2000-11-02 - Masaccio Trinity Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio’s Trinity: The Tyranny of the Fragment

2000-11-02 - Masaccio Trinity Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Donors, c. 1425-27/28. Church of Santa Maria Novella (Florence).

The Direction of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence graciously permitted me to visit the ongoing restoration of Masaccio’s Trinity, in Santa Maria Novella, on Thursday August 31st, 2000.


In interviews published in Florentine and Torinese newspapers I had publicly lamented the restoration. My objections, in part, were based upon a firm conviction that the mere decision alone to carry on this restoration represented a cultural presumption one which aims at dramatically altering the appearance of the painting as we have come to know it. No broad consensus about taking this step had been developed, not to mention calling was an international meeting or conference of specialists and interested parties. The step to intervene was taken unilaterally. But still more crucial to my disappointment, one has to look in vain for a carefully calibrated statement, or any statement at all for that matter, regarding the need of the “drastic” (the word used by the Opificio official in charge of the operation) intervention nor its goals, which should precede any such work. We have no reports concerning the painting following a restoration by the late Leonetto Tintori, conducted at the beginning of the 1960s. Furthermore a statement about the methodology proposed, if one exists, should have been made public, in my opinion. All the procedures used normal by a medical intervention, for example, were passed over, at least according the information I have been able to obtain. The Opificio, presumably with permission from the appropriate Florentine superintendencies, decided to move ahead without the formalities mentioned. Apparently an occasion offered itself: the church had been closed for an overall, elaborate scrub down as part of the Jubilee Year celebrations. Why not do the Trinity, was the thinking, I can only guess.

My purpose here is not to rehearse the history of the fresco and its various restorations, much less an evaluation of the cleaning and refurbishing of the Brancacci Chapel frescoes. On the other hand, it is worthwhile to underscore the obvious: Masaccio’s Trinity is arguably the single most prestigious painted work executed in the Early Renaissance. Here for the first time we find an effective combination of characteristics are regarded as “modern.” A thorough explication of the new, or if you insist, the revived perspective together with the rendering of the gravitational and monumental human figures are immediately apparent. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continue to amaze and baffle if the most experienced critics. Although Masaccio apparently painted recognizable likenesses in the Sagra (Cloister, SM. del Carmine), a fresco which has not survive, in the Trinity we find for the first time profile portraits on a large scale of the donors. . For good reason, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art a seminal painting.

The modern history of the Trinity includes having been moved twice, once in the mid-Nineteenth century, and again in the mid-Twentieth, is well documented and beyond the scope of my presentation. Inevitably there has been losses in these moves, especially around the edges of the mural, while others had been incurred during the ‘strappo.’ Additionally ‘normal’ deterioration which may be expected over the life of a painting executed 575 years ago did not spare this fresco.

Whatever needed to be done in the 1990s, it could not have been the result of water or humidity in the wall, the usual enemy of fresco, because it had been separated from the wall by Bianchi 150 years ago. Was there an emergency which dated back to the beginning of the end of the 1980? If that had been the case, the officials, who already floated the idea restore the Trinity back then following the completion of the Brancacci Chapel (1988), they should have intervened much earlier than 1999. If they waited and a bone fide threat to the life of the painting was present, one might form the opinion that a dereliction of some kind surrounded the delay. Presumably, therefore, we can confidently conclude that there was no immediate emergency whatsoever. Consequently there would have been plenty of time for a more patient and less secret approach to the restoration.

My purpose here is not to rehearse the history of the fresco and its various restorations, much less an evaluation of the cleaning and refurbishing of the Brancacci Chapel frescoes. On the other hand, it is worthwhile to underscore the obvious: Masaccio’s Trinity is arguably the single most prestigious painted work executed in the Early Renaissance. Here for the first time we find an effective combination of characteristics are regarded as “modern.” A thorough explication of the new, or if you insist, the revived perspective together with the rendering of the gravitational and monumental human figures are immediately apparent. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continue to amaze and baffle if the most experienced critics. Although Masaccio apparently painted recognizable likenesses in the Sagra (Cloister, SM. del Carmine), a fresco which has not survive, in the Trinity we find for the first time profile portraits on a large scale of the donors. . For good reason, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art a seminal painting.

