Were Italians to identify one monument in their culturally and linguistically diverse nation as representing its valhalla—the locus of their fatherland’s identity—it would be the great conventual Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Begun at the end of the thirteenth century during the meteoric rise of the Franciscan Order, the giant Gothic structure is surrounded by equally imposing monastic outbuildings and cloisters, as well as that jewel of Early Renaissance architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel. The nave, transept, and chapels of the basilica tell a capsule story of Italian art—from Cimabue to Canova—while, lining those same walls, rows of tombs and cenotaphs recall human achievement in all its manifestations: from Dante to Alfieri, from Michelangelo to Galileo, and from Leonardo Bruni to Gioachino Rossini. Santa Croce is really more a pantheon of greatness than a church. Its nineteenth-century façade, a symbol of ecumenical inclusiveness, was financed in great part by an English Protestant magnate, Sir Francis Joseph Sloane, and prominently bears a Star of David in tribute to its Jewish architect, Niccolò Matas.

Santa Croce is really more a pantheon of greatness than a church.

Just as I and most of my fellow Florentines were only dimly aware that Santa Croce’s façade was a Victorian pastiche, so too did we barely realize that the basilica was built on land far below the high-water level of the nearby Arno River. This fact, however, was startlingly revealed to us and the rest of the world on the morning of November 4, 1966, when that level was hugely surpassed as the Arno suddenly overflowed its banks and protective parapets, roaring into the city with an avalanche of mud, organic detritus, and heating oil—a churning emulsion of filth. Although at the time, my family’s home was only a stone’s throw across the river from Santa Croce, I was not in Florence to witness the unfolding disaster. I learned about it on the radio as I began my workday at the Villa Favorita in Lugano, Switzerland. For the previous two years, I had been serving there as visiting conservator for the great collection of Baron H. H. Thyssen-Bornemisza, dividing my time with a private conservation practice I continued in Florence. The enormity of the cataclysm was progressively revealed in newscasts as I struggled to reach the stricken city by car over the next twelve hours—normally, in those days, a five-hour drive. Though by the evening of the fourth the flood had mostly receded, the devastation it caused in Santa Croce and other low-lying areas of the city and countryside was catastrophic. The great Franciscan basilica, its cloisters, and surrounding neighborhoods had been submerged to an average depth of eighteen feet. Even in areas where the flood had failed to reach such dramatic levels, the raging torrent, with its sheer force and headlong speed, left in its wake a nightmare landscape of utter chaos and destruction. Thousands of gallons of heating oil had mixed with the churning waters, everywhere revealing horribly soiled surfaces as the flood subsided.

Not surprisingly, each anniversary of that fateful event is somberly remembered in Florence. With this recent fiftieth recurrence, however, it became more of a national and even international commemoration. Much reported here and abroad was the reinstallation, in the Refectory adjoining the basilica of Santa Croce, of a huge depiction of The Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari, the mid-sixteenth century painter, architect, and author of the celebrated Lives. It was an apt commemorative gesture since the Vasari was billed as the last remaining flood-ravaged work to be replaced on public view after restoration. The Last Supper panel (in fact, five separate sections of poplar measuring a total of over six by eighteen feet) was originally commissioned for a nearby Carmelite convent. With the suppression of many cloistered religious communities in the nineteenth century, the huge painting was put on deposit at Santa Croce. Here, in the late 1950s, a place was finally found for it in a cramped, rather dark space adjoining the Chiostro Grande as part of a projected museum complex. And it was here, a day after the flood, that I encountered The Last Supper still bolted to the wall in a room where the water had just recently reached to the ceiling.

Having apprenticed at the Uffizi “Gabinetto del Restauro” several years earlier, I was known well enough by my older colleagues there to be put in charge of a small group of volunteers. We and other “first aid” intervention squads were dispatched as the need arose—and Santa Croce was immediately identified as the highest of priorities. Of these, by far the most important, not only in Florence but also in the entire Arno basin, was the great painted Crucifix by Cimabue. Dating from the last quarter of the thirteenth century, the imposingly large and poignant devotional image has always been regarded as a milestone in the early development of Italian art. After the last war, it spent about a decade in the Uffizi before being returned in 1958 to Santa Croce, the church for which it was originally created. At that point, however, rather than being placed on the main altar, the great cross was hoisted high on a wall in the Refectory. Tragically, it proved to be not high enough: the waters of November 4 submerged the panel nearly to the top and, by the time the feverish work of detaching it from the wall and laying it down had been completed, large portions of the painted image had forever disappeared. The Cimabue Crucifix became the symbol of the Great Flood. The most seasoned and experienced conservators of the Gabinetto were deployed in an effort to save this touchstone of Italian art. At the same time, the Vasari, in its small nearby room, received its emergency ministrations from a young operative just arrived from Switzerland and not even on the Gabinetto staff. Not surprisingly, the formidable task of restoring the Crucifix was the first to be undertaken and the first to be completed. In 1982, the Cimabue, in its now fragmentary state, was shown abroad and even made a fleeting appearance at the Metropolitan. Meanwhile, Vasari’s Last Supper, a victim of its immense size and perceived marginal artistic value, languished.

