Walking down the corridor in the Gallery of the Maps my first day as a Vatican Museum Restoration Intern was the perfect introduction to the world of art restoration. On my right, colorful map frescos, depicting the Italian landscape of the 1500s, radiated hues of blue, green, and gold. On my left, I saw maps slightly yellowed with age and distorted by cracks, as if some new rivulet had formed beside the Tiber River. It was evident that masterful hands had restored the aging works to their former luster. My short walk rendered me, a rising college senior looking to pursue a career in art restoration, extremely impressed. The Art Department at the University of Notre Dame gave me the opportunity to be here, and I was thrilled to begin working.
I then entered the Gallery’s scaffolding and was quickly tasked with helping the restorers consolidate the fresco. They taught me how to check for holes behind the wall by knocking on it with my hands. With my left hand placed against the fresco, fingers spread wide, my right hand knocked firmly, creating a vibration and low-pitched sound that signaled a hazardous hole lay behind the wall. To fill it, we created a gateway with a tiny hand drill, injected alcohol to clean the hole, and finally filled it with mortar using a syringe. I was surprised to be handling tools more common to a doctor or construction worker. However, using this unexpected combination of tools and techniques was a key step, along with cleaning and retouching, in bringing Ignazio Danti’s maps back to their original state.
Next, I put aside the syringe and mortar to observe the restoration of a small canvas painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane from 1648. Restorers Eugenio and Stefania took the canvas off of its frame and examined the damage from a previous restoration- an old patch attached to the canvas to fill a hole had left it warped. Additionally, the brown paint was cracked from age and old varnish left the image tinted a dark shade of yellow. Eugenio used glue to consolidate the cracks and then applied heat and suction to flatten it. We used scapulas to detach the old patch, and a mixture of ethanol and hydrox to remove the varnish. In just a matter of days, this almost four-hundred-year-old painting came back to life before my eyes.
Now most of my days are spent in the scaffolding of the Borgia Apartment, where a team of four restorers is working to clean the fifteenth-century ceilings painted by Pinturicchio and his team. Every morning, after exchanging cheek kisses and enjoyed the customary cup of espresso, I get started graphically recording the chips in the original paint using the computer program, AutoCad. This helps to document the restoration and also lets the restorers analyze patterns in paint chipping.
I will leave this experience in awe of the patience, reverence, and dedication constantly demonstrated by the Vatican’s restorers. Without them, these works of art might simply deteriorate and fade away. Thanks to The Patrons of the Arts and the restorer’s efforts, however, the Vatican Museums are able to keep these pieces alive and illuminate our world’s treasures for generations to come.
By Katie Flynn, University of Notre Dame Class of 2015