The Great Age of Fresco: Giotto to Pontormo
Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane. What was rooted in Florence, what was bound to the walls of churches and town halls, has been freed by newly refined techniques….
Professor Millard Meiss’s dramatic opening words of the Introduction to this catalogue reflect the sense of wonder and surprise which all visitors to this unprecedented exhibition must have experienced in New York and are now experiencing in London. These words may also betray something of the suppressed anxiety that underlies our wonder. Shakespeare does not tell us what happened to the cut-off branches of Birnam Wood after they had served their purpose. It is a relief to be told that after this extraordinary transplant operation at least most of the frescoes here exhibited will be returned to “the architectural fabric to which they so intimately belong.” Unfortunately this desirable solution is not always feasible where the building itself has been damaged or cannot offer enough protection, and thus the exhibition may after all become the forerunner of a new Museum, to daunt the tourist with acres of frescoes as he is daunted today by acres of altar paintings.
Not that the idea of treating murals like easel paintings is peculiar to our time. Vasari tells us that François I of France was so taken with Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie that he “tried to find out in every way whether architects could be found who could make a scaffolding of timber and iron and so to frame it that it could be safely transported regardless of expense.” He did not succeed and thus, as Vasari remarks, the work stayed with the Milanese. This unsuccessful attempt is not mentioned in Ugo Procacci’s instructive summary of the history of the technique or techniques, which have been and are used to remove and reset the frescoes. By the nineteenth century, however, the practice was common enough for a number of fragments to be sold abroad: there are some, for instance, in the London National Gallery and in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But both the need and the temptation to detach frescoes have increased enormously during the last few decades. Long before the catastrophe of the Florentine floods the greater catastrophe of the War led to the ruin of buildings with frescoed walls. The most famous of these was of course the Campo Santo in Pisa, and it was here that the destruction of the surface first revealed to the general public the preparatory drawings known as sinopie. Their unexpected charm in turn increased the temptation to take off frescoes, damaged and overpainted as they frequently were, and to look for what was underneath. The condition of many of these monuments, in fact, has visibly been getting worse even in undamaged buildings.
Opinions about the cause of this deterioration differ. Italian authorities appear to be somewhat reluctant to blame the side effects of tourism, the dust, the exhaust fumes, the vibrations caused by heavy traffic; they prefer to think…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.