“One of the worst cases in conservation history”

A Getty grant will help restore a Vasari and train a new generation of panel experts

During the great flood of 1966 (above) Vasari's Last Supper was submerged for 12 hours in Santa Croce

london. Conservators finally have the necessary expertise and funds to treat a painting that was considered to be one of the most seriously damaged during the great Florence Flood of 1966.

Almost 45 years after the Arno burst its banks, sending a torrent of mud and debris cascading throughout the city, Giorgio Vasari’s large-scale work, The Last Supper, 1546, is currently undergoing a difficult three-year conservation project thanks to a €300,000 Getty Foundation grant recently awarded to Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro (OPD).

The grant is part of the Getty’s Panel Painting Initiative, launched in 2009 by the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Conservation Institute, which aims to train a new generation of panel-painting specialists to replace leading experts who will retire within the next decade. Seven emerging, mid-level and advanced panel-painting conservators from institutions such as London’s National Gallery are assisting Ciro Castelli and Mauro Parri—both from the OPD and experts in their field—in the work’s restoration.

The work was commissioned in 1546 by the Cloistered Nuns of the Murate—possibly by the sister-in-law of Pope Paul III who was a nun at the Florentine convent. Vasari—now widely remembered for his book “Lives of the Artists”—had already received several prestigious commissions including paintings for the Sala di Cosimo I of the Palazzo Vecchio. The five-panel, 8ft by12ft painting was moved to the Basilica di Santa Croce in the 19th century and was in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce at the time of the flood.

“The painting was under water for 12 hours so the level of damage is terrible. It’s one of the worst cases in conservation history,” said Marco Ciatti, director of the OPD’s panel paintings department. While submerged, the panels absorbed the water and swelled. When they dried out, they shrunk, causing the panels’ surface to crack.

According to the department’s deputy director Cecilia Frosinini, the treatment will consist of “a series of very complex structural interventions” aimed to “recover a good adhesion of the paint layers on a stable support”. Among various treatments, conservators will remove the tissue paper applied to the panel immediately after the flood to secure the flaking areas. Its removal will allow for a preliminary cleaning to remove flood debris such as mud, mould, diesel oil and waste from the overflowing sewers.

Getty Foundation director Deborah Marrow called the Vasari project a “superb training opportunity”, adding: “Many of the world’s greatest paintings are on wooden supports and the number of experts possessing the almost surgical skills required is small and many will retire in the next decade—the next generation is not ready to take over.” Ton Wilmering, a Getty Foundation programme officer, added: “Most conservators are not taught about the structural issues associated with panel paintings.” So far, the Getty has awarded $1m through this initiative including $230,000 to preserve Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s 1432 Ghent Altarpiece. Ciatti applauded the initiative: “The problem of saving cultural heritage in Italy is that it’s such a huge and difficult task. We can’t do it alone. We need international cooperation and this project is one of the best examples we have had in years.”

A detail of Vasari's water damaged Last Supper
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3 May 12
1:18 CET


Wow! What an impressive undertaking! Keep up the good work. I'm a violin maker and restorer. You guys are really an inspiration to me. I wish I could help!!

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