I take this opportunity to comment upon what I saw on that hot Thursday morning in August in an effort to better comprehend general conditions surrounding current fresco restoration practice. Besides, I will offer an up-to-date alternative to the embracing actions which have been undertaken far and wide over the recent past and which are promised in the future, unless the culture is prepared to take preventive steps.

Instantly I was impressed by the formation of the scaffolding with its horizontal platforms or levels resting up against the fresco in a configuration obviously created to facilitate the restorative activity but which, at the same time, is highly arbitrary with regard to the picture itself. These zones have no rapport with the picture’s composition nor the location of the figurative imagery within it. To be sure, the system applied is standard, and here lies one of the most damaging aspects of modern restorative procedure. Not only does it fail to offer an overview as work progresses, but even large subdivisions are not visible as comprehensible units. As every beginning art student learns, any changes in one portion of a painting affects the rest. Hence by the very physical structure imposed upon the restoration, an overview must await the removal of the entire scaffolding. Is there any wonder that one of the most common lamentations among critics of restorations these days is the loss of unity of the whole and harmony among the parts. I suggest that this is an inevitable result.

A restorer however skilled and devoted to his craft must find it virtually impossible, in my opinion, to get much right once placed in such an operational straight jacket. The effects of this kind of arbitrary division is staggering. It requires that while working on the lower portion of the body of the Crucified Christ, for example, the upper portion and the head may not even be visible. To make matters worse, this condition holds true during both principle phases of such interventions: (1) the cleaning, and (2) during repairs, repainting, inpainting and other surface adjustments. Parenthetically, I must add that the word repainting is a term that restorers spurn, preferring instead “inpainting,” or some other euphemism. My view remains that if brushes and colors are used and you apply the colors with brushes, that activity is “painting,” and when it replaces previous colors that were once on the surface, that is “repainting.”

Most artists insist that they remain in control of the entire work as they proceed even on large canvasses or walls. This possibility is largely eliminated not only by the system of layering just described, but also because the space allotted to the scaffolding is extremely shallow. That many restorations use this construction does not alter the implicit weakness of the practice. The conditions are unreal ones which virtually force the operator to approach the art object be approached in fragments and details often with the aid of magnifying glasses.

Conversely, the severely constricted working area makes it impossible to get distance when looking at one section or another of the painting. During the cleaning and repainting, there is never an opportunity to revert to the correct viewing distance, which is roughly calculated by artists as double the height. The remarkable application of linear perspective cannot be understood from arms length. In other words, the most distance which can be obtained from the cage is severely inadequate, another indication that the current methodology it flawed.

The question of lighting is yet another factor which adds to the distortion of the visual conditions under which modern restoration unfolds. Symptomatically, when I was there, a staff member kindly offered me a strong lamp, the ones they use during the restoration process, to view up close the surface and what they were doing. I rejected the offer remarking that Masaccio did not have such lamps when he painted the frescoes, so I hardly need them merely to view it. The question goes far beyond this particular intervention. The strong lights used for the cleaning in particular offer a totally unreal view of the object and I suspect leads to all kinds of aberrations (as is the case with the Sistine Ceiling) once “normal” light is applied. The conceptual approach to the restoration task, as it was done in the case of Leonardo’s Last Supper for over 20 years, is to treat the surface, dealing with tiny pitems, minuscule flacks of original paint, treated under strong light and with magnification. Behind this artificial environment is the assumption that the cleaning is somehow “scientific”, and it is enough to work millimeter by millimeter and then miraculously the whole will take care of itself. Well, it never does. Not in the Sistine Chapel, not in the Choir of San Francesco in Arezzo, and not for the Trinity.

