Working with Wall Paintings at the Monastery of San Giovanni Battista
Serravalle, VT Italy – April 2007
On a quiet street in Serravalle that winds among medieval facades, the AiP team met to begin a project at the Monastery of San Giovanni Battista. Participants came from the Philippines and the US, bringing a variety of skills; the group included an architect, a university professor, a conservation specialist, and a recent graduate in historic preservation. Alma Ortolan, a leading Italian fresco conservator and the workshop instructor, welcomed the group to her hometown to take on conservation of the monastery cloister.
Project and Results
Ms. Ortolan’s goal for the group was to initiate a scientifically based assessment of the cloister’s 17th century frescoes and columns. The initial task was to assess and document the condition of twenty stone columns. Volunteers determined that the cloister contained four different types of columns, varying in construction and carving technique, and in material – some limestone and some sandstone. A talk with the priest revealed that the bell tower was causing major stress on two of the columns, explaining their deteriorated condition. Volunteers documented their findings with drawings and detailed photographs; they then conducted cleaning tests on the stone.
The next task was to document wall paintings located around the cloister. The team learned first-hand why so many studies are conducted before restoration work actually begins: their investigations revealed that the wall paintings were not frescos, as previously believed. The paintings had been applied to a dry plaster surface rather than wet; frescoes, by definition, are painted on wet plaster. This discovery was important as it affects the method of conservation.
The report completed by the end of the two-week session, which involved 256 hours of volunteer labor, was a significant contribution to ongoing conservation work at the monastery.
Hands-on and Beyond
The team needed only to relax in the historic Palazzo Galletti, where they stayed, to experience Italy’s architecture and history. The weekend, however, did allow time for touring, beginning with a visit to the Church of San Nicolo (1352) in Treviso and its many frescos. Then it was on to Venice to meet a sculptor who provided materials for the restoration of Teatro La Fenice after the devastating 1996 fire.
AiP’s voluntourists spent their final Saturday in Padua seeing the work of Giotto, one of the first great fresco painters. The opportunity to view some of Italy’s great works of art, guided by Alma – one of Italy’s great conservators – was an experience not to be forgotten.
This Italian experience was clearly something to write home about, as we received postcard-length praises.
Diana Barbera-Horwitz, an American art conservator/business owner, wrote: Alma Ortolan and her assistant Chiara Piccin were professional, well-informed and delightful. The fresco painting workshops, the conservation survey of the cloister, and the local history and food were presented in an enjoyable and highly educational manner. I loved it all and appreciate AiP for making it happen!
And Filomin Gutierrez, from the Philippines, described at length what she enjoyed about her trip: The experience in Serravalle in Vittorio Veneto was made memorable by the expertise and generosity of the resource person, Ms. Alma Ortolan, the company of the workshop participants, and the beauty and history of the Serravalle and its people. The trips to historical sites in neighboring towns were wonderful. It was truly a meaningful learning experience.