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Italian experts restore masterpieces at National Gallery


Doreen Sibanda, director of the NGZ with Carlo Perrotta, Italian Ambassador to Zimbabwe

IN the last few days of December last year, the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ) in Harare hosted a press conference attended by Carlos Perrotta, the Italian Ambassador to Zimbabwe, and two fine art restorers from Rome, Emiliano Antonelli and Benedetta Proto.
Trained in repairing damage to artwork such as paintings, murals and cultural objects, these two professionals spent several weeks, courtesy of the Italian government, in restoring selected paintings from the gallery’s permanent collection, to their former glory.
In the safe hands of director Doreen Sibanda and curator Raphael Chikukwa and many long-standing dedicated staff, the gallery recently celebrated its 60th birthday.
A gem of modern architecture, the gallery and its contents define our national identity, transitioning from colonial times as Rhodesia to present-day multicultural Zimbabwe.
Frank McEwen, the gallery’s first director, began building a permanent collection, buying lesser known works from famous European masters, therefore exposing the public to world famous artists. He also went on buying expeditions to West and Central Africa, acquiring African masks, sculptures and domestic artifacts, building up an enviable permanent collection, as impressive today as it was in the 1960s.
Among the thousands of paintings in the custody of the National Gallery, is a valuable collection of works by the old masters, some dating back to the early 17th century. Art lovers who have visited the gallery over the years will be familiar with Giovanni Batista Carracciolo’s masterpiece — David With the Head of Goliath, acquired for the gallery in 1958.
This was painted using darkness and light in a dramatic way, a startling new style later known as tenebrism. Carracciolo learned this technique in his home town of Naples, from one of the world’s best known artists, Carravaggio. A Roman, Carravaggio had fled to Naples to escape arrest, after killing a man in a brawl. Although Carravaggio’s stay in Naples was brief, it had a radical influence on Carracciolo’s style.

Many art works belonging to institutions are hidden from public view in temperature controlled, darkened storage facilities, some never seeing the light of day. We have been lucky to see David With the Head of Goliath from time to time, during exhibitions of the permanent collection.
Inevitably, age and the elements took their toll, and it became clear that skilful restoration was required to restore the canvas to its former glory.
Italy being a super power in the field of art, and home to half the world’s greatest art treasures, the arrival of Italian art restorers Benedetta Proto and Emiliano Antonelli could not have been better timed. In amateur hands, art restoration can go wrong, and succeed only in erasing the past.
When the finest techniques and materials are used, however, the result can be spectacular. And so it happened that Carracciolo’s master piece now looks as fresh as it did centuries ago, when it first came off the artist’s easel in his studio in San Giovanni Maggiore in Naples.
Born in Rome in 1964, art restorer Benedetta has been painting ever since she was given a box of paints as a little girl. Her first degree was in the decorative arts, obtained from the Studio Roberto Lucifero in Rome. Studies in England and Brussels followed, and when she’s not involved in private projects, she works with her husband, Emilio Antonelli, restoring paintings on canvas, frescos, sculptures and archaeological sites.
Artist Emilio Antonelli, who works with the Italian Ministry of Cultural heritage and Tourism to protect and preserve artistic sites and property, is the founder of Croma Ltd., a company dedicated to preserving and restoring art works.
Working with his partner Benedetta, the talented artists also restored two further paintings from the gallery’s permanent collection — Flowers in a Vase, by the early 20th C French Victorian impressionist Jacque Emile Blanche, and River Scene By Moonlight, by Stanislas Lepine, a famous 19th C French painter.
The Italian artists later visited ancient rock art sites in the caves of Domboshawa. They obtained samples of pigments which they will take to Italy for scientific analysis, hoping to discover the means to preserve the rock art for generations to come.
Lillian Chaonwa, conservation manager of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, was thrilled to be given an insight into the complex process of restoring a painting.
Spot cleaning with a cotton bud and a mild solvent can be used to remove varnish.
This is followed by a total clean, working on a small section of the canvas at a time. An isolating varnish will be added later, separating the original painting from any paint used to reconstruct the design.
There is no margin for error, since lost pigment is gone forever. On completion, the colours should be vivid and alive, and the artist’s original vision displayed.
Benedetta and Emiliano will return to Zimbabwe in April, when they plan to visit the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi a few kilometres east of Masvingo. Built by Italian internees during World War II, the chapel is decorated with beautiful paintings and mosaics.
Thanks to the Italian government, the NGZ will continue to promote art and culture, while preserving its ever-growing collection for posterity. By DC Rodrigues