About the altarpiece and its restoration
In 1320 Guido Tarlati, bishop and future lord of the city of Arezzo, commissioned a splendid painting dedicated to the Virgin – and destined for the church of Santa Maria della Pieve – from one of the most famous artists of the period, Pietro Lorenzetti. The contract for the work specified the measurements, the themes to be depicted, the precious colors to be used, and the carat weight of the gold – no expense was spared. The five large panels of the altarpiece originally had a predella with painted figures, inserted in a heavy gold-plated Gothic frame, and were finished with two flanking columns that included figures of saints. Over the years, the predella, the columns, and the entire frame went lost. The five original panels remain intact, but are in need of restoration.
Authorized by the owners of the polyptych, the Diocese of Arezzo-Cortona-Sansepolcro, R.I.C.E R:C.A. took on the responsibility of funding the restoration of the artwork, under the guidance of the Superintendencies for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Siena-Grosseto-Arezzo. After an initial phase of diagnostic tests, research, and cleaning tests (2014-2016), the scientific team decided to undertake a complete restoration of the work. This will return it to its original condition, and remove both old and new foreign materials deposited on the painting’s surface. This new project carries with it a need for a much larger budget and Art Angels Arezzo has agreed to contribute to collecting funds in order to complete the restoration of the Altarpiece.
It is likely that the work remained at the altar of the church from Vasari’s time until the restoration that began in 1863, when it was brought to the Arezzo town hall for safekeeping. With that restoration complete, it was returned to the church between 1880 and 1881, and this time was installed at the back of the central apse.
In 1916 it was restored again by Domenico Fiscali, who writes of having removed “a few layers of oil paint, smoke, wax, and poorly done restorations, which obfuscated the original tone” from the pictorial surface, and of securing the “portions of primer that were raised and which had been covered with tempera paint which clashed”. The gilded portions, including the gold backgrounds, pillars, and frames, were worked on by the Florentine gilder Enrico Fracassini, who removed part of the original gilding and regilded large areas, which were then patinated to give a more uniform effect.
In 1976, a mentally unstable person attempted to set the work on fire, luckily causing only minor damage to the wooden supports. It then became necessary to carry out another restoration, which was completed by Carlo Guido, with carpentry work done by the Nespoli brothers, and directed by Anna Maria Maetzke of the Superintendency of Arezzo. The pictorial surface was deep-cleaned with caustic soda during prior restorations, and then covered with heavy layers of bituminous colored varnishes. Graffiti dating back to the Seventeenth Century were discovered on the figure of San Donato. Elsewhere, there were thick spots of black paint. During this restoration the cleaning was carried out using strong solvents, which was still a common practice in the 1970s, but is prohibited today to safeguard the health of both artworks and their restorers. Serious damage to the patina and paint emerged in the main panels, on the face of the Child and those of Saints Donatus and Matthew. The gaps of modest size, including one burn mark from a candle, were joined with watercolor, while the very small areas were repaired with colored varnish, which altered over time. The gilded portions were only partially cleaned.
The pictorial layers have been accurately examined, and cleaning tests with organic solvents, aqueous solutions, and emulsions have been carried out. The cleaning has proceeded in stages, uncovering and then removing wide areas of dirt residue which had remained untouched during prior restorations, undoubtedly as a way of respecting the original work. Today’s knowledge and techniques allow for the removal of the residues to ensure a final result that is uniform to the viewer.
This ongoing phase is time-consuming, given that it is conducted under a microscope, in order to guarantee the integrity of the pictorial layers. The wide portions of re-gilded background, and the structural parts of the work, will be conserved but will be cleaned of the heavy coatings applied in prior restorations, to restore them to their original brilliance.
Once the cleaning phase is complete, the gaps – corresponding to color loss from the original – will be stuccoed, in preparation for the pictorial restoration. This will be carried out by cross-hatching using watercolors, and oil-based paint in a few smaller areas. While the gaps are numerous, they are relatively small, and do not require a complete reconstruction of the original design. The reweaving of the color layers will make the painting more uniform to the viewer’s eye. The stucco work is also conducted under the microscope, keeping an eye on the original pictorial layers. There will be absolutely no intervention on the original portions of the painting. The entire restoration process will be documented with high definition three dimensional relief models thus facilitating further research while also providing precious documentation for a better understanding and visibility of this masterpiece. Visitors will be able to use a touch screen, which will be installed in the church, once the masterpiece has been returned to its original site inside the Pieve.