Conservator Agatha Grima gives a glimpse of what was involved in the restoration and conservation of Pietru Pawl Caruana’s apse painting in the choir area at the Basilica of Our Lady of Porto Salvo (Our Lady of Fair Havens), also known as the church of St Dominic in Valletta.
Apart from Giuseppe Calì’s paintings on the vault of the Basilica of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, Valletta, the choir area includes the largest of the painted surface areas in the whole church – the main apse painted by Pietru Pawl Caruana (1793-1852). The apse runs along a concave horizontal base following the total width of the main aisle, measuring around 11 metres in width and 6.35 metres in height.
The painting portrays an allegorical representation of the church’s title of Our Lady of Porto Salvo. The work is a show of Caruana’s artistic talents, showing numerous allegorical and iconographic representations all woven into a wonderfully orchestrated composition.
In the upper part of the apse, Our Lady with Child Jesus are surrounded by saints, including St Dominic, who call for the Virgin’s intercession in the cause of humanity and all its troubles. It is here represented by a galleon in distress.
On the galleon, the main female figure on the left is the personification of the Catholic Church. She stands tall as she holds plans for a new church and points at the island across the waters on the far right that shall offer a safe harbour – the place where the new Dominican church is to be built. She holds the cross that dictates that the new church dedicated to Our Lady of Porto Salvo will be a basilica. The three Christian virtues, Faith, Hope and Love, rest on the other side of the galleon, while in the central area a nobleman (said to be Chevalier Romegas) kneels in prayer. The work is signed and dated 1844. Just below Caruana’s signature lies the name Oscar Testa and the date 1960 – the primary evidence of the restoration the latter executed in that year.
Preliminary studies immediately revealed that the apse was suffering from salt damage resulting from infiltration of rain water. Numerous areas of the painted surface were tainted with a white haze of the salt crystals inside and on the surface of the paint layers. As typically expected, while some salts were water soluble, others were practically insoluble and ingrained inside the paint structure. Layers of varnish, grime and carbon soot further darkened the painting.
It was proposed that the overpaintings should be removed. This was owed to Caruana, whose spirit had been partially hidden for such a long time underneath layers of [restorer] Testa’s paint
As in every conservation project, study of photographic documentation and preliminary studies help one to get to know the artwork better. Certain factors, such as how the painting was manufactured, its condition and its history, including previous restorations, become clearer. In fact, specific multispectral examinations revealed that large areas of the painting had been overpainted, indicating that Testa himself might have tackled large areas of damage.
But questions remained. What kind of damage had the painting suffered? Had large areas of the painting been lost or had Testa himself combated with salt stains? In conservation, a quest for such knowledge is of ultimate importance because it will be used as a base for tailoring further treatment.
It was, therefore, decided that further investigations were needed since they might give an indication as to what remains of the original paint layers underneath. Examinations under infrared gave no indications of extreme losses.
Private communication with people of the community revealed stories of how the painting had been suffering from the same problem of salts even then, and how large patches of white efflorescence could be seen on the surface before Testa had started with the work. And it made sense that the painting would have revealed the same deterioration phenomena along the years especially since the source of the damage had not been well tackled before.
So it was decided to conduct specific cleaning tests at representative areas. This ensured that Testa’s overpaintings now covering the original could be removed safely. This gave further indications as to the state and condition of the original paint layer underneath.
As testing proceeded, it became clear that during the restoration of the 1960, Testa also found large areas of salt damage across the apse painting. He would have cleaned the painting but most probably he did not have the capacity to specifically pick up salts from the paint layer as modern conservators do today.
And as expected, it would not have been acceptable either for him as a restorer, or for the community, to have the finished painting presented with large white stains of salt. So Testa solved his problem by overpainting. It was very commonly done in the past, especially since the restorers themselves would have been artists.
The problem with this method is that in order to make their overpainted areas fit into the scheme, they would have had to continue painting on and on, touching here and there, sometimes changing details drastically and adding highlights as had happened in this specific case with Caruana’s apse.
Considering that in specific areas the overpaintings were changing Caruana’s original interpretation, and that they could be removed safely to uncover a relatively healthy original paint layer, it was proposed that these overpaintings should be removed. This was owed to Caruana, whose spirit had been partially hidden for such a long time underneath layers of Testa’s paint.
Thus, the major part of the project included not only cleaning, specifically the removal of the dark layer of grime and the picking up of ingrained salts, but also the removal of hindering overpaintings some of which were found to be on top of an old varnish layer. The restored apse painting has regained an aesthetic integrity and acquired a higher sense of drama. The sea in the central area, which had been dark and flat, now has myriad colours and new movement.
Now a wave is seen coming towards the galleon as it gains in height, giving an increased sense of urgency. On the right, a shaft of light has been uncovered, shedding a stronger light on the Maltese islands, while the clouds underneath the group of saints have gained their original depth. At the far right, the sail is now clearly seen billowing in the wind.
Furthermore, Our Lady has regained her halo, once hidden underneath the large yellow circle of paint, which now becomes more of an aura. But maybe the sweetest changes have been gained by the Child Jesus who has shed Testa’s highlights to regain his original facial features.
The conserved choir paintings were inaugurated on February 2.
The author would like to thank parish priest Michael Camilleri, the members of the Foundation of Porto Salvo and St Dominic Valletta and all the volunteers for their work inside the church.
Special thanks also go to all involved and the conservation team for their dedication and invaluable input in the work.
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