Restoration of the Icon of Our Lady in the Church of SS. Trinita dei Pellegrini

Project location: ITALY, Rome
Project start date: January 2009 - Project end date: December 2009
Project number: 2008-35
Beneficiary: Parrocchia Personale della SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini

 

Thanks to the generosity of the Ferdinando Pereti Foundation, the restoration of the altarpiece by Giovanni Battista Ricci in the church of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini in Rome has been successfully accomplished.

This restoration project has involved extensive work on the two paintings that compose this altarpiece-a canvas painted in oils in 1613 by the mannerist painter Giovanni Battista Ricci (more commonly known as Il Novara) and a fresco painting by an anonymous artist of the fourteenth century. The project also included the cleaning of the altarpiece's marble frame.

Before describing the restoration process, a description of the component parts of this altarpiece is necessary.

In 1562 a small fresco image of the Virgin suckling the infant Christ child was removed from the façade of the Capranica Palace and positioned in the church now known as Ss. Trinità dei Pellegrini. When the church was rebuilt in the early years of seventeenth century, the fresco was placed in the transept of the new church above an imposing altar dedicated to the Virgin. Giovanni Battista Ricci was commissioned to paint a large canvas designed to enshrine the small fresco. The altarpiece is thus formed of a rather unusual ensemble. The small fresco was set into the wall above the altar. The larger oil canvas is set in front of it, but leaves a rectangular opening that frames the fresco, and permits it to be seen and form the main focus of the altar below.

To mask the open space between the vertical plane of the fresco and that of the superimposed canvas, a gilded frame was inserted between the two works in the nineteenth century. Using a system of hidden pulleys, a panel in embroidered cloth of silver was inserted. This panel could be raised and lowered by means of a cord that passed behind the canvas. The fresco could be thus revealed or hidden according to the occasion, This system for covering the image represents a rare survival. Few of these mechanisms are still in place.

When Ricci's painting was installed in 1613, it was not fixed within its marble frame, but was hinged on one side so that the canvas could be opened (rather like a large door) and the fresco in the wall behind could be accessed.

Before work began on the altarpiece, every element was in an extremely poor state of conservation. The fresco had been darkened by successive layers of lacquer over four centuries. Its surface evidenced signs of stress and cracking. Humidity had caused its plaster to swell and there was a considerable risk that areas of the fresco would detach and disintegrate. Amateurish attempts at restoration in the past had resulted in raised patches of plaster that disturbed the uniformity of the fresco's surface. These areas had been repainted using pigments that over time has discoloured and disfigured the fresco's overall effect. The outer edges outer edges of the plasterwork were jeopardized and there was the risk that more areas on the fresco's perimeter would disintegrate. Centuries of candle fumes had also darkened the fresco.

Before restoration, this fresco was almost illegible. This represented a considerable loss to our cultural heritage. The fresco is the work of a relatively important minor master of the fourteenth century. It is an example of an iconography. It is an example of an iconography that enjoyed a certain favour in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but fell into disfavour in the later sixteenth century as a result of the Council of Trent. It represents the Virgin breastfeeding her infant son. Only a limited number of examples in fresco of the Virgo Lactans have survived. As a work of art, this fresco represented a level that certainly merited conservation and restoration.

The first step was to invite the Superintendent of the government body that oversees the conservation of art works to inspect the altarpiece. The nature and extent of all restoration projects on paintings and frescos in Roman churches is controlled by this state office. This office must also approve the restorers who are to work on any given project. At all stages of every project, work is directed and modulated by this state superintendent.

The superintendent for artworks, Doctor Donazio, gave her approval to the choice of restorer, Christine Brouillet. Madame Brouillet was one of the most experienced painting restorers in Rome and had worked on artworks in such prestigious collections as the Palazzo Barberini, Villa Borghese, etc. Madame Brouillet took a personal interest in the restoration project. She prepared a written description as to her proposed intervention.

