Tag Archives: fresco

Wipe Out: A Lesson in Being Human

While I read the news from Spain every morning, I often cannot share the stories I read with a wider audience, since not all of my readers are fluent in Spanish. Fortunately however, a story about an attempt at art restoration gone horribly, horribly wrong in Spain has attracted enough international attention to warrant reporting in English. According to news reports, a 19th century fresco painting of Christ at the moment when Pontius Pilate declared, “Ecce Homo,” located in the historic 16th century church of Our Lady of Mercy in the Aragonese town of Borja, was horribly “restored” by an elderly parishioner acting without permission.  She began by scraping off huge sections of loose paint, and then re-painting what can only be described as a rather blobby substitute over the bits she had ruined.

The fresco had begun to flake due to some moisture problems in the building, and was in need of preservation and restoration. Ironically, the local center for cultural studies had recently received a donation from the granddaughter of the artist, Elías García Martínez, to undertake restoration of the painting. Experts will now have to assess whether anything can be done to bring it back: though from the look of things, I suspect they cannot.

The woman responsible, who is in her 80′s and lives in the neighborhood, has come forward and admitted what she did. It was not intended maliciously, but rather she appears to have been unaware that efforts to raise funds to restore the painting were underway. It is telling that the effort to undertake this restoration began in 2010, and yet no one noticed what this woman was doing until August 2012. The church is apparently left open all day long, but there must not be many people visiting it if this ongoing work of hers passed unnoticed for such a long time.

Much of the reporting describes this painting as a “masterpiece”, when it fact it is not. More to the point this alleged “masterpiece” is really just a fresco version of the highly sentimental, colorful, holy card designs still sold everywhere. The fresco is – or was – a pious work of art, but it is not a great painting by any means. In this respect the continued inability of the secular media to understand the Church, let alone art, comes shining through in this story.

That being said, once we get past the images of the destruction of this work of art and calm down a bit, we come to look more clearly at the woman at the heart of this story. It seems to me that most of us do a pretty good job of making a mess of our own lives, without having to look to this woman’s actions in horror and say to ourselves that we would never have done something so stupid. In fact, we do stupid, self-destructive things all the time. Sometimes we do so with the best intentions, but more often than not we are simply selfish.

We have all sat down to eat something like pizza, knowing it was too hot and had to cool off a bit, but decided our appetite was more important than being prudent. The end result is that we scalded the roof of our mouth, suffering pain for days. What’s more, we don’t limit ourselves to self-inflicted harm as a result of own stupidity. No, we go out and spread it around to others, acting recklessly or foolishly in what have become accepted parts of our everyday life.

Take driving, for example. Do you speed, scream at other drivers, or sail along through heavy commuter traffic or intersections while talking on the phone, thinking you can perfectly control a gigantic pile of metal traveling at speed because everyone else is operating under the same delusion? How many more times will you be lucky, and avoid injuring or even killing someone?

Being human means we are going to do stupid things. We are going to eat pizza that is too hot, drive 90 mph in a 65 mph zone, and yes, even some rare percentage of us will wipe out a work of art. We will say and do things in our personal or public lives, that we will all regret.

The point is, when that happens – and it will – we need to stand up, admit what we have done, and ask forgiveness, and accept the consequences. We also need to make amends, if possible, by putting ourselves last, and those we have injured, first. To do otherwise than admit to one’s shortcomings and mistakes, is to have an over-inflated sense of ego, not worthy of any of us. And while in this case there is not much that can be done by this woman, on a practical level, to save this work of art, perhaps in the example of her failure we will all learn something.


Original, Underway, and After images of
“Ecce Homo” by Elías García Martínez (c.1890)
Santuario de N.S. de la Misericordia, Borja, Spain

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On Art, Architecture, and Snazzy Suits

I have stated on this blog many times that one of the great merits of both social and new media is the ability to connect people in the hope of some good thing coming out of it.  While it is true that many of us may not be in a position to put what we like to do ahead of what we need to do, by making an effort to reach out to others we may be able to make use of our talents, abilities, and interests in ways which our day-to-day lives do not always permit.  I do not work in the fields of art and architecture, for example, and yet I have been able to build upon my knowledge of and enthusiasm for these fields as a result of the possibilities afforded by the increasingly connected world in which we live.  I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to do the same, gentle reader, by giving you some examples from some of my own experiences of how you might go about doing so as well.

Yesterday in the mail I received copies of a catalogue from a new exhibition at the venerable Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly in London, who as you may know have been the grocers to the British Royal Family for many years.  They were sent by my friend Rupert Alexander, a hugely talented English artist whose work appears in the exhibition, because in the section on his work the catalogue  quotes from an essay he commissioned me to write about his painting for his website.  It was an odd thing, realizing that the Queen may very well have read some of my writing – or perhaps Kate or Camilla – when they visited the exhibition recently.

