A small window with a big view

Oonagh Stransky
April 12, 2012

For a few short months last year in Rome, a fascinating exhibit, entitled Caravaggio: Restauro Aperto allowed visitors to see art restorers working on one of Caravaggio's most intriguing paintings, the Adoration of the Shepherds. The exhibit, sponsored by Fastweb, the Internet provider, and held in the lower chambers of Parliament, was constantly sold out. Seeing restorers at work clearly taps into a collective desire to see art come alive in a different way: work that is usually done behind the scenes is in full view, and seeing the experts deftly handling the artworks gives viewers a glimpse of the original artists' process.



Much like literary translation, art restoration is a thankless, silent profession that is often ignored because it isn't terribly sexy, it doesn't sell anything, it doesn't win awards and it is not merchandisable. Those in the know, or even those who know just a little, recognize that restorers need to be patient and dogged, both technically expert yet creative, and they need to stay aware of the big picture, always keeping an eye on the endgame, while still focused on the details.


With so much artwork in need of care in Italy, one would think that there would be an army of well-trained restorers, yet that is not the case. The country has two important schools for art restoration, ISCR in Rome and the Opificio in Florence, both under great financial strain these days. Organizations like R.I.C.E:R.C.A., a restoration group in Arezzo, are discouraged from taking on apprentices because there is no simple way of formalizing their assistance. The restorers barely have enough money to cover their own expenses and don't have time to teach initiates while they work on projects. As Marzia Benini, the spokesperson for R.I.C.E:R.C.A vehemently points out, the problem is that there are no cultural politics that work in favor of art restoration.


Moreover, the work is expensive, and those who support and fund restoration projects are considered angels. Thus, in Arezzo, where I live, a group of angels created an open restoration studio along the lines of the one that proved so popular in Rome. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of Vasari's birth, R.I.C.E:R.C.A. art restoration group, together with assistance from a group of organizations, set up Una Finestra sul Restauro, an exhibit that allowed visitors to see the restoration of an altarpiece by Vasari, originally from Monte San Savino, which had been damaged by overzealous restorers in the past. The piece, which measures 397cm x 237cm and belongs to Sant'Agostino church in Monte San Savino, portrays the Assumption of the Virgin and is signed and dated 1539. Although originally scheduled for only 5 months, the exhibit ultimately ran for 13 months and 15 days. More than 4,000 people visited the studio, including students and tourists. The open restoration afforded a wonderful chance to see art restoration in action in an intimate environment. (Go to www.vasari500.com to hear about the restorers' experiences.)


 At least 14 major offices and entities contributed funding, time and assistance to open the restoration. Private individuals also helped make the effort a success. But most of the credit goes to the three main players in the project: Benini and her colleagues Paola Baldetti and Isabella Droandi, who make up the consortium of R.I.C.E:R.C.A. Their tenacity, patience and enthusiasm revealed what is perhaps the best (and yet ultimately self-defeating) part of the Italian work ethic: where there is passion, there is success.


The idea is catching on. Currently there are a few ongoing live restoration projects in Tuscany; see them below.





Don't miss the rare opportunity of seeing restorers working on the Agnolo Gaddi frescoes in the main nave of Santa Croce in Florence. I was amazed by the details in the 1380 wall paintings, especially the figures' faces and clothing and the animals. You can see up close how the restorers dealt with a 30-meter crack in the wall without compromising the patina of age. Scavenger hunt: try to find the painter, his lover and the painter's father! And if you're worried about climbing around on scaffolding, don't be. An elevator takes you up seven levels to the roof and you descend a sturdy staircase. If you're lucky, you'll even see restorers painstakingly working on the stunning crucifix by the Maestro di Figline. Bring a camera. Children must be over 12. The tour, which lasts approximately 40 minutes, is by reservation only. There are multiple tours each day. Contact [email protected] or call 055/2466105.


For the past year in Florence, Coop members, Friends of Tourism and Friends of the Uffizi Gallery have joined for the Give the Gift of Restoration initiative. After taking a special guided tour of lesser-known works at the Uffizi by restoration professionals from the Mercurio Association, visitors may give donations earmarked for restoration work. This winter 2,500 euro was collected and spent on the urgent conservation of two portraits that hang in the first hall of the Uffizi. For more information, call Amici del Turismo at 055/218413.




Simone Martini's polyptych is being restored live before visitors' eyes at the Museum of San Matteo. Visitors can learn about the scientific approach to the work thanks to a touch screen installation, revealing details otherwise not visible to the naked eye. Until April 30, 2012 at the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (Tuesday-Saturday, 8:30am-7:30pm; Sunday, 8:30am-1:30pm, tel. 050/541865).



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