Like all the other affected panels—even the Crucifix—the Vasari was subjected to a first emergency intervention that consisted in “papering” the surface to protect the color layer. The practice is one of conservation’s most well-established and widely employed techniques. It consists in carefully applying to the painted surface small squares of wet-strength mulberry paper with an adhesive. The “patch” or “patches,” once dried, allow an operator to safely perform consolidation in areas where blistering, fragmentation, and other deformations have occurred without fear of further losses to the pictorial layers. The preferred adhesive for “papering” has traditionally been a light, water-soluble animal glue that penetrates adequately, dries rapidly, and is easily removed at the end of the procedure. In the wake of the flood disaster, Uffizi conservators were, however, instantly faced with a major and obvious problem: with the support and painted layers of the affected paintings still damp, the preferred adhesive used for “papering” could not possibly function. A new substance needed to be chosen that would dry in high-humidity conditions. Not only had this substance to be suitable for the task, but it also had to be used in the vast “papering” undertaking—immediately. This urgency was obvious to the conservators because, if the painted panels were allowed to dry unprotected, the wood supports would shrink rapidly and dramatically, causing further havoc to the images.

The decisions, after consideration of these stark realities, were taken in a climate of near panic, though surely with the best available knowledge. The first and most significant of these decisions was the choice of adhesive for the “papering.” Rome’s Central Institute for Conservation had been testing for several years a synthetic resin developed by the Philadelphia firm Rohm & Haas, known by the trade name “Paraloid.” It is a polymer plastic, soluble in toluene. Unlike natural resins such as dammar or mastic that have been used for centuries, this material—technically a methacrylate—is highly resistant to atmospheric and environmental deterioration. Such stability is much appreciated by conservators and, by the mid-1940s, the resin was quickly adopted in American studios, particularly as a varnish. In 1966, after receiving Rome’s blessing, Paraloid was just becoming fashionable in Italy as the “last word” but decidedly not at the Uffizi Gabinetto del Restauro, still very much a bastion of traditional conservation methods and materials. Nonetheless, large quantities of the synthetic resin were commandeered elsewhere and rushed to the city. Amazingly, by the fifth of November, the appropriately prepared adhesive was already in the hands of volunteer teams such as mine. We were quickly at work, applying it to hundreds of square feet of antique painted surface, all over the city.

The Cimabue Crucifix, although the focus of the senior conservators’ most urgent attentions, suffered infuriating delays in being lowered from the wall and placed in a horizontal position—on a series of creaky wooden chairs hastily arranged to receive it. Fortunately, the loss of color on the gigantic Last Supper, due to its more robust support and the execution in oil medium, was not nearly as dramatic as with the Cimabue, done in egg tempera. No attempt was made to detach the panel from the wall. The “papering,” therefore, had to proceed in a vertical position, resulting in a very uneven distribution of adhesive over the surface; after all, this was a little-known Vasari and could be left as it was for the time being, with a relatively inexperienced practitioner in charge.

The harried Gabinetto staff determined for each painting a “rating.”

As papering of the seemingly endless number of panel surfaces continued in situ, the second important decision taken after the flood was beginning to be implemented: transfer of the works to places where slow and controlled dehumidification of the panels could take place. “Slow” and “controlled” were the watchwords here. The carefully planned strategy was to proceed gradually in consolidating the surfaces with conventional glue adhesives as the wood supports were slowly drying, thus regaining their original configuration and size. The process also called for the simultaneous removal of the papers and the methacrylate resin with which they were applied. In order to do this successfully, the panels had to remain in a horizontal position. While this, at first, posed significant logistical hurdles in terms of space, adequate locations were soon found in the various greenhouses of the Boboli Gardens as well as those of other Granducal villas. Within a few months of the massive relocation effort, the Uffizi personnel began to suspect that the strategy they had intended to follow might not be going as planned. Maintaining and controlling humidity levels in these new environments proved to be a far more daunting task than imagined. Serious problems began to appear in the most vulnerable of the panel paintings’ components: their gesso (gypsum) ground or priming. Such preparative layers are common to all Italian panel paintings whether executed in tempera or oil. They are generally quite thin, bound with animal glue, and hygroscopic (water-sensitive). Exposed to prolonged humidity, glue progressively loses its binding properties but, more seriously, is prone to mycological (fungal) decomposition. Such deterioration could be fatal to the continued structural integrity of a majority of the affected paintings.

A further complication also became evident. The molecular structure of Paraloid is more complex and “heavier” than that of the natural resins traditionally used by painters and conservators. This is, in fact, what accounts for the synthetic resin’s much-praised stability, light-fastness, and permanence. But it also requires more efficient, or “stronger,” solvents (such as toluene) to be diluted for normal use. Since, with time, all resins, both natural and synthetic, have a tendency to become progressively less sensitive to solvent action, the Uffizi conservators were now confronted with the excruciating prospect of trying to remove a hardened layer of paper and resin from paintings whose structures were deformed and severely weakened. Clearly, the sooner this could be accomplished, the better; an ominously impelling issue of time was again at hand.