The superintendent, after her first inspection of the Novara canvas, decided that it would be necessary to do extensive restoration work on the stretcher of this canvas. The wooden stretcher was severely warped and was compromising the tension of the canvas, causing stress on previous repairs to the canvas and putting the stability of the canvas' paint surface at risk.

It was also necessary to repair the hinge-mechanism of this stretcher. The stretcher needed radical restabilising so that it could withstand the pivotal movement when the painting was swinging on its hinges.

In addition, the Novara canvas had suffered numerous tears over four hundred years. The canvas had been relined in the nineteenth century, but the poor quality of the repairs to the original canvas meant that its painted surface was not adequately protected by this relining. Consolidation work was needed on the relined canvas. It was decided that it was too risky to reline the work. The original canvas was too fragile to withstand such an operation.

To execute the necessary structural work on the painting's canvas and stretcher, the superintendent chose the company Equilibrarte. Equilibrarte has extensive expertise in field and works for the most important museums and art collections in Italy.

Scaffolding was erected before the altar in question. Equilibrarte detached the Novara painting. The scaffolding was constructed to facilitate the dismounting and remounting of the Novara but also to allow the restoration of the fresco image in situ about two metres above the altar's surface.

Equilibrarte reconsolidated the Novara painting's stretcher. A system of small springs around the perimeter of the stretcher. A system of wires connected the springs both horizontally and vertically. This system created the correct tensions needed to hold the four sides of the stretcher in a carefully balanced equilibrium.

Once its stretcher had been re-stabilized, the painting was consigned to the studio of Madame Brouillet, who performed a first cleaning of the paint surface. This cleaning revealed that he Novara had suffered severe lacerations. The removal of clumsily executed stucco work showed that over four centuries the painting had been torn in various points, other areas were revealed to conceal serious burn marks. The removal of later paintings revealed that some areas of the painting had been too stringently cleaned with a resultant loss of original detail. This damage could be explained by the fact that it had formed a surround to the fresco over the Virgin. Huge numbers of candles had meant that the painting was constantly subjected to violent attempts at cleaning. Constant activity before this devotional image had resulted in tears and lacerations to Novara's canvas painting.

This damage, if left un-repaired, would represent a significant loss. Giovanni Battista Ricci's works form an important contribution to the artistic life of Rome at the close of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. Ricci was one of the major contributors to the fresco cycles commissioned for the Roman basilicas by Sixtus V and his successor. Ricci was one of the leading exponents of late mannerism in Rome. However, very few of his works of art have survived. This canvas is one of a few rare exemplars.

At this juncture, the restoration programme was interrupted by the sudden and unexpected death of our principal restorer, Christine Brouillet.

Meanwhile, the superintendent had been plagued by extremely serious health problems. Considerable time passed before Dr. Donazio could take the project in hand again and appoint a restorer to replace Madame Brouillet.

Eventually, Dr. Donazio appointed Claudia Damassa to take up work as chief restorer.

A reappraisal of the Ricci (Novara) canvas by the supervisor resulted in an amendment to the restoration programme.

 

Amendment and Continuation of the Project - "Restoration of the Altarpiece by G. B. Rossi"

 

In 2010, the government supervisor directing this restoration project decided that a more radical intervention on the canvas by Ricci (Il Novara) needed to be undertaken. A preliminary cleaning had revealed that the painting was in a far worse state than first thought. Repainting had hidden serious lacerations in the painting's canvas. Moreover, the removal of some nineteenth century repainting had revealed that considerable areas of the original painting could probably be retrieved. This would entail a more complicated cleaning process. Zone by zone, preliminary tests would be done to determine if it were possible to recuperate Ricci's original work. The superintendent was confident that Ricci's work was mostly intact, and that careful cleaning and repair would bring Ricci's painting back to view.

Dr. Donazio also saw that the painting would need further reinforcement from behind. The lacerations to the canvas were deeper and more serious than was evident before cleaning. This would require more remedial work on the rear of the canvas. The company Equilibrarte was consulted. Two operations were necessary. The lacerations would need to be repaired from behind. The rear of the painting would need to be protected by panels that would insulate the canvas from the effects of humidity. Once remounted, it was important that even a low quotient of dampness emitted by the wall behind the painting would not attack the work. These panels would also give the canvas an added stability.