Rupert and I initially connected because I saw a piece about him in The Telegraph online, and I wanted to convey my appreciation for his work. I found him online via an internet search, I emailed him, and he replied: simple as that.  We slowly started talking back and forth about his work, our respective points of view on art, sending each other links, and so on.  Eventually, we got to meet in person when he and his wife spent their honeymoon in the United States, and both proved to be as lovely in person as they were online.  Today our connection continues, and in the note which accompanied the catalogues he sent, he let me know that he had enjoyed listening to my recent appearances on SQPN’s “Catholic Weekend” podcast – which he listened to, by the way, even though he himself is not a Catholic.  The point is, both of us made an effort to connect using new media and social media, and the end result is, I daresay, a positive one.

You cannot always guarantee, of course, that the result will be positive, for just because you reach out to someone on Twitter or Facebook, or via e-mail and the like, they may not necessarily respond, or they may do little more than give you a cursory acknowledgement.  I have met a number of people both in real life and via online media who seem unable to figure out how to go about reaching out to people, how to follow up once they have done so, and what to do if their efforts are not successful.  Allow me to give you an example of how I usually go about starting this process of investigation.

Thanks to my friend Eric Wind over at the National Civic Art Society, I learnt this week of an art project taking shape in the Tuscan city of Pisa.  Luca Battini, a young Italian artist, is undertaking the interior decoration of the monastic church of St. Vito, which he will cover with an enormous, 1,700 square-foot Renaissance-style fresco depicting the life of the city’s patron saint, St. Ranierus.  It is estimated that the painting will take at least three years to complete.

As you can imagine, if you are a regular reader of these pages, I found this an intriguing bit of news.  I did an internet search and found Maestro Battini’s blog which, while not updated frequently, he or his assistants clearly do maintain as they are able.   In scrolling through the archived posts, I noticed that last year he completed a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, which he personally presented to His Holiness.  The technical skill employed is accomplished and slick, without however being a “look at me” sort of production, and the end result is a very pleasant, but unsentimental image of the Pontiff.

I have written to Signore Battini using the email addresses I found on his blog, briefly telling him about how much I enjoyed learning about his work, that I would be doing a blog post in which I mentioned him, and that I would follow up and send him a link to the post.  Now the ball is in his court.  He may write me back, as Rupert did, or he may not, as was the case with George Shaw, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in contemporary art last year and whom I attempted to contact via the gallery that represents him.  And even if Sr. Battini does write me back, there is no guarantee that we will have anything further to say to one another.

The point is, one must make an attempt, or one will never know.  Most human beings experience some degree of shyness or awkwardness at times, which is only natural.  And no doubt many find the idea of sending a message to a total stranger to be somewhat off-putting, particularly if that stranger is someone better-known than we are.  However whether famous or ordinary, the method should be the same.

In my experience, the best thing to do is be brief, and to the point.  Explain why you are contacting them, open the door to the possibility of a reply, such as by asking a question or indicating that you will be sending some follow-up information that may prove to be of use to them, and then thank them for their time.  If they do respond, do not use email or tweet #2 to spill out everything about who you are and why you are worth getting to know.  The vast majority of productive relationships are formed through a slow build of revelation of shared views and experiences, rather than a sudden explosion of information on either side.

However, even as we keep in mind that using new and social media to reach out to others does not mean the recipient of your communication must befriend you, by the same token nor do you have to befriend everyone you want to contact, if there is no real basis for further communication.  For example, recently I caught a bit of a 50′s-60′s style musical group performing on television, and rather liked the (admittedly flashy) suits they were wearing.  I found their website and e-mail address, wrote a brief email complimenting them on their talents and asking who made their suits.  One of the members e-mailed me back with the information, for which I thanked him, and that was that.  I do not anticipate any further contact, since I do not enjoy that style of music, even if it requires good vocal skills and a finely-tuned ear.

These few examples will hopefully encourage you to try to do the same thing, when you feel compelled to reach out to someone else online.  Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the internet, through a combination of using both new and social media, can prove rewarding on many levels.  However the first step is perhaps the most difficult: recognizing your own humility, while simultaneously overcoming the fear of rejection.   You may not always make a new friend or contact, or obtain the answer to a question you have, but you will never know unless you try.

Italian artist Luca Battini at work

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Is A Leonardo Worth Destroying For?

I was intrigued this morning to read some very interesting news about the investigations taking place in Florence in search of a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.  Back in October 2009, I noted the possibility that da Vinci’s lost fresco “The Battle of Anghiari” had been found in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, hidden beneath a later fresco by Giorgio Vasari entitled “The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana”.  News today that researchers have found paint of the same kind used by Leonardo in his paintings of the same period as the Anghiari fresco, as a result of drilling beneath the Vasari fresco,  makes the possibility seem more likely. Yet as this quest for lost treasure continues, exciting as it may be, some serious questions need to be asked before things go too far.

