Restoration and conservation works are taking place all over Malta, especially in Valletta, the capital city of Europe for 2018. The Basilica of Our Lady of Porto Salvo in Valletta is no exception. Apart from the conservation of the building structure itself, a number of other conservation and restoration projects are ongoing inside with numerous others listed and planned for the future, says Agatha Grima.

Detail during cleaning.Detail during cleaning.

Every restoration and conservation project is a particular time of study.  Every artefact or work has its particular history and presents situations in sets of varying parameters, each with diverse interlocking complexities. Hence, historical acknowledgment, material analysis, documentation and study are essential.

This becomes possible only with the pooling in of specific professionals who are assigned with specific tasks. And the conservator becomes the orchestrator who liaises with his conservation and documentation team, scientists and others in the gaining of as much information as possible.  This will aid in the execution of the most holistic conservation project possible.  Apart from giving strength to an artwork for future posterity, through the process of conservation and restoration historical elements that may have been lost through time are sometimes revived, enriching the historical document greatly.

Detail of a damaged area in Calì’s painting of ‘The Heavenly Glory of St Dominic’.Detail of a damaged area in Calì’s painting of ‘The Heavenly Glory of St Dominic’.

This is exactly what happened during the conservation and restoration project of Giuseppe Calì’s apse paintings in the side chapel dedicated to St Dominic at the basilica.

From the very beginning, the damage was immediately evident.  The materials that Calì had applied to Maltese globigerina limestone had suffered from extensive and extreme detachments, sometimes with losses mainly due to movement of the fabric (possibly during the war) and through water infiltration.  It was also evident that the palette of the artist was now partially hidden under thick layers of dark carbon dust and grime.

Documentation and professional photography were essential pillars for immediate study. Physical examinations, testing and posing numerous questions were necessary for a relative scientific investigation.

A specific treatment was tailored to strengthen the painting structure with the least invasion possible. The team worked with great verve and satisfaction while structural works of consolidation and adhesion proved totally successful. However, during the process of cleaning some areas revealed a particular gray that was somewhat transparent but seemed to hide original details underneath.  In such instances, one is tempted to remove whatever is hiding or masking the original but a conservator’s immediate reaction is to stop and think profoundly. So, the cleaning process was halted. A better understanding needed to be reached.

Calì’s wall paintings in the chapel of St Dominic during treatment.Calì’s wall paintings in the chapel of St Dominic during treatment.

The materials had suffered from extensive and extreme detachments

Close examination of the high quality digital photographs shot before the start of the project showed signs of the presence of the gray layers even if not immediately evident. Physical examinations further indicated that the layer was original.  So we turned to historical research which eventually did shed some light with regard to Calì’s technique.

Conservators at work.Conservators at work.

In Giuseppe Cali’ 1846-1930  by E. Fiorentino and  L. A. Grasso, they quote from an article in La Gazzetta di Malta of July 28,  1909, where the artist is defined as an expert colourist especially with regard to gaining optical effects. Cali’s perspective was not gained with just design but also with colour. So, the question of the gray layer came all together and it made sense.

The grey, transparent layer was part of the artist’s original manufacturing technique in his defining of aerial perspective. It was found present in areas the artist wanted to visually send back (as the group of people behind the kneeling Pope). It was one of his numerous methods for setting his compositions in space. While it was mainly hidden before conservation, it became all the more evident after the cleaning treatment.

The polychromy at the hands now presents the same flesh tone as that in the face giving an overall aesthetic integrity to the statue.The polychromy at the hands now presents the same flesh tone as that in the face giving an overall aesthetic integrity to the statue.

Thus, looking further into the artist’s technique became significant. One could easily define how his strength in colours and shadows varied depending on prominence and space. There is a specific hierarchy, particularly in the drapery shadows, with the figures nearer to us having stronger and deeper interpretations.

Standing in front of the apse showing ‘The Heavenly Glory of St Dominic’, one can admire the recovered beauty of the artist’s palette and the reasserted dimensionality. It is enough to compare and contrast the angel on the far right of the painting with the group of angels flanking Our Lady to understand these factors… factors that although subtle, define the true spirit of the artist that could have easily been lost if treated insensitively especially considering that in old school conservation it was acceptable to darken shadows just so the painting is made stronger.

Removal of the upper layers of hard and brittle overpaint uncovers a more subtle polychromy at the hands showing a blusih tinge at the veins and a pinkish tinge at the knucles. An area of previous damage in the hand that had been infilled with wax was also uncovered.Removal of the upper layers of hard and brittle overpaint uncovers a more subtle polychromy at the hands showing a blusih tinge at the veins and a pinkish tinge at the knucles. An area of previous damage in the hand that had been infilled with wax was also uncovered.

Considering the above findings one can understand the complexities encountered during any conservation project. It is an area where investigation is crucial.

The same can be said of the current restoration and conservation project of the titular statue of St Dominic.  Looking at the work through a conservator’s eye immediately imparts a lot of information. A look at the statue’s face reveals that it is a great work in polychromed wood of the 17th century, having glass eyes showing tiny bubbles of air (typical of the period). The proportions and carved details are impeccable.  And the polychromy at the face leaves one in awe. As an example, the sideburns have been interpreted by the application of a greenish paint (probably terre verte) underneath the somewhat transparent flesh tone.

The polychromy at the hands, however, leaves a lot to be desired.  It is obvious that the hands still have a number of overpaintings applied during previous restorations. It is known that in the 1960s the statue was restored by Oscar Testa. Although not officially documented, it has been said that Prof. Testa was seen removing paint from the face of the statue using cotton wool dipped in a mixture. This fits in place with a saying that the statue had a darker look and a darker moustache pre-1960s in contrast to the current fine lighter flesh tone, moustache and beard.

The 17th-century statue of St Dominic before conservation treatment.The 17th-century statue of St Dominic before conservation treatment.

With the current darker hands, it is possible that Prof. Testa had cleaned just the face, something that he would have been well capable of doing considering that he had worked in Rome as assistant to Prof. Ridolfi in the execution of arduous and delicate work in restoring paintings of world famed artists. Furthermore, the type of finish of the current layer at the face is so finely finished that any layers applied after would not have been able to bond and adhere well thus making it easy to remove later. This has been proven with tests executed at the hands where the upper layers, although oil-based, hard and brittle, are not well adhered to the possibly original underlayers.

The statue of St Dominic has been documented and representative samples have been taken for investigation. The restoration team is currently in discussion with a team of Spanish polychrome statue-makers and restorers with a vision of clarifying, verifying and identifying factors pertaining to the original technique.

Both the statue and the pedestal are undergoing treatment and will be finished in time for the feast of St Dominic to be celebrated inā€ˆValletta next Sunday.

I 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 valuable work in the upkeep of the church. Special thanks also go to my conservation, documentation and scientific team for their input in this grand project.

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