Inspection of the marble frame, now that the canvas had been removed, revealed that it would need consolidation work.

An application was made to the Ferdinando Peretti Foundation to approve an amendment to the original restoration project. This amendment was sanctioned, even though it involved a considerably more substantial commitment to the project.

At this juncture the project suffered another untimely delay. The government supervisor in charge of the project retired. It was quite a long time before her successor was appointed. Meanwhile the project was at a stand still.

Eventually, the new superintendent, Dr. Emanuela Settimi, took this project under her supervision and work resumed.

The restorer executed a number of small cleaning tests at various crucial points in the painting. These were at different levels of intensity. The supervision was thus able to decide on the degree of cleaning appropriate to the respective areas of the painting. The main aim was to return to the original level wherever practicable and restore the painting to its original appearance.

Before work proceeded, Equilibrarte remedied the lacerations in the canvas. All poorly executed stucco reparations were removed. Because these had been in place for many years, considerable skill and care was needed in order not to damage any of the original painting surface which had after been covered by these stucco patches.

Once these had been removed, the canvas was repaired from behind. Small bands of an appropriately adhesive material were fixed in such a way as to close the lesions. Interventions in stucco were reduced to a minimum. The visual impact of these lacerations was considerable reduced.

Equilibrarte also applied protective panels to the underside of the canvas. These were designed so as to protect the canvass fromdampness created in the closed space between the church wall and the painting when remounted, but at the same time allowing the canvas to breathe while giving it added stability.

Work on the cleaning of the pictorial surface was resumed. The superintendent directed our restorer, Claudia Damassa, at every stage. Great care was taken to remove successive layers of lacquers that had discoloured and hardened over the painting's long life. Then non-original re-paintings had to be removed without, however, removing Ricci's own original repaintings or "pentimenti."

This procedure was executed painstakingly and in small sections at a time. It was necessarily time-consuming. Solvents work at different speeds and need to be carefully monitored once applied. Because the painting had been heavily re-varnished many times over the centuries, the process of removing the re-lacquerings was no easy task. By a careful process of experimentation, the restorer monitored the action of the solvents applied. Different lacquers reacted differently. Great expertise and much time was needed to remove them successfully.

In a similar way, the removal of non-original re-painting was a slow and highly scientific process. Different pigments had been used in several successive repainting interventions over the centuries. Each required a process of experimentation to determine how it could be removed.

Very patiently and working on one colour zone of the painting at a time, the restorer revealed Ricci's original paint work. The superior quality of the original painting was striking. Beautifully executed details emerged-skilfully painted anatomy, exquisitely modulated tonalities of light and shade, a distinct quality of outline. Most notable was the rich tonality of the original colours. The brilliance of Ricci's original was surprising and extremely satisfying.

Of particular note was the emergence of the original background colouring. The main figures in the painting now stood out clearly against a background of a glowing indigo blue. This background now acted as a foil to each of the painting's figures. Its depth and intensity set all the other colours of the painting into a harmonious distinctness. The painting regained an overall quality in tonality that had been totally lost.

In those areas of the painting revealed by cleaning to be damaged, it was necessary to perform a careful reconstruction. According to the laws governing the restoration of major art works in Italy, all reconstruction or repainting interventions must follow strict regulations. All reconstruction work on the painting was executed following to very important criteria. Repainting was executed using a fine system of vertical paint strokes. The difference between this method and Ricci's original painting is only discernible at a close distance. It ensures that it will be clear to future restorers and art students exactly which areas of the painting have been reconstructed. The second criterion followed was that all reconstruction work was executed using pigments that could easily be removed by future restorers, if necessary.

All reconstruction work was monitored by the state superintendent.