None of what has been stated above should be viewed as a specific criticism of the restorers at work at Santa Maria Novella. They are doing what all their colleagues do. What I am suggesting is that the underlying assumptions and the methods of work are inadequate at best. Many of the great cycles that have been recently restored were better left alone, and let us not forget the Correggio’s in Parma. If there was a real emergencies concerning the life of a marvellous work, one might concede that the intervention, even with misguided assumptions, had to be undertaken. Actually I was assured that there was no immediately emergency in the case of the Trinity, nor for Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Leonardo’s Last Supper.

More specifically related to the Trinity, (but true of the others to one degree or another), Tintori’s retouching and repainting [sic] done in water color had been removed. Evidently that was an easy task. On the other hand the restorations and repainting by Bianchi, being more permanent in terms of technique. were retained. The choice of keeping one intervention with all its assumptions and removing another with its own set of assumption was not the result of a philosophy. Instead the decisive element was convenience. It was easy to remove Tintori and difficult to remove Bianchi’s work. Hardly an assuring path.

Another disturbing aspect of the Trinity restoration is the application of Barium Hydroxide as a consolidate. The use of this chemical which has a longish history especially in Florence, where its modern application was ‘invented,’ is not used by the Istituto Centrale di Restauro in Rome, the other governmental restoration center. It is not my intention to take sides on the controversy as to whether Barium is a “good” chemical or a bad one or one that on balance should or should not be used.. That Italy’s two governmental restoration institutes differ on its application, at best is puzzling and should alert the public to the experimental character of the product. Are we tranquil about using it one of the world’s most rare pictorial productions? Would it not have been more prudent to apply more traditional materials? The same kind of questions can be raised for the chemical cleaner AB57 used on the Sistine Ceiling, a product which is practically never used anymore, being regarded as to harsh. These questions cannot be answered by simplistic claims of one side or another. They should be the subject of serious debate by the entire field, including experts on Renaissance Painting, artists and member of the culture in general. Until they are resolved, however, we should probably ban their use as we do for unproven new medicines.

Right from the start, the “drastic” modern intervention, done while the church was closed to the public and thus largely unnoticed, remains an experiment. The real problem is that it should never have been undertaken, at all, and certainly not in secret without public discussion. Why not get second and third opinions, as we do before undergoing a serious medical operation on our bodies. From what I have seen in an interim stage, a great deal of repainting (sorry, I have used that terrible word again) will be required to harmonize what is momentarily a disjointed set of images in which the lights have become almost impossible to reconstruction, where the modelling is totally idiosyncratic, where the treatment of the male donor’s face (a member of the Lenzi family?) looks like he had suffered a bout with small pox. Perhaps the current crop of restorers are better than Tintori, perhaps not. The point is that there was little good reason to jump into this dangerous effort.

In order to save the saveable, I suggest that all reintegration be stopped and the work left as it now appears. I made the same point to officials present in August and repeat it now. In order to give the viewer, whether a sophisticated one, or a neophyte, a tangible impression of Masaccio’s art and his probable intentions, I propose that a scale computer generated facsimile be created and placed next to the “original.” In this way we would prevent further tampering with such a basic creation while providing a viable imagine to the public. The facsimile can readily be changed from time to time, as our knowledge of Masaccio, of his working methods, and of the early Renaissance expand. What is wrong with applying this solution immediately to the Trinity, and using it widely as a substitution for drastic interventions? In this way we would save the text for posterity, prove a highly readable view to the public and probably even save money which can be diverted to places where works are rotting away in neglect.

I call upon the Opificio and the Superintendents of Florence, to take up this proposal, which demands a certain degree of courage. They would become true pioneers in the restoration field, and simultaneously would protect our treasures.

1998-06-22 - Michelangelo Victory

Letter to the Mayor of Florence: Michelangelo’s “Victory”

1998-06-22 - Michelangelo VictoryIn an open letter to the Mayor of Florence, ArtWatch is calling for an immediate halt to the restoration of Michelangelo’s statue group known as “Victory”.

