GIOTTO REDISCOVERED: THE SCROVEGNI CHAPEL:
On March 18 the restoration of Padua’s magnificent cycle of frescoes was unveiled
by Sandra Minute, photographs by Guido Baviera (Bell’Italia, June/July 2004)
English Translation by Anne Milano Appel
|Perhaps he would not have been able to save the soul of his father Rinaldo (who, according to Dante, ended up in the usurers’ circle all the same), but it is certain that Enrico Scrovegni gave all of us an invaluable treasure.
The little church built seven centuries ago by the wealthy Paduan banker, as an act of intercession for his father’s soul, has in fact bequeathed to us one of the unqualified artistic masterpieces of all times: the extraordinary cycle of frescoes that Giotto painted between 1303 and 1305, and that represents a fundamental landmark for European painting.
Recently, on March 18, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua reopened its doors to the public, unveiling the precious Giotto series renewed by a painstaking restoration. For eight months a team from the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (Central Institute for Restoration) worked under the direction of professor Giuseppe Basile. Remarkably, visitors were admitted on the scaffolding on weekends, and 25,000 visitors took advantage of the opportunity to admire Giotto’s figures face to face. It is a restoration that was first of all aimed at conservation, since at least 40% of the painted surface was in a sorry state due to humidity and saline efflorescence, but also painterly in intent, bent on restoring to the work an overall reading that adheres more closely to its original plan.
When Enrico Scrovegni commissioned him to decorate the chapel, a rectangular hall with a barrel vault, Giotto in fact conceived of a pictorial spatial organization that was completely revolutionary. The entire interior surface is “enclosed” by a structure bearing fake, painted architectural elements, in which many windows open up, aligned on three levels: within this rigorous layout 38 episodes of the lives of Mary and Christ unfold, composing a narrative that is highly coherent, the story of the Salvation, that concludes with the Last Judgment represented on the controfacciata or entry wall.
The other unifying element of the story is the blue of the sky, that enfolds the entire narration like a transparent capsule, extending to the star-studded barrel vault and serving as background to the individual panels: over 3200 square feet of color, which the restoration restored to uniformity.
Moving against this backdrop of sky is a crowd of extraordinarily real characters who live and suffer. An extreme attention to detail is consistently combined with the rigorous layout of the space. Giotto is unparalleled in capturing a psychological state or a situation with a single detail.
Like the surprise uncovered by the restoration of the Slaughter of the Innocents: the tears that line the mothers’ faces. A discovery that restores a human touch to figures that seemed petrified by grief.
In the Presentation in the Temple, the newborn Jesus in the arms of the old clergyman kicks anxiously and reaches toward his mother who, on her part, has her arms raised as though instinctively wanting to take back the child she has just handed over. Also striking, in the Marriage of the Virgin, is the gesture of Mary’s suitor who, defeated and angry, breaks his staff in two against his knee. Or the tortured look of the Madonna (in the Deposition) as she embraces Christ who has been taken down from the cross and stares at her son’s closed eyes, almost as if to catch an impossible glimmer of light in them.
The realism of Giotto’s painting can also be seen in the configuration of the scenes, that seem to be observed through a window: often, in fact, the elements and figures at the sides – even Christ in the Resurrection! – appear to be cut out of the painted frames, as though the image were merely a fragment of a much larger narrative.
But at the same time each scene is the result of a very carefully-considered organization. Elements of landscape, architecture and human figures are ably arranged in such a way as to create the effect of perspective. In the Kiss of Judas (one of the more sublime scenes, among other things), an episode that takes place outdoors, there are no architectural elements whatsoever, but the problem is resolved by a stroke of genius: it is the forest of sticks and torches rising above the crowd of soldiers that provides the feeling of depth. A device that will be copied precisely by Velazquez, three centuries later.
They are intensely theatrical scenes, where the structures are stage sets and each of the figures plays a role. A theatrical layout that is also emphasized by two little angels who, in the upper part of the Last Judgment, roll up the sky as if it were a stage curtain, revealing the celestial Jerusalem, and thereby confirming the end of the performance: that of human history.
Besides uncovering details that up till now were invisible, the restoration just completed has cast new light on the art and technique of this sublime painter. To render the marble of the painted architecture, for example, Giotto adopted the technique of “marmorino” or “Roman stucco”, that makes the painting smooth not only to the eye but also to the touch: a technique used by the ancient Romans and then forgotten for a millennium, that Giotto recaptured (no one knows how) in his constant effort to represent reality. Toward that same aim, three metal discs had been set into the halo of Christ the Judge in the Judgment, functioning as mirrors to emanate light like a real aureole.
The allegories of the Vices and Virtues that decorate the wainscoting of the walls offer another proof of Giotto’s technical versatility: the photographic technique called “a luce radente”, that involves skimming a painting’s surface with light, shows that the artist has “sculpted” the images with color to represent a true to life bas-relief.
To do justice to this masterpiece, the ICR team, about forty people under the direction of professor Basile, worked intensely for eight months (the duration of their work only appears brief, since the site had been under preparation, undergoing analyses and research, since 1987). Urgent conservation interventions were completed first of all: reinforcing the intonaco and the pictorial layer, and desulphurization, that is, removing the salts. The pictorial restoration then tried to restore homogeneity to the blue shell, softening the gaps with the technique of “optical diminishing”, that is without reintroducing the missing color, but making it appear less striking to the eye. In other cases, such as in the painted architecture, the gaps were instead restored with watercolor outlining.
The results have been visible to all since March 18, when this painted treasure chest that is the Scrovegni Chapel was reopened to visitors: now anyone is able to judge whether Giorgio Vasari was right in considering Giotto “the most supreme painter there ever was”.
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