The meticulous restoration work has brought to light artistic heritage that had become forgotten. Inappropriate use of the friary for utilitarian purposes over the last two centuries incurred a pronounced state of decay in the decoration, frescoes and building in general, since the rooms were partitioned up and the walls tiled. Entering the friary now is like journeying into the past.
It was during the sampling performed before embarking on the works that the discovery was made of a large Crucifixion between the cavity wall in the lowered ceiling to the open space in unit no. 2, on the ground level, and the floor structure above, in the what was the primitive church. More precisely, it was found on the wall erected in 1422, when the 13th century complex was extended.
The cause of its destruction was the fire that blazed in the friary in 1511, when the Pope’s army besieged the city of Bologna. Christ’s face vanished beneath the wall to the dormitory built immediately afterwards.
The need to reinforce the masonry and the desire to preserve the fresco – a unique and incomparable testimony in terms of beauty, the power it unleashes, and the theological message it illustrates in its Gothic-like ornamentation – have safeguarded the artwork for us on its original plaster, which was fully detached (in its entire thickness) from the brick wall.
The left-hand section, where the speaker tells Zechariah what he is to refer to King David, is ascribed to a young Michele di Matteo, while the right, where the faces of Elijah and Jeremiah show sublime expressivity, are by Giovanni Martorelli’s hand.
The central arcade walls reveal a succession – as if they where brightly coloured stills – of prominent episodes in the life of Giovanni Colombini, who founded the Jesuate mission in Siena in the mid 14th century. These frescoes are in the vein of the Renaissance fashion sparked by Raphael. As in the Vatican apartments he adorned, we observe Renaissance colonnades and ancient rather than medieval costume, painted by Lattanzio Gambara and Benedetto da Marone.
Our story begins next to a lunette, with the Eternal Father depicted on the wall erected in the 1200s and which then became larger.
The crescent frames what remains of the deepest layer of paint (sinopia), the drawing and the first colours applied to the fresh plaster. Alongside this, Giovanni Colombini is portrayed, with his back to us, as he lifts a sick man lying in the street.
The following scene shows baby Jesus on the saintly man’s bed. Here the evangelical assumption – what is done to the suffering is done unto me – is expressed. Moving further on, Colombini is portrayed in front of a time-honoured image of the Virgin Mary, framed by a lunette and embellished with decoration from later dates.
The narration continues, on the walls to unit no. 3 and inside the gallery entrance, with his pilgrimage from town to town.
Unit no. 8 shows the faces of Colombini’s fellow friars as they make haste to reach the port where Pope Urban V was about to land. This event is represented in the top right image, by Amico Aspertini, who was already reputed as a leading Bolognese artist by his contemporaries.
The subsequent units show the friars kneeling before the Pope, then angels in flight as they escort the beatified founder to render his soul to the Lord. The sweetness of the fellow friars’ faces reveals young Guido Reni’s typical manner.
No. 5 and further units have been converted from the prior’s reception rooms, where the rich ceilings have been conserved. The saints are always assigned the central spot, while episodes from Aesop’s fables – such as the fox and the grapes – are narrated among flora and foliage. The pictorial style is the one most in fashion in the early 17th century: that of Cesare Baglioni.
After a lengthy and extensive research and stratigraphy project leading to the discovery of the many frescoes described during the historical part, restoration of the uncovered decorative features was carried out using the following procedures. The first intervention stage was pre-consolidation and filming with fine paper on all the surfaces concerned, thus ensuring the protection of the many fresco fragments, also creating containment borders with sand- and lime-based pastes. Then, by means of special syringes, compatible mortars were injected, to make the support to the decoration adhere to the wall again.
Once this consolidation work was completed, residue paint concealing the fresco was removed; this operation was partially performed through stripping and later finished using a scalpel. Following the patina elimination work, attention was focused on cleaning the paint film, which took place using compresses of paper pulp, deionized water and ammonium bicarbonate, thus removing the various layers of fatty and proteinic substances present on the surface and returning colours to their original splendour.
Filling was carried out using pastes containing fine yellow sand and lime, so as to recreate a surface suitable for retouching in the areas of missing plaster, performed drawing on the ‘closure technique’ with tempera overlay veiling.
History report by the expert Manuela Rubbini