James Beck June 22, 1998

Dear Honorable Mr. Mayor,

On behalf of ArtWatch International, Inc. and its affiliate in Italy, ArtWatch Italia, I am asking at this time for an immediate halt to the projected restoration of Michelangelo’s sculpture group known as Victory, presently in Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone dei Cinquecento. In our opinion the matter is most urgent because scaffolding have already been constructed around the sculpture, making it ready for the intervention.

ArtWatch, a watchdog organization with nearly 1000 associates worldwide, has taken a stand against drastic and/or unnecessary treatments of our artistic treasures. Activity on the Victory should be halted until information about the projected intervention is made public. Among the points that require full disclosure are:

  1. an explanation of the assumed need for such an intervention or treatment at all;
  2. the goals for the intervention and what is hoped to be attained;
  3. the proposed methodology of the intervention, i.e. what techniques are planned, for example, with the restores use scalpels, mico-sand blasters, lasers, chemicals?

Once the data is made available ArtWatch also calls upon the Mayor to organize an open public debate, preferable in the Salone dei Cinquecento, in which international experts on Michelangelo, specialists devoted to Renaissance sculpture and Italian Renaissance art in general, specialists on marble restoration, as well as all interested parties may participate. ArtWatch believes that, as in the field of medicine, second and third opinions are essential before a restoration is undertaken. In fact, sometimes the most effective cure has been to leave the patient alone. ArtWatch makes these requests on the basis of the operative assumption that works of art of the caliber of Michelangelo’s Victory do not, strictly speaking, belong to the city of Florence, nor, to the government of Italy, but ultimately belong to the entire world, and that the city and state officials in charge are guardians whose role it is to preserve the objects in their trust for future generations. To take any action in relative secrecy is effectively a violation of that trust.

Thanking you for attention to this matter, I am Sincerely Yours,

(signed James Beck)

1998-01-01 - Tower of Pisa

Tower Troubles: Damaging Effect of Modern Efforts to Stabilize Tower of Pisa

Can we bring our most treasured art objects and buildings back to their original glory by modern restorations? In Italy, which has by some estimates forty percent of the world’s masterpieces, there has been a concerted campaign to do just over the past twenty years. As the Jubilee Year approaches, the urgency to clean every facade, all the public statuary, the fountains, and the paintings and sculptures in the great state collocations seems unbounded. The Tower of Pisa, one of the Seven Wonders, is the object of international attention and it offers an excellent place to obtain insight into the ongoing massive restoration operation. The tower started to lean even before it was finished and it has been leaning for almost 900 years. Since the early 19th century efforts have been made to stop the leaning process, perhaps as a result of confidence in modern technology. Following these interventions, however, an acceleration of the degree of pendency, much more than the previous 300 years, which only totaled about 5 millimeters, in effect no movement at all, has been measured. Still the leaning amounts to 1 or sometimes 2 millimeters a year. An imminent emergency does not seem to be the case, unless the recent interventions have provoked new dangers. Actually the collapse of Venice’s massive Campanile on July 14, 1902 (since rebuilt), which is sometimes used as a precedent for intervention in Pisa, was caused by the restorers of Sansovino’s Loggetta at its base, when they cut reinforment walls that had been added to support the tower in the mid-18th century after damage from lightning.

In fact, there is reason to believe that the efforts to correct what had been a fairly stable situation following the initial period of settlement on the sandy and muddy terrain back in the twelfth century, caused and continues to cause new instability. The latest efforts include the use of lead weights to counter the leaning. The placement at the base on the side opposite the leaning of nearly 1000 metric tons of lead at first appeared to have achieved the desired effect and a correction was registered. Then in a single day, known locally as Black Saturday on the night of 8-9 September 1995, most of the gain obtained in more than a year’s work (about an inch of correction) was almost entirely lost in a single day to the terror of all concerned, and work was stopped. What happened? One explanation is that the technical committee and its director discovered that in the 1930s certain work with cement and metal pipes had been undertaken, the existence of which they were unaware. This unexpected situation resulted in problems that had been be resolved. But more recently it has been admitted that the spectacular plan to freeze the ground using liquid nitrogen seemed to have, literally, backfired, in a lunar scene with orange gasses surrounding the tower. Keystone cops come to mind.


