An interview with the head fresco restorer:
The Chapel of Mary Magdalene, the third on the northern side of the nave of the lower Basilica, is one of Giotto's most famous works. The great master of medieval painting realized its fresco adornment with his workshop in 1307, a year after completing the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, at the height of his artistic formation.
The last restoration of the chapel's frescoes took place in 1968. After the earthquake of 1997 it was impossible to attend to the Lower Basilica, because of the need to extend the restoration of the collapsed vault in the upper church caused by repeated seismic tremors. It was considered necessary to maintain open and entirely usable at least the Lower Basilica. Therefore, very much needed work for the lower church was postponed. The renovation of the Magdalene Chapel started precisely during the months when the pandemic was exploding all over the world. This period of very limited flow of pilgrims in the Basilica, as sad as it is, however, has allowed us to begin work that could not have been done earlier.
The scaffolding for the restoration work of the Chapel of Maddalena was constructed in five levels and ten meters high. The team of restorers, directed by the head restorer for the Basilica, Prof. Sergio Fusetti, has worked on 300 square meters of pictorial surface for almost a year, with some short suspensions due to the anti-covid measures. Now that the restoration work has been finished and the construction site disassembled, Prof. Fusetti can speak to us in this interview about the work that has been completed.
"When the work was begun, what interventions were anticipated?"
Fusetti: "As a result of an in-depth verification of the damage caused by environmental conditions and the seismic shocks that have occurred over the years, in collaboration with the Supervision of Fine Arts of Perugia (Soprintendenza delle Belle Arti di Perugia), we have found several detachments of the plaster from the wall, although not very evident at a distance. This made the restoration work urgent and we were able to intervene in time. In fact, when we mounted the scaffolding, we could verify that the detachments were more serious than it appeared at first sight, although fortunately, they had not yet caused irreparable damage."
"How did you do the restoration?"
Fusetti: "The first necessary conservation intervention was to shore up the pictorial layers to the wall support. Once the scaffolding was mounted, we also found that a considerable layer of dirt had accumulated over the last 50 years, since the previous restoration, and therefore we proceeded with a cleaning operation and so restoration work true and thorough. We have also cleaned the frescoes from all the old restoration work of lower quality, preserving the most valuable ones, which remain as testimony to the history of the chapel across the centuries."
"How was the work financed?"
Fusetti: "In itself the needed funds were not excessive, but certainly beyond the capability of the friars of the Sacro Convento. The Basilica receives state subsidies for ordinary maintenance, but not for extraordinary restoration works. It was therefore necessary to raise funds for the restoration; and we were able to experience the care and generosity of donors, who are concerned about the historical and artistic heritage of the Basilica. We warmly thank all the benefactors who have contributed to the project; the total restoration of the Chapel of Maddalena, one of the most important works of the master Giotto's genius, was made possible, thanks to them. A special thanks for their generous contribution goes to the Niboli Family of Valsabbia, of the province of Brescia, by way of the Silvestro and Margherita Niboli Fund, established with the Fondazione Comunità Bresciana. We cannot forget to thank those who have chosen to allocate '5x1000' of their tax return to the Foundation for the Basilica; this type of donation is also always valuable for our restoration work."
"As head restorer, are you feel satisfied?"
Fusetti: "Along with the rest of the restoration team, I can say, 'yes': today we are really pleased to have completed this restoration and, in addition, the task that we have been able to carry in photographing and documenting the details of our work. With the friars of the Sacro Convento we hope that it will be possible for everyone to enjoy the restored beauty of the Chapel of Mary Magdalene, as soon as possible. Once this difficult time has passed for all of us, due to Covid, we hope to be able to make an official inauguration and also to be able to thank officially all those who cared enough to contribute to the realization of this restoration. Until then, I thank them now for myself, as head restorer."
"During the work of this project you were able to collect new information regarding Giotto's pictorial cycle?"
Fusetti: "One of the ambitions of every restorer is to be able to find a signature of the master. As always, we hoped so this time too, even though we knew it would be difficult, because Giotto rarely signed his works and, when he did, only on movable works, a few crosses he painted for example. This time, however, we found only a confirmation that the great Master did not like to put his signature on his cycles of wall frescoes. Giotto's signature, in the Chapel of Mary Magdalene, is the painting itself, the unique hand of the great artist, who made those faces, their expressions, certain inimitable details of the settings and objects... For the rest, we did not expect great discoveries, because all the pictorial cycles of the Basilica have been extensively studied and elaborated on in the past. The only interesting detail that emerged at a closer glance of the frescoes is a miniature, angel 'alla graffiti', which probably served as an "painter's test", for one of the many angels present in the pictorial cycle of the Chapel."
"Are there particular aspects in this cycle of frescoes that could still be the subject matter of thematic in-depth study?"
Fusetti: "The botanical cycle, which appears particularly in the fresco, "Noli me tangere" ('Do not cling to me'), is of considerable interest. In order to represent the "garden" that is mentioned in the Gospel of John, the artist depicted plants, which do not seem to be reproduced haphazardly. To understand what kind of plants they are would require the input of experienced botanists. Their research could certainly advance a more scientific, as well as a more detailed understanding of the frescoes, which however would require rather high costs. Right now we are focusing on the preservative interventions still needed in the Basilica. If one day we have the resources to devote ourselves to these aspects as well, it would provide us with richer documentation than we already have acquired during our restoration work. As it is, the documentation that we have thus far collected will allow us to produce a small publication that we are now preparing -- a short historiography of the Chapel (of the Magdalene)."
An interview with the head fresco restorer: