The Malta Independent 8 March 2021, Monday

Stories of restorations

Noel Grima Sunday, 17 January 2021, 12:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Storie di Restauri (3) Nella Chiesa Conventuale di San Giovanni Battista a La Valletta. Athours|: Sante Guido and Giuseppe Mantella. Midsea Books / 2008. 492pp

On 4 March 1859, Archbishop of Malta Gaetano Pace Forno wrote to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and explained that the (British colonial) government wanted to restore Mattia Preti's paintings on the vault of the church of Saint John. He thus asked the Accademia to propose a worthy painter to undertake the restoration.

In reality, due to the peculiar manner in which Preti painted directly on stone and also due to the porous nature of the Maltese stone, the painting soon deteriorated and restoration had long been called for.

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According to Ignazio Cortis, whose "restoration" was, as we shall see, to prove to be equally problematic, an unprofessional restoration had been carried out in the past by "a cobbler" whose name Cortis professed to not know but who seems to have been the Maltese artist Bu(h)agiar.

By mid-March 1859 the Accademia's council proposed Nicola Consoni, a member of the same academy. At that time Consoni was engaged in the restoration of San Paolo Fuori le Mira after a fire and he came to Malta in August after which he submitted a report.

His estimate for the restoration would amount to 2,200 British pounds but the fact that Consoni demanded additional payment for the setting up of a scaffolding indicates he did not get to see the paintings at close quarters but only from the ground, maybe with the help of binoculars.

There were other painters/restorers such as Salvatore Micallef in 1866 and Paolo Cuschieri in  1859 who offered to restore the Preti vault.

By 1865 nothing had been done except for the creation of a special committee to focus on the restoration of the vault, presided over by Giovanni Vella. This sub-committee focused first on the scaffolding. Vella went up to Rome and came back with two names of proven artists. The sub-committee however insisted on Consoni. On 1 December Consoni wrote that the restoration at San Paolo was taking far too long and he suggested Maltese artist Ignazio Cortis, then a resident of Rome.

The sub-committee still hesitated and asked Consoni to list the works done by Cortis. It also asked for information on Luigi Cochietti who was ready to come to Malta. It also wrote to Baron Emilio Sceberras who was in Florence to try and get some artist in Florence interested in the project. Sceberras replied in January with three new names.

One of these, Giacomo Conti from Messina even came to Malta and was presented to the sub-committee. But he wanted to do the restoration in his studio in Messina. In his view parts of the paintings were so deteriorated that they had to be painted anew.

Banker (?) Giuseppe Scicluna e figli defended Conti and his restoration of the Teatro Massimo and argued that "in Italy the worst artists with no commission, restore".

Ignazio Cortis was still canvassing for the job and he pressured Rome's foremost artist in those days, Tommaso Minardi, to support his candidacy.

Then he came to Malta and was presented to the sub-committee. He first wrote an exhaustive report on the state of the paintings as he could see them from the ground, then went up on the scaffolding and wrote an even more exhaustive report.

Still, there were some who did not agree that he got the job and the sub-committee as a sort of test, commissioned him to restore the apse.

On 20 August 1868 Consoni wrote to Tommaso Minardi and told him he had been called to Malta to state that after the restoration of the apse Cortis should be given the restoration of the whole vault. There were many who never stopped criticising his restoration.

Despite all this, Cortis was given the job which he completed by 1874. Still, he continued getting adverse criticism by, for example, Folliero De Luna. On the other hand he was praised by, for example, an article which appeared in a Maltese language newspaper.

We now skip 70 years to 1920-1936 when Vincenzo Bonello, father of Judge Giovanni Bonello, carried out a meticulous examination of the entire vault and the "restoration" by Cortis and concluded that the so-called restoration was nothing else but "an act of vandalism".

He claimed that the photos of the vault that Cortis claimed to have taken before the start of his work had been destroyed in the presence of Cortis himself.

Bonello also claimed that it was simply not true that Preti's paintings had disintegrated and needed to be painted over. On the contrary, the efflorescence that emerged from the underlying stone could be wiped away with distilled water and Preti's paintings would reappear.

All this was stated in very stately Italian which one can read in the book's appendix.

And an even more important remedy to stop the damp was to cover the roof with a metal cover, which was finally done in the 20th century.

In 1952, Cesare Brandi came to Malta, sent by the Istituto Centrale del Restauro of Rome and, after a period of preliminary studies, restored the entire vault by 1962.

His conclusions mirrored exactly those reached by Bonello. The repainting by Cortis had flaked and deteriorated and presented a problem when it came to be removed.

When in 2002 work was about to begin in the restoration of the Chapel of the Italian Langue an examination of the vault was done and it was found that 40 years after the Brandi restoration, the entire surface, except for some small patches near the big window of the controfacciata, was in an excellent state.


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