1998-01-01 - Tower of PisaThis is hardly the occasion to argue complex technical issues, nor am I equipped to do so. What is remarkable about the entire situation surrounding the tower and the plans that have been announced recently (NY Times, January 7 ed. confirm date), is the total absence of a forum for discussion before action is taken. This unwillingness or inability to debate the health of our treasures, I suggests, characterizes most major restorations in Italy. If the nitrogen idea has been discussed openly and experts from outside the immediate group were invited to participate, the experiment would never have been undertaken in the first place.

Italian history since the Tower was begun back in 1173 has been characterized by the operation of clans, extended families, factions, and I suggestion that in the world of Italian restoration we have similar impenetrable, self-contained cliques. Criticism is not permitted. Worse still, there are no effective evaluations and controls of the work undertaken, the Committee that runs the multimillion dollar operation at the Tower of Pisa is totally independent. In fact, while in almost every other area of society, from films, theater, music, art, there is a tradition of criticism, with restoration no such habit exists and when it crops up, it is not tolerated. If it were, many would express consternation that there is now a project to fill in the centuries-old cracks in the massive walls of the tower (4 meters wide) with concrete. At the same time the use of concrete is known to have caused damage to the Perugia Fountain a half century ago, and its removal is being undertaken, in a laborious and expensive restoration. Keystone Cops? And even before there is anything like an assurance that the Tower will survive its caretakers, plans and funds are being ready for a proper cleaning of the marble exterior. Keystone Cops?

In an analogous situation, it is now widely accepted that the worst damage to the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi last fall was the result of a restoration of the roof a generation ago, when the original timber supports were replaced by concrete ones. The concrete is heavier and more rigid, and while the seven hundred year old roof resisted previous quakes, the technologically modern one gave way. During the repairs now going on, water poured out from a hose in a work station over an entire week-end, actually dampened Giotto’s frescoes that had escaped the earthquake. Everyone knows that water is a greatest enemy of frescoes. Keystone Cops?

Around the same time, another medieval building, the Arena Chapel in Padua which contains Giotto’s mature work, underwent a substitution of their original timbers, but in this case metal beams were used. Giotto’s frescoes were not damaged during an earthquake in 1976 which was felt in Padua. But they are being damaged by humidity and the officials in charge seem quite unwilling to confront the question of the water in the crypt of the Chapel, which has been registered in recent years as being as much as 7 feet deep. Rather they plan to filter the dust and the moisture from tourists in a “scientific entrance way” constructed for the purpose. Keystone Cops?

The larger issue seems clear enough, and rest upon a simple assumption: works of art of the importance of the Basilica of San Francesco and its decorations, the Arena Chapel with Giotto’s frescoes, the Tower of Pisa, belong to the entire world. Decisions over their health, life and death decisions, should be undertaken with the greatest transparency and ample discussion, where all alternatives are considered before any course of action is taken. As with normal medical practice, second and third opinions should be solicited. No single entity or committee should have absolute control and be the absolute judge of their own activity but should be directed and should be responsible to a larger set of controls. We need a system of checks and balances to assure the most reliable results. Only in this way can we be guaranteed that these rare productions of mankind are not treated as if participants in an opera buffa.

1997-11-12 Giotto fresco Scrovegni Chapel Padua Kiss of Judas

Earthquake damage to Assisi frescoes linked to modern reconstruction techniques; Giotto’s Padua frescoes threatened

Experts now suspect that the earthquake damage to the Assisi frescoes was caused in part by earlier structural changes in the building, particularly the use of reinforced concrete beams in the roof. Similar reinforcements have been used in old churches and could be threatening masterpieces contained within them. The most dramatic example is in Padua, where the Scrovegni Chapel contains Giotto’s most important frescoes.

In addition to damaging several distinctive churches, the earthquake in central Italy on September 26 has raised serious questions about the implications of various restoration techniques for the preservation of art in Italy. The unfortunate substitution of reinforced concrete for wooden beams in the restoration of the roof of the Basilica of San Francesco a generation ago appears to have contributed to the extensive damage to the building. This distressing practice seems to have placed a cloud of danger over buildings in Umbria and the Marches. In the case of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi we witnessed the loss of several early frescoes, and the long-term effect of the quake has yet to be evaluated for other frescoes in the church.

Italy’s leading art historian, Professor Federico Zeri [Zeri, in La Stampa, sett. 27, 1997], has stated, “Ecco l’effetto di scelte dissennate. Sono stati dei folli, ecco, dei folli. a sostituire le travi di legno del tetto della Basilica con travi di cemento armato che hanno appensantito e reso rigido il tutto.” Zeri, in an interview with the London Times (10-4-1997) went so far as to say: “Italy’s art is in the hands of people who are cretins or corrupt, or both.” Grave concern has been expressed for other buildings and their contents which have been similarly treated.

Apparently during the restoration of the roof of San Francesco, the original old wooden beams of the roof were removed and replaced by concrete ones. It is well known that concrete is not as elastic as wood and that it “moves” with different oscillations than the wood beams and the masonry of the walls, which had withstood seven centuries of quakes. Furthermore, the more rigid reinforced concrete is considerably heavier than the wood it replaced, putting additional stress on the vertical supports and thereby increasing the danger to the structure. Despite these inherent problems, reinforced concrete has been widely used in so-called technological restorations of architecture over the more recent decades and has become a fashionable procedure. (Parenthetically, another disadvantage to concrete is that its presence in walls is highly detrimental to the longevity of the intonaco of which buon fresco is a part).

Similar errors in the treatment of Italy’s finest structures can be recited. Two decades ago, over fifty large spaces or “holes” in the cupola of Florence Cathedral provided for by Brunelleschi for static as well as for maintenance reasons were filled in with cement when restoration work was being done there. The additional weight and alteration of the equilibrium of the structure had made the cupolone a candidate for disaster. More recently, recognizing the problem, the local soprintendenza has re-opened most of the holes. Of course, the removal of the concrete is tacit recognition of the inherent danger of its use in the first place. [Apparently it took six years of work to undo the filling of the holes which must have taken a matter of days or weeks to fill. It goes without saying that both money and labor have been wasted, and it becomes ever more clear that the indiscriminate use of concrete may be coming to an end in such restoration efforts. (See a letter by Arch. Mario A. Lolli-Ghetti to Il Messaggero of 6 October 1997). We can be grateful that the Soprintendenza saw and corrected the original error.]

Similar imprudent methods have been employed for the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In the attempt to correct its tilt, or at least prevent further leaning, the tower has been wrapped in metal bands and its base surrounded by tons of concrete, while lead weights were placed to one side. Initially, this simplistic ‘solution’ seemed to function as hoped to the enthusiastic headlines of the press. Then, about a year ago, the few centimeters of the much-hailed correction were lost in a day or two. Work had to be stopped and the experts are now in a dreadful quandary, not knowing what to do. It is quite possible that the costly project has placed the tower in greater danger of collapsing than before.

[For up-to-date information on the Tower of Pisa consult: Prof. Piero Pierotti, Univ. of Pisa. Dept of storia delli arti, P. S. Matteo, 2. (office:) 39-050-542345; (home:) 050-525220. E-mail: 050-587224; (fax:) 050-580128.]


