Lighting of the Altarpiece by Guido Reni in the SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini Church

Project location: ITALY, Rome
Project start date: January 2009 - Project end date: December 2009
Project number: 2008-34
Beneficiary: Parrocchia Personale della SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini



Thanks to the generosity of the Ferdinando Peretti Foundation, the parish of Ss. Trinità dei Pellegrini has successfully completed the illumination of the altarpiece of our church's high altar-Guido Renei's masterpiece "The Trinity of the Pilgrims" commissioned and painted for the church of Ss. Trinità dei Pellegrini in 1625. This painting is held to be one of the most important of altarpieces on canvas painted in Rome during the seminal years of the baroque period.

For centuries, Guido Reni has been esteemed as the greatest painter after Raphael-both for the superb quality of his drawing layout, and for his extraordinary ability with colours. The "Trinity of the Pilgrims" is one of Reni's greatest achievements. The painting's overall design is masterly. The altarpiece figures attain a remarkable unity despite the scale of the painting, which measures 3 metres in width and 6 metres in height. The altarpiece is designed to be the main point of reference within the architectural context of its rather spacious Roman church. Reni's intention was that from any point within the church , this altarpiece was to draw the viewer's attention. The painting's vivid and subtly modulated colours were to provide a focal point within the austere architectural setting of an interior that reflects the more austere spirit of the counter-reformation.

However, Reni's intentions were thwarted by a basic technical problem. Reni painted the altarpiece while in Bologna. When the painting was transported to Rome and installed in the church it was commissioned for, to the great disappointment of all concerned, the natural light entering from the windows placed in the nave an transept created a glare on the canvas' surface, such that the painting became practically illegible. This was particularly true from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, and glare on the painting's surface was an even greater problem during the summer months.

The challenge in 2008 was to solve a lighting problem dating back to 1625. The difficulties were serious. We needed to light the painting with enough light to counter the glare caused by natural sunlight, but without exposing the painting to excessive ultraviolet light, or worse still, to the elevated temperatures normally associated with electric lighting

The second difficulty was that the painting is set within a recessed area framed by marble columns and crowned by a deep architrave. A number of early experiments demonstrated that any attempt at lighting the altarpiece laterally cast shadows over the painting's surface.

In addition, the architectural framework of the painting dates to the first quarter of the seventeenth century and has been built utilizing four ancient Roman columns and other elements in alabaster and various precious marbles. The artistic and the historical importance of this architectural framework meant that electric lamps could not be attached to it. The size of the marble framework also meant that light sources for the painting could only be fixed at a considerable distance from the painting's surface.

The paintings and architectural elements of churches in Rome are protected by stringent government heritage laws. Moreover, paintings are under the supervision of a government office responsible for the supervision of all pictorial works of importance situated in Roman churches. Architectural elements are supervised by another distinct government office. All projects, including lighting projects, must be submitted to and approved by both these government bodies.

The superintendent of the office dealing with the architectural aspects of Roman churches advised the parish of Ss. Trinità dei Pellegrini to avoid any lighting project that involved the attachment of light sources not only to the marble components of the Guido Reni's architectural framework, but also to the walls of the sanctuary area. The walls of the entire church are decorated in a faux marble called "scagliola"-a thin layer of plaster coloured with marble dust-that was not to be drilled or punctured in order to attach electric lamps. In addition, the supervisor directed that the lamps installed to illuminate the Reni altarpiece were not to be at all visible from the body of the church. Modern light sources were not to disturb the harmony of the sanctuary area-extraneous elements could not interfere with the overall visual impact of the sanctuary which has been preserved intact over the centuries.

These mandates from the architectural office meant that the project was subject to understandable but challenging restrictions. The parish saw that it would be necessary to find a lighting company that had considerable experience in lighting extremely large paintings within the limitations set by heritage church architecture.

The search for such a company took more than a year. The best lighting companies are in the north of Italy and it was a timely process to contact and meet their representatives here in Rome. The parish contacted ten companies but found that though they had experience lighting paintings in museums, banks, etc., few of them had experience in lighting paintings well within the limitations set by churches. None of them, once they had done an on-site appraisal of our situation, was able to suggest a feasible project.

At long last our attention was drawn to a company in Verona, "Tecnoilluminazione", which had done some very successful lighting of large paintings in churches in northern Italy. Tecnoilluminazione has in recent years specialized in the design and fabrication of LED lamps. This company had also designed LED lamps according to the specific needs of their clients. It had acquired considerable experience in the installation of custom made LED apparatus for the illumination of large canvases and frescos in churches that were under similar restraints to those in force at Trinità dei Pellegrini.

The director of Tecnoilluminazione, Tosi, is not only an expert in the design and construction of LED lighting apparatus, he also has considerable experience in the installation of such technology within the specific context for which he has designed it. This was one of the reasons the Parish chose to entrust the project to Tecnoilluminazione. The difficulty it had encountered with other companies was that they specialized in lighting design, and then entrusted an installation company to install their product. Technoilluminazione proposed that they would study our situation, produce an appropriate apparatus, and then take the responsibility of refining its effects once in situ by a further process of experimentation until the Parish was satisfied with the end result.

