Couple restores culture, not just masterpieces

The pride of the hill town of Spello, not far from Assisi in central Italy, is the Baglioni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The chapel was the last major commission to the local artist Pinturicchio before he was called to Rome to paint in the Vatican Palace. The frescoes of 1501 depict the Annunciation, Christ disputing in the temple, and the adoration of the shepherds amid ample landscapes evocative of the local countryside and Renaissance-style architecture.

Over five centuries, soot, moisture and pollution darkened the paintings and threatened their survival. In 1978, two young experts — Donatella Zari from Pisa on Italy’s west coast and Carlo Giantomassi from Ancona on the eastern side — headed a team from the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome to rescue these delightful murals. Their achievement received a top environmental award in 1979.

Today, now wife and husband, Zari and Giantomassi still work in Italy, but they also travel around the world, including going into war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, working with local officials and students in the mission to safeguard and reconstruct the threatened artistic patrimony.

“The rebirth of a country cannot occur without the conservation of its cultural memory,” they told Our Sunday Visitor.

In a wide-ranging interview, the pair described working in Baghdad in 2003 to recover the looted art of the world-famous National Museum while they heard explosions and gunfire in the background, and in Kabul, where they confronted thousands of little pieces of precious ancient sculptures.

“It was like having the pieces of a big model train set with no instructions,” they said. “Everything was the same grey shade, they all looked alike.”

The Taliban had burned the photos and archives and even blown up the roof of the museum, but after painstaking work the heritage began to come back together.

Major projects

In the 1400s, Fra Angelico painted the frescos at the Chapel of Nicholas V, including the Stoning of St. Stephen. Newscom photo

Giantomassi and Zari consulted on the famous campaign to clean Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican. Then they led the team that restored the first major example of Florentine Renaissance painting in Rome, the Nicholas V chapel in the Vatican Palace. There, in 1450, the Blessed Fra Angelico had decorated the pope’s private chapel with scenes from the lives of Sts. Lawrence and Stephen, filled with fine architectural details reflective of Pope Nicholas’ dream to rebuild Rome as a great Christian capital.

All the Vatican projects concerned fresco, a technique in which Giantomassi and Zari were well-prepared. In true fresco, pigments dissolved in water are applied to wet plaster. Once dry, the picture becomes a permanent part of the wall.

But when the couple went from Rome to Tucson, Ariz., in the early 1990s, they found something very different: the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, built and decorated under Spanish colonial rule.

“The paint was applied dry with an unusual binding medium produced from cactus,” Giantomassi said. While Native Americans made the stucco statues, the heads and hands are painted wood and “probably imported from central parts of the Spanish empire or even Spain.”

“No matter how used we were to working with masterpieces, San Xavier had a unique fascination for us,” he added, because of the site’s location in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and traces of history in the form of “scars from arrows in the cornice and bullets embedded in the vaults” — souvenirs of an attack by Geronimo.

Giantomassi painted the Mystic Lamb on the altar table and signed it in an inconspicuous spot, “Carlo da Ancona,” Renaissance-style.

World War II losses

Despite the huge effort by Allied forces to safeguard European art and retrieve it from Nazi thieves, World War II took a terrible toll on Italy. Giantomassi and Zari have been active at Padua and Pisa, where bombing wreaked havoc.

On March 11, 1944, an Allied airstrike hit the Eremitani church in Padua and obliterated, along with precious 14th-century frescoes, one of the most famous examples of the northern Italian Renaissance: the Ovetari Chapel. Giantomassi and Zari were commissioned to recompose the right and left walls of the chapel in situ, putting the pieces back where they belonged as a way to give visitors a partial image of the decoration, pre-disaster.

The couple is still working at the other site, Pisa’s Camposanto, built in the Middle Ages on soil brought back to Italy from Golgotha. An Allied grenade set the building’s timber roof on fire on July 27, 1944, and blazed for three days, burning the rafters. Most of the statuary perished, and the grand 13th- and 14th-century frescoes were badly compromised.

Top restorers from Florence and Rome rushed to Pisa, but the only way to salvage the murals was to quickly strip them off the walls and glue them onto a fiber cement support. Decades later, though, “Both the supports and the glue had deteriorated. It was decided to step in again and put the murals on a new support with different materials and new technology. Right now, work is ongoing on the most important and best-preserved cycle, the Stories of the Desert Fathers, the Last Judgment and the Triumph of Death,” the restorers reported.

First, the frescoes had to be cleaned to remove dirt and substances that had been applied as fixatives in the past. Zari explained, however, “The animal hide-based glue had become practically insoluble.”

The team turned to biologists from Italy’s University of Molise “who came up with a type of bacteria that only eats that particular glue, without affecting the original pigments.” The results were so good that the system has been applied more recently in Spain to clean some 17th-century frescoes at a church in Valencia that were damaged during the civil war of the 1930s.

Around the world

Under United Nations auspices, the couple has worked all over the world, from Tiber to Burma, from Ethiopia to Sudan. Their first intervention in a war zone goes back to 1999 in Kosovo.

“Houses burned, bridges destroyed, fields laid waste, Christian and Muslim monuments razed or defaced, animal carcasses thrown into wells, mass graves being discovered every day, land mines everywhere and the presence of Serbian enclaves protected by militias,” they said. “We wondered whether in such tragic circumstances it is right to intervene to save an artistic heritage or whether it might be better to wait until things calmed down ... to spend international aid funds for rebuilding houses and protecting people. We think the only answer is that culture must be immediately protected, because the rebirth of a country cannot occur without preserving its historical memory.

“Over two years, we were able to train about 10 technicians to preserve mural paintings and stone work, and they are passionately committed now to keeping and restoring their country’s cultural wealth.”

Many of the personnel who were trained in the first phase are now working under Italian supervision to restore the paintings of Our Lady of Ljevis in Prizren (Kosovo), a UNESCO-designated endangered World Heritage site.

In keeping with their philosophy of not just saving art works but also to foster inter-ethnic cooperation, Zari and Giantomassi run an open workshop where locals can come and watch the work.

“If at first many asked why we were trying save the art in the midst of disaster, it was enough to see a tangible result — a restored picture, a reconstructed statue, an object returned to its function — and immediately people connect this small rebirth to a rebirth of their own country and their own selves, a hope for a new life,” they said.

Nora Hamerman writes from Virginia.