Seven centuries ago, during the first Jubilee Year (1300), the foundation stone was laid for the chapel that Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker and merchant, wanted to build as the finishing touch to his new home in Padua.
To embellish the building, which was intended to hold his own tomb and those of his descendants, Enrico summoned two of the greatest artists of the period. Giovanni Pisano, who was commissioned to sculpt three marble altar statues of the Virgin and Child between two angels, and Giotto, who was asked to fresco the walls and ceiling.
Giotto was already an established artist - he had worked for the Pope on the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, and in Padua on the Basilica of St. Anthony and the Palazzo Comunale (town hall), also known as the Palazzo della Ragione.
For the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto was asked to depict a series of stories from the Old and New Testaments, culminating in Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and the Last Judgement.
The aim was to encourage visitors to the Chapel to meditate more deeply on Christ's sacrifice and the salvation of mankind.
Giotto planned an architectural structure in painted imitation marble supporting the vaulted roof, decorated as a star-spangled sky, with framed stories of episodes in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ on the walls.
The whole project was finished in a short space of time and, in 1305, after only two years' work, the Chapel was consecrated for the second time (the first time was on completion of the building).
Very little is known about the history of the Chapel from then until the 19th century, when it was almost destroyed as a result of lack of interest on the part of its new owners. The portico on the façade collapsed and the house built by Enrico was demolished.
These events had a disastrous effect on the Chapel, the left side and façade of which were left unsupported and exposed to the elements. In the meantime, the building had passed to the City Council (1881), which took steps to prevent further loss and damage. But the building and its frescoes had already undergone severe deterioration.
Major restoration work was undertaken in the late 19th century and again in the 1960s. More recently, a new problem has arisen – damage due to atmospheric pollution, which causes the painted surfaces to crumble away.
In order to decide what action to take, a series of scientific studies was carried out, lasting several years. Results showed what could be done to slow down deterioration and, just as importantly, how to prevent further dangers arising in the future.
Urgent restoration was carried out immediately and, on May 31 2000, a special technical installation was set up, a sort of "artificial lung". This special air-conditioned environment now both purifies the air inside the Chapel and monitors its atmosphere continuously, in order to protect these unique frescoes, some of the most important of all time.
Nearly a year was needed to check that the environmental control system was working properly, after which further restoration and conservation work could be planned.
The restoration project for the Scrovegni Chapel was presented at the City Museum (Eremitani) on June 12 2001. The following criteria were applied:
Urgent conservation work on high-risk areas
Smoothing of unevennesses in painted surfaces caused by previous attempts at restoration (Botti and Bertolli in the late 19th century; Tintori in the early 1960s)
Point 1: work has been carried out to consolidate plaster and painted surfaces, at the same time removing efflorescences of salt, which not only caused blistering on the surface of the frescoes but also led to further deterioration.
Point 2: the most important aspects concern the large areas in which the blue background is missing, as well as certain sections of the plaster that had been filled in during previous restoration work.
The areas of missing blue background have been "receded"- in other words, they have been made
to retreat optically so that they do not disturb the viewer's eye (no attempt has been made to replace the colour). As regards the plaster, here too, the aim was to make it as homogenous as possible by "receding" certain parts so that they do not interfere with the overall effect. In particularly significant areas (e.g., the imitation painted architecture which supports all the decoration and contains the frames) the missing areas were treated using water-colours (the established practice in such cases).
On-site work is directed by Giuseppe Basile, and the staff includes restorers and students from the ICR school of restoration (co-ordinated by F. Capanna and A. Guglielmi). This high-priority work involves the following companies specialising in artwork restoration: Conservazione e restauro
di Colalucci-Bartoletti , Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, Giantomassi-Zari, Conservazione Beni Culturali, and Tecnireco di Fusetti-Virilli.
Project work is being carried out by the following organisations: ICR scientific laboratories (co-ordinator M. Marabelli) and digital documentation laboratory (co-ordinator F. Sacco), an international committee of experts on wall painting restoration, an interdisciplinary commission for the restoration of the Scrovegni Chapel, composed of technical experts from the City Council and the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, as well as university experts (co-ordinator Annamaria Spiazzi).
Further details will be made available at the forthcoming presentation of progress and first results of the project.