There is no question that the reemergence of the da Vinci fresco, if in fact it could be recovered, would be of tremendous historic and artistic significance.  Although the thing was pretty much a wreck by the time Vasari came along, thanks to Leonardo’s usual disastrous experimental painting techniques, it made a profound impact on those who were able to view it before it disappeared.  Preparatory drawings and engravings of it were studied and copied by generations of artists.

Vasari the painter had great respect for the work of those artists who came before him, including Leonardo,  and Vasari the scholar can justly be considered the father of art history, as a result of his seminal book, “The Lives of the Artists”.  Therefore I would tend to agree with the theory postulated by those studying the frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio, that Vasari would not have wanted to scrape down and remove what was left of da Vinci’s monumental painting.  Rather, he was more likely to have persuaded the city council to cover it up, out of respect for the master’s work.

The theory that Vasari did so seems to have been bolstered by the discovery that the wall on which Vasari’s fresco was painted is, in fact, built in front of another wall, with a gap of about 2 centimeters between the two.  Researchers are quite rightly wondering why such a wall would have been placed before another, perfectly good wall, let alone why there was a gap left between the two.  Perhaps Vasari may have justified the expenditure of building this second wall to the city fathers who were paying his bill by claiming that he needed a newer, smoother wall surface on which to work, and that the wall containing da Vinci’s failed fresco was too rough to be properly smoothed over and whitewashed.

Moving a bit into “Indiana Jones” territory, there is also  speculation that the figure of a man in Vasari’s painting holding a banner which reads, “He Who Seeks, Finds” was left as a clue for future historians that the da Vinci painting was behind the Vasari painting.  As intriguing a possibility as this may be, especially for everyone who loves a good mystery story, to me this seems a bit fanciful.  I would not dream of entirely discounting the possibility, but ultimately finding what is on the newly-discovered inner wall is a scientific matter, not pulp fiction, and we have to go with the science.

Indeed, we do not know for certain whether there is in fact a painting on the surface of this inner wall, or that if there is a painting that it is da Vinci’s lost fresco.  There is always the possibility that if there is a painting, it may be from an artist before Leonardo’s time, for example, and it was of such little merit or importance that no one cared enough when it was covered over to note its existence or appearance.  If this turns out to be the case, then it would mean that the wall which presently displays Vasari’s work was, in fact, the wall on which da Vinci himself worked, meaning Vasari did remove what remained of Leonardo’s fresco before he started his own.

Aside from these mystery stories, one extremely important practical question in this investigation is whether our technology has advanced to the point where researchers will be able to safely move the wall on which the Vasari fresco is painted, in order to reveal the wall beneath it.  I can only guess at how this would be attempted, and those with better understandings of matters such as engineering and physics will have to correct me if they think I am off the mark.  My supposition is that the team will eventually seek permission to cut the present outer wall into pieces, removing sections at a time, in order to have a look at the wall behind it.  If they remove enough sections to reveal that there is a painting on the inner wall, and that it is definitely the lost work by Leonardo, then they would continue to remove the outer wall; if not, then they would have to put the outer wall back up again.

This is of course an extremely risky proposition.  Even assuming that this could be done, the Vasari fresco would certainly be damaged in the process, whether taken down in whole or in part, and would then require a great deal of restoration, even if the researchers were able to position their cuts so as to avoid destroying the more complicated sections of the Vasari painting.  They would need to cover the Vasari fresco in some type of protective material as they work, to keep any loose paint from flaking off.  And there would be a danger that the  surface of the outer wall, or indeed the entire structure of it, would become unstable, and the surface plaster containing Vasari’s original paint would shatter into millions of fragments.

As a result, the Italian authorities are going to have a very difficult time, deciding whether or not to take the risk of further poking and prodding into this mystery – which could end up ruining Vasari’s fresco, an art object of historic significance they are charged to help protect and preserve for future generations.  They will also have to worry about whether this case will set a precedent for a torrent of similar investigations, with people dashing about historic sites poking through frescoes with a drill, to see if there are earlier paintings underneath.  There are legitimate concerns over whether this investigation, as it presently stands, ought to continue, or whether it would be better to wait and see whether less invasive technology could be developed, in order to “see” what is on that inner wall without doing further damage to the outer wall.

Regardless, what this investigation really boils down to is the answer to a simple, but difficult question: Is it worth destroying a Vasari in order to obtain a da Vinci?  For no matter how careful the investigators might be, and no matter how advanced the technology employed, there is no way to bring whatever is on this inner wall to the light of day without some risk that the Vasari painting on the outer wall will be completely destroyed, whether as a result of carelessness on the part of those conducting the operation,  or through some at-present unforeseeable event or events.  I am not going to presume to venture an opinion on the matter, and will let my readers battle it out among themselves, as it were.  Whatever the final decision, it will no doubt have a significant impact on researchers, curators, and scientists around the world for many years to come.

“The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana” by Giorgio Vasari (1563)
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

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