The only reasonable course of action left for the harried Gabinetto staff was to determine for each painting a “rating” according to historical significance, state of conservation, age, and size. In effect, it became a kind of artistic triage whereby certain works, such as the Cimabue, went to the head of the line while many others languished in the dangerous limbo of the Boboli greenhouses. These were finally emptied when it became obvious that the numerous remaining panels would be at risk of ever greater deterioration if humidification continued. The Last Supper was put aside, semi-forgotten, and at the very end of the line. It was not retrieved from storage until eleven years ago when a full evaluation of its state was at last performed. By then, most of the pictorial layers were adhering to the facing papers rather than to the panel; much of the color had detached from both and was irretrievably lost. The wisdom of those early decisions, so hastily taken, was seriously open to question.

On a positive note, however, the Great Flood had caused much to change in Florence in the intervening decades, none more than in the field of fine arts conservation. The cramped quarters of the old Gabinetto del Restauro behind the Loggia dei Lanzi at the Uffizi was closed, and so were various associated studios in other locations. All painting conservation activities were unified under the aegis of the still-surviving Medici gemstone workshops, the “Opificio delle Pietre Dure” (opd). This new entity bearing an ancient name was now assigned much expanded and refurbished premises in the “Fortezza da Basso,” the sixteenth-century military bastion designed by Michelangelo. The reborn Opificio was endowed with every imaginable contemporary diagnostic and technical tool as well as a steady flow of funding, some from corporate and foundation sources. Shortly after the “Fortezza” workshops opened, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the collector for whom I worked for many years, generously underwrote the costs of a new, state-of-the-art woodworking shop. The tradition-bound artisan-restorer’s atelier of the Gabinetto was rapidly transformed into an up-to-the-minute conservation facility.

Considerable wizardry in organic chemistry was needed.

It was in 2006, at the Opificio, where the task of piecing back together Vasari’s Last Supper began. The timing was right because, by then, new materials and techniques that had not been available forty years earlier could be tested and applied. It was, nonetheless, Florence’s unmatched and age-old tradition of sophisticated carpentry that was fortunately still alive and, in this instance, proved crucial. The various sections of the huge panel were found to be hideously warped, shrunk, and split. What was left of the painted layers was mostly attached to the resin-hardened papers rather than to the wood support. Nothing could be done until this support regained a degree of planar coherence and stability. This was accomplished by a small team of superlative craftsmen who “opened” the panels by painstakingly inserting myriad thin strips of poplar into channels chiseled into the body of the original wood. Once the panel support had been restored to a semblance of its original self, a new ground layer was applied and made ready to receive the gigantic jigsaw puzzle that the color layers had become. Considerable wizardry in organic chemistry was needed to resolve the problem of softening the aged layer of methacrylate resin so that the color layers could be separated from the papers. The principal tool for this procedure was endless patience—more than five years of it!—plus a generous helping hand from the “Panel Painting Initiative” of the Getty Foundation.

The completion of the Last Supper project marked the closing chapter of the Great Flood saga. With much fanfare, the painting was returned from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to Santa Croce for dedication on November 4, the very day of the tragic event fifty years prior. There was no shortage of other commemorations in the city, but the Vasari was firmly at center stage, described as a “masterpiece” and its restoration as a “miracle.” The President of the Republic, the Mayor, and Matteo Renzi, the former mayor and prime minister, were all present, surrounded by the usual gaggle of dignitaries, large and small-bore. The huge panel now hangs in the Refectory, precisely where the Cimabue Crucifix suffered its fatal encounter with the waters of the Arno half a century ago (what remains of it was long since “promoted” to the basilica’s sacristy). If nothing else, the event was emblematic of how art-historical favor has shifted Vasari’s way these last decades: from a cramped, low-ceilinged space on the periphery of the courtyard, his huge panel has now migrated to the soaring grandeur of the Refectory—and from the hands of a novice conservator to the care of one of the world’s foremost museum labs.

All this would be abundant reason to rejoice, as did the press and dignitaries in perfect unison, were it not for the fact that the restored Last Supper is further proof that, in the field of conservation, “miracles” are, at best, elusive. Vasari’s “masterpiece” is, and is destined to remain, a sorry, fragmentary shadow of itself. It would have been simply impossible for the restoration, epic and heroic as it was, to retrieve the surface, texture, and quality of a work of art that is now but a patchwork of bits and pieces. And yet such analytical considerations were hardly foremost in my mind as I stood in the Refectory for the first time in so many years. Too much had changed: the concerns of art history had evolved, and so had—dramatically—the practice of conservation itself. That private collection, once secluded in a verdant corner of a Swiss lake, was now a public foundation teeming with visitors in the center of Madrid. Most poignantly, there were no Uffizi colleagues still living with whom I could share memories of those terrible November days of 1966; they were the talented, supremely gifted craftsmen, who had devoted their lives to the care of paintings when they were then suddenly faced with this unimaginable spectacle. I remember how some at first cried, others panicked, but, eventually, all managed to gather their strengths and skills, bravely continuing for years the daunting task of retrieving what was left of their—and our—artistic heritage.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 52
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