The final result for the Ricci canvas has been extremely successful. Both the original colours and the overall design of the painting have been recovered. The high artistic merit of Ricci's altarpiece is now discernible. The painting now fulfils its original function of complementing the fourteenth century fresco which it surrounds.

Work on the fresco was executed by the restorer using the same criteria used in the restoration of the canvas. The first stage involve remedying the fragile state of its plaster support surface. Where the surface had lifted from the masonry, a scientifically prepared fixative was injected without any damage to the fresco. The edges of the fresco's plaster support surface were also reinforced. Further disintegration at the outer edges of the fresco was thus permanently arrested.

With the surface thus re-stabilized, it was possible to proceed with the cleaning of the painting. Trial areas were begun at strategic points to determine if the original fresco was still intact beneath its several layers of repainting and re-varnishing. These trial patches indicated that retrieval of the original fresco was possible, even if some areas had been consumed by age-old traumas-exposure to weather, abrasive cleaning and the oxidization of pigments.

Patient and painstaking, highly skilled work brought the fresco back to its original level. The fresco was discovered to be surprisingly intact. The tonalities of its flesh tones and the vivid colours of the Virgin's clothing were revealed. Extremely fine decorative detailing re-emerged-designs painted on the cloth of the infant's tunic, a backdrop consisting of a suspended drapery, the tasselled corners of a voluminous cushion-elements which had previously been invisible.

The halos of the two figures also emerged. These were in gold leaf, applied over a design incised into the preparatory plaster. Luminous rays in gold leaf also adorned the heads of both figures.

Once cleaned, further work was done on sealing the fissures and lacunae in the fresco's plaster surface. These areas were then re-integrated by colouring them to the tones of the original work.

The reconstruction of consumed and damaged areas to the paint surface was done using the same system as used on the Ricci painting. Pigments that can be removed by future restorers applied in such a manner as to indicate to the trained eye exactly which areas had been painted within the context of our renovation programme.

The final result of this restoration has been that this fresco has regained much of its original vivacity and legibility. Before restoration the fresco was scarcely visible. Now it forms a strong focal point within the artistic context created for it.

The restoration of this over all context was furthered by restoring the gilded structure that fits within the rectangular opening of the Ricci painting and frames the fresco. The mechanism built into this structure for the lowering and raising of a panel was also restored by Equilibrarte. The needlework panel in silver thread was restored by a company specialised in textile restoration. By use of a hidden system of pulleys, this panel can now be used to expose or conceal the fresco image according to the solemnity of the occasion. Although this mechanism dates to the nineteenth century, it most likely reproduces a system installed in the seventeenth century. Its restoration represents the conservation of a rare survival of a mechanism typical of the baroque.

The final element in this restoration project was the cleaning of the large marble frame of the altarpiece. This was done by the company Equilibrarte. Many years of candle fumes had darkened the marble. Splattering of wax had penetrated and disfigured the frame. Thanks to their skilled expertise, Equilibrarte were able to restore this marble frame to its original brilliance.

In summary, the restoration of the Ricci altarpiece represents a significant contribution to the artistic life of the city of Rome. This is the first of Ricci's few surviving canvases to be restored in recent years. The recuperation of this work will allow art historians to better evaluate Ricci's merits and place within the artistic achievements of late mannerist Rome. For the many visitors to the church of Ss. Trinità dei Pellegrini, the restored altarpiece is already the object of considerable interest and admiration.

The restoration of the fourteenth century fresco of the Virgo Lactans is also a contribution to the appreciation and conservation of an interesting genre in art history.

This restoration project has resulted in a clearer understanding of how patronage of the early seventeenth century in Rome sought to evaluate and conserve this fresco work of an earlier century. Restoration to both Ricci's canvas and the proto-renaissance fresco reveals how the later work was conceived and executed to complement the earlier work, most notably by its choice of colours. Even this basic element in the rapport between the two worlds was not evident before restoration.

Of interest to the specialist and the general viewer alike, the way to works of art were combined to form this altarpiece has been clarified by restoration.

 

To view the final report, please download the following file:

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