by Roderick Conway Morris

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Preserving Padua's Giotto Frescoes

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, Italy 22 April 2000
Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
The Taking of Christ by Giotto, c. 1305



In March 1944, Allied bombs hit the Eremitani Church, reducing the side chapel containing Mantegna's earliest major frescoes to a pile of rubble. As the dust settled, it became evident that the freestanding Scrovegni Chapel, just a 100 meters away, had survived the blast and shock waves unscathed.

The Scrovegni, also known as the Arena Chapel, on account of its site amid the ruins of Padua's ancient Roman circus, was built by the Scrovegni family as a private chapel next to their palazzo (today nothing remains of their residence). The importance of the chapel far outweighs its simple architecture and relatively modest size, because Giotto frescoed the interior from floor to ceiling between about 1303 and 1305 with cycles representing the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ, and the Last Judgment. They were framed by a complex figurative and decorative scheme, pioneering a new form of naturalism that was to mark a turning point in Western painting.

As the frescoes' 700th anniversary approaches, however, the chapel may yet become Italy's equivalent of France's Lascaux Cave, which was permanently closed to the public in 1963, unless high-tech measures now being introduced prove capable of arresting the deterioration of Giotto's masterpiece.

Giotto's role in the frescoes attributed to him at Assisi is still a matter of fierce debate, but those at the Scrovegni are universally recognized as his, and they provide the ultimate benchmark in any discussion of what is genuinely by his own hand, rather than by his studio and followers.

It is ironic that the archetypal Florentine Giotto should have executed this pivotal masterwork so far from Tuscany. But then, like other contemporary Florentines of genius, during most of his lifetime Giotto's stock was higher elsewhere than in his native land. True to the traditions of his times, Giotto was a master craftsman as well as an artist, and created at the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes that magnificently stood the test of time. But some 30 years ago, it was realized that, while looking almost as though they had been painted yesterday, the hazards of the late 20th century were threatening to bring about their rapid destruction.

'The frescoes' chief enemies,' said Gianfranco Martinoni, the architect in charge of the rescue project, 'are the excessive number of visitors, which have averaged around 350,000 annually in recent years, and the air from outside. The moisture emitted by human bodies and breathing combines with airborne dust and other pollutants to produce an acidic chemical reaction that is literally eating into the surface of the paintings.'

To counter the process, a three-chamber glass module has been constructed through which visitors will have to pass before entering the chapel. A maximum of 25 people will be admitted at a time. They will spend about 15 minutes in the first chamber while it undergoes a change of air, before going through a second chamber and finally entering the chapel for a limited period of 15 minutes. They will then exit through the second and a third chamber.

'This system should completely isolate the chapel's interior from any direct contact with the air outside,' said Martinoni. 'The floors both in the module and the chapel will be covered with special carpeting to remove as much dust as possible from visitors' shoes, as this is the main source of these particles. And the air-conditioning in the chapel itself will create a pressure a little higher than that in the module and the outside environment, so that the filtered air inside will be continuously expelled through four small vents in the roof into the atmosphere. The temperature inside will also be slightly raised to counteract condensation.'

Once the system goes into operation in June, visitors will have to book their time in advance. (Tel. 049 820 4551.) The effectiveness of the measures will be closely monitored over the coming year, Martinoni said, to determine whether they can arrest the decay of the frescoes. If not, he said, more drastic measures will have to be considered.

But if the system can be shown to be working, it may prove a model for the conservation of other threatened artworks and obviate, or at least delay, the need to exclude public access to them altogether.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023