The end of summer brings memories of sunshine-filled road trips, beach trips, and maybe even good food and refreshing cocktail enjoyed during the vacation. In the case of the latter, combining the right ingredients might even offer a sensory stimulation, enhancing the aesthetic experience of where the beverage is sipped.
Thanks to mixologists, traditional toasts are savored and classics are reimaged to create combinations to stimulate the palette. Did you know that some of the most skilled and savvy mixologists work in the Vatican Gardens? The restorers actually refer to themselves as such in jest. The difference, however, is that the cocktails that are whipped up in the Vatican Gardens are not for human consumption. Rather, the cocktails do the consuming.
To remove the dirt, moss, oils and varnishes from the statues and monuments in the Vatican Gardens, the restoration team is utilizing a type of a technique called in-situ bioremediation. This simply means that the undesired materials are treated and cleaned, or remediated, by biological, naturally occurring substances. All of this happens where the object in the garden currently resides, or in-situ.
Decorative elements in the section Madonna of the Guard before, during and after treatment process
From its flowers to stone figures dispersed throughout the area, the evolution of the Vatican Gardens dates back to late 13th century, and its cultivation is still continuous. After Pope Nicolas II commenced the initial planting in the Vatican hills, the area grew and changed under various pontificates and architects. Although the French invasion in 1798 eradicated a major portion of the Gardens, the 19th century witnessed a great nurturing of the area, with not only flora, but also arrangement of marble sculptures, fountains, pieces of ancient monuments. The gardens were home of more changes after the Vatican City State was recognized as an independent state with the concordat of the 1929 Lateran Treaty. The reconstruction and revamping involved more sculptural additions. The objects and embellishments that have stood the test of time in the garden, however, also bear the vestige of times past. In other words, they need a good cleaning.
And this spurred a very good idea. Why not use natural things to preserve nature?
Plant oils and extracts have been known to have antimicrobial responses for years. Essential oils have significant inhibitory effects against a spectrum of bacteria, fungi, and other biological microorganisms. What this means, in short, is that fennel, clove, cinnamon, or juniper berry oil may not be just for flavoring drinks, and bergamot, lavender or rosewood may not be relegated to perfumery. With the correct ratio and “flavor” combinations, putting certain oils together—even in low, diluted concentrations—can result in being just the right “stain-buster” to eliminate the moss off of a marble plaque or bacterial residue off of a fountain.
Although the Vatican is not the first to use natural ingredients to clean, they are innovative in their techniques and employing essential oils for art restoration purposes. Pure oils are always used and analyzed first, to determine which might be more efficient in combatting fungi, another for algae. The most potent is decided based on a series of four tests and how they differ before and after treatment. On the selected “swatch,” the restorers will measure the color spectrum, the bioluminescence of the surface, the amount of residual fungi using fungi tape, and also use transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to analyze the outcome of using each essential oil. These results, in turn, help the team come up with the right recipe for their “cocktails” to clean each piece in the garden.
Marble surface with various test swatches treated with different essential oils in varying concentrations
The gardens were divided into sections to better care for and catalogue the pieces, and the restoration effort started with a pilot project to test the potency and security of the material(s) used. The zone called Cascatelle (small waterfalls) was fundamental in discerning which substances could be used in conservation without adverse environmental effects. Thanks to the funding provided by the Hazelwood family of California, the restoration team sought out the best approach—and oils such as rosemary and licorice—to clean and revitalize the area.
Before and after cleaning of Apollo playing his cithar in the Cascatelle section of the Vatican Gardens
With over 500 pieces in the gardens, the innovation continues in other sections and is in progress now. The Grotto of Lourdes (sponsored by California Chapter), the helicopter port (Texas Chapter), Madonna of the Guard (The Brewis family of Michigan), Zitella and the Casina of Pius IV (New York Chapter), and Vignaccia (Robert Toll of Philadelphia) are all sections where work is taking place. There are still 7 more sections that are part of the gardens and need adoption in the future.
If in the next few years you have the good fortune to gaze upon the panorama of the gardens from the Museums, you might also catch sight through the bushes of a restorer or two rejuvenating the Vatican’s backyard —our very own cocktail historians and innovators rolled into one!