14th Century Fresco Repair Botched? See for Yourself

Oliver Libaw
·Managing Editor
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(Basilica of St. Francis fresco, after restoration. Image courtesy of La Repubblica.)

It may not look as bad as that famously botched restoration of a portrait of Jesus that went viral three years ago, but conservationists are up in arms about new repair work on several priceless 14th century frescos.

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(Basilica of St. Francis fresco, before restoration. It’s darker, but is it totally different? Image courtesy of La Repubblica.)

The masterworks in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi were created by late medieval masters including Giotto, who designed the Stefaneschi Triptych for St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, and Pietro Lorenzetti. The frescos are seen as essential examples of the development of Italian arts.  But now an allegedly overzealous touchup has mired them in controversy.

“I saw the site in 2011, and got the impression it was a good job, executed by someone I thought was a capable and expert restorer,” Bruno Zanardi, a restorer and University of Urbino instructor tells the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

“But when I went back to the basilica a couple of months ago with my students, I had a very different impression.”

The differences may seem subtle, but the experts are not mincing words. He says the colors are seriously distorted.

The Italian Ministry of Culture has ordered an inspection after expressing alarm over the project. 

Zanardi remembers the figures complexions looked like “molten glass” with “marvelously effortless” execution. 

Today he says they are “just pink.” 

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(St. Catherine, pre-restoration. Image Courtesy of La Repubblica)

“It wasn’t simple maintenance, such as a light coating with a paint brush,” he says. 

ArtNet News describes other figures as appearing flattened and the Virgin Mary at the center of the triptych has lost its top coat, and a rendering of her fainting at the cross now has duller colors and less detailed shading.

(You can compare more fresco restoration images for yourself on the newspaper’s website.)

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The lead restorer on the project, Sergio Fusetti, denies any missteps.

“The problem doesn’t exist. We carry out regular checks and maintenance, taking off the hard dust that’s been deposited on the frescoes. We have never done anything without the authorization,” Fusetti tells the Guardian.

Fusetti can at least take comfort in knowing he did much better than Cecilia Gimenez, the Spanish octogenarian who retouched a 19th century fresco in her church in Borja, Spain. The “Beast Jesus” image became an internet phenomenon back in 2012. 

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(Before and after image of Borja church fresco of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. Credit: AP Photo)

The blunder at least led to a tourism boom in the tiny town, where 40,000 people came to see it with their own eyes in 2013. Gimenez also sold an original artwork for $1,427 on eBay. 

The restorer at the center of this new controversy can also point out that the frescos he worked on faired better than this Giotto chapel, which was damaged by lighting in 2014.

What do you think? Did the restoration go too far or are officials overreacting?