This was in contrast to the very first contract-a lighting company suggested by the state superintendent for Rome's architectural patrimony. This first company had insisted that the Parish sign a contract before the firm had drawn up a project-a proposal the Parish naturally declined. Furthermore, the Parish had come to realize over its first year of on-site experimentations with different companies that even though they claimed it was possible to calculate the final effects of their technical solution, when they performed on-site experiments it was evident that in lighting such a large canvas under our difficult circumstances, there would always be a large element of trial and error at the installation phase.

Tecnoilluminazione performed a careful on the spot analysis of the lighting problems presented by the Reni canvas. Technical data was collected and analyzed.

Tecnoilluminazione's conclusion was that the painting could only be lit successfully by means of a row of carefully modulated LED lights placed at the rear of the high altar. From this position two metres below the painting, the light would need to rise to a total of eight meters. To the viewer in the nave, the source of the light would be hidden behind the upper edge of the altar. A considerable technical challenge was presented by the fact that the altar is positioned only about a metre behind the wall on which the painting is fixed. The light would have to be concentrated enough to illuminate only the painting when directed at the canvas from such close range, The light would have to rise at different strengths in order to give a uniform effect to both the lower and upper zones of the painting.

Tecnoilluminazione provided the Parish with a printed version of its technical proposal. This was used by a young Roman architect to prepare a correctly presented project to the Superintendent of the Roman department for Architectural Affairs. Considerable paints were taken to present the project according to the specifications demanded by this body. The project unfortunately encountered a number of timely delays at this phase. The superintendent of this government department was replaced by another. The application disappeared into a maze of bureaucracy. The Parish had to make three successive submissions. At long last it obtained the necessary permission and approval from the superintendent. Meanwhile the Parish also had obtained the necessary canonical approval from the Roman ecclesiastical authorities.

Now that the project was free to proceed, Tecnoilluminazione set about building the LED lamps. Each of the twelve lamps was conceived such that each zone and colour of the Reni canvas would be illuminated at the correct intensity.

The lamps were also made so that they could be dimmed or raised according to how much natural light they needed to counter. A control panel was included so that during daylight hours a higher amount if light could be directed at the painting in order to counter maximum glare. The level of light on the painting could be reduced when glare was at a minimum-during evening or nighttime events when the church is lit by electric light.

Each of the lights was extremely compact in design. They were mounted on a light aluminium bar so as to be easily attached to the rear of the altar and in such a way as not to compromise the architecture of the altar in any invasive way.

One of the disadvantages of lighting the Reni from below and at such a close range was that the architectural frame at the base of the painting threw a deep shadow along the entire width of the lower zone of the canvas. To eliminate this shadow, Tecnoilluminazione carefully designed a row of extremely small LED lamps, which, resting on the horizontal base of the architectural framework, successfully eliminated this shadow. This strip of LED lights is also independently controlled by the control panel so that it can be modulated according to the amount of light being directed at the rest of the painting. When greater amounts of light on the painting are necessary, this shadow eliminator can be turned up accordingly.

The company "Bianchini, Impianti Tecnologici" assisted Tecnoilluminazione with the installation of the lighting system and supplied local electricians to do the necessary wiring work.

On installation, a method was sought to prevent he lighting apparatus from lighting areas beyond the painting's surface. Too much light was hitting the canvas' architectural frame, both below and above the painting. This diverted the eye from the Reni and gave undue importance to decorative elements of its marble frame.

To counter this problem, a simple system of shade bars was put in place on either side of the LED lamps. These aluminiun strips better focused the rather intense LED illumination on the painting's surface. The surrounding architectural framework regained its subordinate but complimentary role within the visual whole.

With the permission of the Ferdinando Peretti Foundation's Roman director it was decided to light the church's sanctuary area in such a way as would complement the illumination of its altarpiece. The company "Trend" was engaged to execute this part of the project.

Trend presented the Parish with a carefully prepared plan of action. "Trend" together with "Bianchini Impianti Tecnologici" installed a system of lamps on the ramp bordering the church's apse area.

This lighting of the sanctuary zone has been extremely successful. The light is of an extremely rich and warm tonality. The colours of every element within the area gain in resonance and intensity. The light produced complements the lighting of the Reni canvas superbly.

To conclude: this project of lighting Guido Reni's great masterpiece The Trinity within its architectural context in the church of the Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims has been implemented in an extremely successful way. The project has been realized. Illuminatd by the lighting system, this masterly baroque altarpiece is visible to visitors to the church at any time during the day or night and in all seasons. The problem of excessive glare that has undermined the visibility of this painting since it was positioned here in 1625 has been eliminated. Reni's intention that his painting rise like a glowing vision to provide a warm and emotionally charged focus to this otherwise austere church is finally a reality. This fact represents an important an important contribution to the artistic and cultural life of the city of Rome and indeed to the world. One of the seventeenth century's greatest artistic achievements has finally been rendered visible.

Parrocchia Personale della SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini

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