia Benini +39 333 2851179

Facebook: Ricerca Restauro Arezzo

Twitter: R.I.C.E RC.A. @ricercarestauro

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