Italy has no shortage of art, and when that art needs a face-lift, it takes a trip to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro, the country’s national restoration laboratory.
Located in an elegant old stable in Florence, the Opificio is like a spa for cultural heritage artifacts, where paintings, frescoes and sculptures go for age-extending treatments.
When I visited, Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian and the Opificio’s director of mural paintings, was kind enough to give me a tour.
As we wandered through the extensive labs, dozens of restorers were working on a wide variety of pieces including Renaissance paintings sent from Budapest for anti-aging therapy, ceramic sculptures, water-damaged frescoes and a wooden statue of Christ that had been painted to look like bronze during an era when bronze was popular but too expensive for some budgets.
The Opificio has also been recently involved in everything from using ultraviolet light to bring out cool, hidden details in Giotto paintings to the restoration of Santa Croce Basilica’s famous frescoes.
Like many great things in Florence, the Opificio has its root with the city’s famous Medici family. The first half the Opificio’s Italian name translates to “workshop of semi precious stones.” And as the name suggests, the Medicis founded the Opificio in 1580s to produce furniture decorated with semi precious stones, Frosinini told me.
Time passed and the workshop began restoring their own pieces. By the 19th century, art made from other materials such ceramic, marble and jewelry, was also being restored, she added.
The second half of the Opificio’s name, Laboratori di Restauro, refers to the restoration laboratory founded in 1932 by Ugo Procacci, who was a very important Italian art historian at the beginning of the 20th century. Around the same time that Procacci was starting a restoration lab in Florence, other museums around the world were also doing the same, such as the Fogg Art Museum in Boston and the National Gallery in London.
These early restoration labs were making use of X-ray imaging–which was becoming more widespread in many fields outside medicine–to see into panel paintings and reveal what they were composed of (such as wood, metal etc). X-rays were also being used to see if there were previous paintings lying below what could be seen with the naked eye.
In 1975, Italy’s newly established a Ministry for Cultural heritage decided to merge the 1932 restoration science lab and Medici’s restoration facility together and move everything into a former military horse stable.
One of the major projects currently keeping Opificio restorers busy is a major restoration project of five panel paintings by Giorgio Vasari that were badly damaged in a famous 1966 flood in Florence.
Frosinini said that the panels are the last of the art damaged by this flood still in need of restoration. Although the project began in 2006 on the 40th anniversary of the flood, Frosinini says she’s hoping—but not sure—that they’ll complete the restoration by the 50th anniversary of the flood in 2016.
When I toured through the Opificio, there were about a ten people working away on the Vasari project. The panels are big, but ten years seems like a long time. I am reminded again (and again) that restoration is seriously time-intensive. On the other hand, being surrounded by beautiful art in an airy, spacious lab is not a bad way to spend a decade.