1997-11-12 Giotto fresco Scrovegni Chapel Padua Kiss of Judas

The situation at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is the home of Giotto’s famous fresco cycle depicting the life of Mary and the life of Christ, regarded as the finest work of the period and a high point of Italian art. In an effort to protect the frescoes, an ill-looking and incongruous bussola or technological entranceway to the chapel has just been constructed, which is intended to filter the humidity and dust that could be brought into the chapel by visitors. [The structure is referred to as a “bussola d’ingresso antismog” by the Assessore alla Cultura of Padua, or as a technological structure suitably furnished where all the visitors must pass to enter the chapel (“un corpo tecnologico attrezzato attraverso il quale dovranno passare tutti i visitatori”), as paraphrased in Il Gazzettino, sett. 25, 1997.] This substantial construction of concrete, steel and glass, measuring 8 meters square, should now be re-examined in the light of the recent and ongoing events in Assisi. The nature and amounts of these materials all add considerable weight to the spongy area surrounding the foundations of the chapel. This pressure on the foundations is further increased by the presence of part of an old base of an earlier structure in the ground dating from earlier in the century (as there was in Pisa). [During World War II, a project to encase the chapel in a reinforced concrete bunker got as far as placing foundations on the sides of the chapel, according to G. Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, London, 1993, p.178.]

(1) Even more worrisome is the fact that the bussola was built flush against the original early fourteenth-century side wall of the chapel. The various materials, steel, glass and concrete, have different properties and different tensile strengths, both from each other and from the brick wall of the chapel. In the event of an earthquake, they would oscillate with differing waves or swings, making a collision among them almost inevitable. This already dangerous situation will be increased by the heavy machinery for filtering the air, not yet placed on the roof of the bussola, which will multiply the potential for disaster. One can imagine a scenario in which the bussola would function like a jack-hammer or a gigantic battering-ram, smashing the adjoining wall of the chapel and creating havoc with Giotto’s frescoes.

(2) A potential catastrophe for the Scrovegni Chapel is further aggravated by another ‘Assisi’ factor: In 1962 the original wooden beams of the chapel’s roof were replaced by metal supports, the so-called metal trusses [“capriata metallica, di tipo inglese”], engaged into the wall with concrete. Here, unlike the case with the bussola and the walls of the chapel itself, the “new” roof would move with greater elasticity than the other elements. [According to an item in the Il Mattino of 11 January 1997, “Un lavoro importante h compiuto all inizio degli anni 60 [1962]; viene sostituta la capriata di legno, ormai illanguidita dal tempo, con una metallica, si incatenano le pareti, si sistema la statica con un cordolo in cemento armato e si ineietta nella pietra parecchio cemento consolidante.”] These interventions, including the substitution of three chains (“catene”) of concrete in place of a wooden one on the facade and a similar substitution of four of the five original chains in the nave, should be a cause of deep concern, particularly because Padua is a seismic area. In addition to these dangerous alterations, the original tile-covered timber roof has been replaced by one constructed of metal. [Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, p.381.]

Indeed, there was an earthquake that affected Padua on the 18th of October 1936 which caused damage especially to the east wall, and a quake mainly in the Friuli in 1976 which exaggerated the cracks on the facade. Worse still, the facade itself separated from the vaulted interior. [Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, p.379.] We have no way of knowing whether the materials and new techniques applied to the building in the 1960s did not contribute to the damage. One also has to wonder whether the concrete placed in the walls of the chapel had a negative effect upon the frescoes chemically. Besides, the rigidity of the concrete compounded with the extreme flexibility of the metal are hardly a happy and safe situation. What we seem to have is a series of alterations that comprise a built-in time bomb about to explode in Giotto’s chapel, with the bussola as the trigger that could set it off.

(3) While the experts have been experimenting with the highly questionable entrance system, they seem to have entirely neglected the problem of the presence of water in the crypt of the chapel. This, in the face of visible evidence that moisture can be detected above ground. To be sure, in these very weeks, the situation is becoming increasingly urgent, and emergency work is being done to Giotto’s frescoes because they are literally falling off the wall. We learn from Padua’s Assessore alla Cultura that work is beginning on the plaster surface (intonaco), that is, the very surface on which Giotto’s frescoes are painted. It is detaching because of the humidity. [In an item in Il Gazzettino of sett. 24, 1997: “Nuovo intervento di restauro per le cappella degli Scrovegni, che remarr` chiusa domani e venerdl per l’allestimento al suo interno di alcuni ponteggi necessari ad intervento urgenti per consolidare gli intonaci su cui Giotto ha affrescato i suoi dipinto. H stato notato infatti che in piy puinti questi intonaci si sono distaccati dal retrostante muro, ed h risultata pertanto improragabile l’opera di riadesione.” In Il Gazzettino of sett. 25, 1997: “Lunedl mattina, intanto, inizieranno anche lavori per sistemare l’intonaco interno del monument che ha dato segni di cedimento a cause dell’umidit`. Parte dello stratto si sarebbe staccato ed questo punto gli interventi non erano ulteriormente rinviabili.”]

