The programme for the planned restoration of the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua has finally been presented. This is probably the most important conservation project undertaken in Italy for several years. Its significance lies both in the exemplary nature of the methods used, and also in the fact that it is not the frescoes of Giotto which are to be restored.
Problems relating to the conservation of the Giotto frescoes were first tackled at the end of the Seventies by the Istituto Centrale del Restauro (ICR) under the leadership of Giovanni Urbani. Despite numerous attempts at restoration, the paintings continued to develop a white bloom caused by salt seepage.
It was apparent that the methods used, which had been applied only to the works of art themselves, had had no effect at all, and that the cause of the continued deterioration was not to be found in the internal state of the wall and the painting, but came from elsewhere.
An enquiry was therefore set up to study the possibly harmful effects of microscopic particles in the surrounding atmosphere. Such a concept was revolutionary. A Paduan physicist, Dario Camuffo, was in charge of the work and he, with the assistance of Maurizio Marabelli, a chemist working for the ICR, drew up guidelines for standardising the new research methods. The results were surprising on two counts.
First, they discovered that the deterioration of the frescoes was due to fluctuations in temperature caused by the unregulated opening of the chapel door and of the windows on the right hand side, as well as the artificial lighting, and that these fluctuations were drawing polluted air in from the outside and also, by creating tiny convective currents of air within the chapel itself (like those that cause an uncomfortable chill in bed when there is a gap between the mattress), encouraging dust, condensation, etc.
The second discovery, amazingly innovative for its time, was that it would be absolutely useless to subject the frescoes to any further restoration without first eliminating the atmospheric factors causing the deterioration.
The solutions proposed were as follows: the provision of a temporary, prefabricated chamber next to the chapel from which a limited number of visitors would have access to the paintings; the installation of double glazing to the windows to ensure a constant temperature; the replacement of the incandescent lights with non-heat-producing bulbs; repairs to the plaster on the external façade.
That was all. Since then (the early Eighties) only a handful of people have continued to have faith in this theory.
Such minor provisions - which, incidentally, cost very little to implement - excited no great public interest and the idea was certainly not consonant with the spectacular restorations we have recently come to expect. But this tiny handful of people, which includes the Soprintendenze for artistic and architectural heritage of the Veneto, the Commune and Civic Museums of Padua, the ICR and, especially, Filippa Alberti Gaudioso and Giuseppe Basile, has continued to believe in and to work for the project in its initial form.
This has ensured that research into the environment, now beginning to be widespread, should not become, as so often happens, a mere sideshow at restoration exhibitions, and has also ensured that work on the Scrovegni chapel should not be carried out (which, again, would normally have happened) until the atmospheric causes of deterioration have been eliminated. This has meant that we are now only waiting for the necessary funds to be made available, essential for the success of any enterprise, before we have the enormous satisfaction of seeing the project definitively underway with the construction of the temporary chamber adjacent to the chapel.
We shall never cease to be grateful to Giuseppe Basile, first for his persistent reluctance to start the restoration and for limiting himself to designing an extremely detailed programme of work, based on five separate surveys of the state of the frescoes; and second, for having insisted in his opposition to putting air-conditioning in the chapel itself rather than in the projected viewing chamber from which visitors will have access in the future. It is always dangerous to create unbalanced atmospheric conditions by introducing air-conditioning to places such as churches and historic buildings which, because of the thickness of their walls, are endowed with natural air-conditioning.
Finally back in 1982, writing about his research into the state of preservation of the Scrovegni's series of Giotto paintings in a special issue of the Bollettino d'Arte, Giovanni Urbani complained that the results of the research had been known for three years but still nothing had been done. So it has taken fourteen years (1979 to 1993) for the necessary preconditions of the restoration to materialise.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Think environmental and don't touch'