A hazy November sun was just beginning to set behind the hills of Calenzano when we arrived at Villa La Ragnaia, where our Advanced Fresco Restoration class takes place. Looking from the outside, you’d never guess that the unassuming villa is home to beautiful, but heavily damaged 16th century frescoes. Our class has joined Prof. Casamenti’s team at the final stage of restoring the frescoes with watercolours.
Fresco restoration certainly isn’t for everybody. LdM students at the Florence campus can get the opportunity to work on extremely valuable frescoes (Giotto? Donatello? You name it!) and in a variety of locations (Easter Island? India? No problem!). Because of that, the programme attracts large amounts of aspiring artists, who are hoping for a bit of the old masters’ genius to trickle down through close contact with the surviving works. Sometimes, they are disappointed how little room there is for pure artistic expression.
You work in the field, often in dark and damp, half-abandoned spaces. You travel for miles to get to your site. And then you sit largely immobile, but for your brush-wielding hand, dabbing small dots of colour on a building’s ceiling and walls. You get cold. You get grumpy and bored. And yet, it is completely exhilarating. It’s hard to find an equivalent to the satisfaction you get when, after hours of meticulous work, images start to emerge from what was just a smear or a stain on a wall. Suddenly, you feel part of something much larger than you.
Observing Prof. Casamenti and his students, you quickly realise that the art of fresco restoration lies in self-control. It is the constant stepping back and critically assessing the constellations of new dots of colour, that makes for a finely restored fresco. Adding colour that matches the original exactly is falsifying, and in the words of Prof. Casamenti himself: “non è più restauro, è un dipinto” – it’s not restoration anymore, it’s painting. It’s not easy to find the right balance of colours and it’s not easy to pull yourself away, leaving certain elements untouched, letting the eye of the beholder to fill in the gaps.