This very serious condition has gone unnoticed by the national press in Italy as well as in the international press. Correctly, of course, first aid is being tended to the frescoes at this very moment to firm them up where they are falling off or about to fall from the walls, yet there is no serious talk about resolving the problem of the water in the crypt (basement) and the surrounding area. [See also, Basile, op. cit., p.379, where he says that there is “no evidence of rising damp either; the basement appeared to have reached a thermal and hygrometric equilibrium, and to have a stabilizing function in geomorphological terms.” Yet one can see with the eye the dampness above ground level, and besides, the frescoes are falling off. What more evidence does one need?]

There is a true emergency in Padua and part of the solution must be tearing down the bussola. A study should be immediately undertaken to determine whether the metal beams in the roof and the added cement in the chapel are not also reasons for concern. As a fundamental part of a campaign for emergency action in the Scrovegni Chapel, the water in the basement must be separated from direct contact with the chapel and its frescoes. This can be accomplished in various ways, for example, by raising the chapel off its present basement, or treating the entire area surrounding the chapel to eliminate the water, or the frescoes can be removed from the chapel itself.

The notion of filtering the tourists in the technological entranceway, a kind of modern labyrinth for 25 visitors at a time in preparation for their entry into the chapel, as a major if not unique step in preventing future loss to the frescoes runs contrary to common sense, and ignores the more substantial and continuous damage caused by the water even when the chapel is closed to the public. It is time to put first things first.

1997-06-03 Leonardo da Vinco Andrea del Verrochio Baptism of Christ Uffizi

For Immediate Release: Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Baptism of Christ” to be Restored at the Uffizi

ArtWatch International has learned that Andrea del Verrocchio’s most famous painting, the Baptism of Christ, a panel created for the church of San Salvi in Florence around 1475, has been removed from the wall of the Uffizi.

One of the most prized masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, it was executed by Andrea Verrocchio in collaboration with the young Leonardo da Vinci, who painted the head of one of the angels and probably landscape elements. Another who collaborated on the same painting was Botticelli.

The head of the angel represents the first independent statement in painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Therefore, the Baptism is of prime importance historically as well as aesthetically, being an early indication of the new style which was to emerge during the opening years of the sixteenth century and has been called the High Renaissance, that is, the style practiced by Titian and Michelangelo.

This precious object has come down to us in rather good condition, considering the passage of 500 years, and previous restorations, not always of the most gentle nature.

1997-06-03 Leonardo da Vinco Andrea del Verrochio Baptism of Christ Uffizi

ArtWatch’s worst fears have now been confirmed: the work is in the restoration laboratories of the Uffizi and work is about to begin. Given the complexity, delicacy, and the historical and artistic importance of the work, and in particular its absolute rarity since there are only a handful of works by Leonardo, ArtWatch is extremely concerned about any intervention that goes beyond normal maintenance.

ArtWatch urges that all the pertinent data concerning the state of the work, its condition, and the planned treatment be made public immediately. The Uffizi and its Restoration Department should describe precisely the need for a drastic intervention, the goals it hopes to obtain, the methods of cleaning and restoration that is planned, and the results of all qualitative and quantitative analyses. We believe that second and third opinions should be solicited from independent, disinterested parties.

For the moment ArtWatch is calling for an immediate halt to the restoration of the painting until the secrecy is lifted and information is made available concerning the need as well as a clear statement of goals of the intervention.