Thursday, April 12, 2018

Triumphal Restoration in Pisa

A portion of il Trionfo della Morte, Campo Santo, Pisa

Just outside of Pisa, where the buildings of the town begin to give way to fields, sits a very large building that looks like an ordinary storage warehouse, except for the high wall around it topped by barbed wire. For the last nine years, this building has been home to some of the greatest art treasures of the Medieval world - the frescoes of the Campo Santo of Pisa. During those nine years, a team of art restorers  has worked tirelessly to restore these 13th-century frescoes, which were severely damaged during the Second World War. The team includes a Who's Who of the art restoration world, including Antonio Paolucci, the former director of the Vatican Museums, and Gian Luigi Colalucci, the restorer of the Sistine Chapel.  

On June 17, Il Trionfo della Morte by Buonamico  Buffalmacco,  the last and one of the greatest of the frescoes, will be put back in place in the Campo Santo. Then, "the Sistine Chapel of Pisa," as Paolucci, has called it, will once again be complete. 

Recently I was invited by the Opera Della Primaziale, the non-profit group in charge of monuments in Pisa, to view "The Triumph of Death" up close and to learn about the restoration process. On hand were were a small group of academics, art historians and restorers. (In the laboratory, the panels of the frescoes are not yet joined together, but will be when the fresco is reinstalled.)

Amid the scenes of everyday medieval life in the fresco, death is ever present. Even while nobles take pleasure in the hunt and young people enjoy themselves in a garden, a nearby demon is busy snatching the soul from the mouth of a recently-deceased woman. Overhead, scores of hellish and heavenly figures wrestle for the souls of the newly departed. It's message to the believer is that death comes to all, noble or peasant, rich or poor. It's the ultimate warning that actions have consequences.

The Campo Santo in Pisa was once more famous than the city's Leaning Tower.  Begun in 1277, its purpose was to provide, "a large and dignified, secluded and enclosed space" for graves and ancient sarcophagi, which previously were scattered somewhat haphazardly around the cathedral. The Crusaders are said to have brought tons of earth from the Holy Land back to Pisa for this monumental cemetery, thus its name as the holy field. 

Gleaming white marble was chosen for the outer walls of the Campo Santo. Its inner walls were adorned with 20,000 feet of luminous frescoes by renowned artists of the time, including Francesco Traini, Buonamico Buffalmacco and Benozzi Gozzoli. 

Then during the Second World War, on the hot summer evening of the 27th of July 1944, in the course of a battle between German and American forces, a stray American artillery shell struck the roof of the Campo Santo. An article in the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, published in February 1945, described the event as follows:

..a fire broke out immediately above Benozzi Gozzoli's painting of fire and brimstone raining down upon Sodom.  Fanned by a westerly breeze, the fire spread through the dry roof timbers; there was no water because the Pisan mains had been cut some days before; the few Italian volunteers on the spot were unable to breach the roof sufficiently to stop the flames....In four hours the whole cloister roof had been burned. Blazing beams crashed against the frescoed-wall surfaces; molten lead ran down upon the pavement and on to the marble monuments ranged along the walls, cracking them with the heat. 

Conditions in the city were so bad and building material so scarce that it seemed impossible that the frescoes could be saved. Unlike Florence, which was given special protective status by the allies during the war, Pisa was heavily bombed. Nonetheless, Italian restorers and ordinary citizens began work immediately, gathering up thousands of pieces of the frescoes and constructing whatever protective coverings they could.  

They were greatly helped in their efforts by the arrival of Deane Keller, a captain in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive division of the U.S. Army.  Keller's job was to protect and salvage art and monuments in Italy.  One of the famous Monuments Men, Keller, with a small team aided by Italian army personnel and fresco specialists, managed to protect the Campo Santo and prepare it for later restoration. After the war, Keller returned to the US and to a professorship at Yale University. He died in 1992 and, in gratitude for his efforts, his ashes now repose in the Campo Santo.

Restoration continued over the years. Some frescoes were only slightly damaged; others were in thousands of pieces scattered about the burned ruins. The pieces were tirelessly fitted together and replaced on the walls, but the frescoes retained only a hint of their former glory.

In 2008, after years of debate, the decision was finally taken to remove all the frescoes of the Campo Santo for restoration. Intensive research was done before any physical work could begin. Restorers knew that glues and resins used in previous restoration work had often done more harm to the frescoes than the fire. Although a roof covers the fresco galleries, they are open to the interior central square. Moisture and condensation are a constant problem.

To solve the moisture problem, restorers used specially developed heating grids behind the frescoes that automatically react to changes in outside temperatures, preventing condensation. Although previous restorers could not remove the old glue and resin without irremediably damaging the frescoes, today's restorers have new materials at their command. Natural bacteria, pseudomonas stutzeri,  applied to the frescoes, eat the old resins and glue without damaging the paint underneath. Then, their work finished, the bacteria die -  unwitting heroes in the service of art.

For an hour, we visitors were given the opportunity to look at the fresco up close, to photograph it, and to talk to the restorers. Every action these experts take must be based on facts at their disposal.  Some things -  the original brightness of a color, the disappeared words on a banner - cannot always be known.  And so, there are gaps in the fresco, missing pieces that can't be filled in. 

The restorers have made the most reasoned decisions possible. They have done their very best, but none of them think they have returned the frescoes to their ancient splendor.  

Some of the effects of time and war can never be undone.  


Click here to see more photos
Click here to see a video of the Campo Santo.


  1. Super article, Geraldine.. . Thanks for sharing!

  2. Fabulous article! The work accomplished on "il Trionfo della Morte," is incredible! The use of heating grids along with resin and glue eating bacteria is brilliant! I find your Travel Oyster not only entertaining, but also educational. Thanks Geraldine!

  3. Wow! What an amazing effort by this team of restorers. And so many interesting details in your article. I particularly loved the glue eating bacteria! Thanks for a great article! Heidi


Thanks for your comments.