Restorer Umberto Senserini reveals outcome of Piero della Francesca’ Resurrection cleaning

Antonio Carnevale

The “Resurrection”, the mural painting preserved in the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro, is one of Piero della Francesca’s masterpieces. Giorgio Vasari, in the biography of the master, already noted that the work “ which is held the best of all the works that are in the said city (Sansepolcro), and the best that he ever made”. The painting is now undergoing a major restoration project. Located at the end of the room dedicated to Piero della Francesca in the Museo Civico, the work can still be appreciated by the public thanks to provisional scaffoldings. The process of restoration has started just a few months ago, yet it is already possible to pinpoint some of the results. That is why, CFA asked one of its restorers, Umberto Senserini, to reveal what has emerged so far from the first investigations as well as from the cleaning.


Mr. Senserini, which criteria, based on the conservation state of the art work, have lead to the above-mentioned restoration campaign?


Due to different reasons, such as its relevance, its location (earthquake zone) and various structural problems, this artwork has been constantly monitored for many years, not only structurally but also as far as the painted surface is concerned. During one of the many campaigns of analysis, some issues of “sulfatation” (a chemical reaction able to break the pictorial coat thus creating micro lifting and craters which would eventually lead to the loss of cohesion of the fresco, ndr) have been noticed on the surface. As a consequence, the authorities involved (municipality, sopraintendenza, etc) have decided to evaluate the possibility of a restoration work in the short term. The sulfation is indeed a very dangerous kind of decay if not properly treated.


Have infra-red inspections disclosed any detail which is no longer visible due to the actual state of the work? If so, have you managed to bring to light some of the hand traits by Piero which had been covered?


Amongst the numerous investigations carried out before the actual start of the restoration works, those infra-red ones had unveiled that underneath the layer of dirt – solid particles as well as previous layers made with inappropriate substances, as the ones used during old restoration works in order to revive colors – there could be glimpse of shapes reminding of towers, castles as well as small hamlets scattered around the countryside surrounding the Risen Christ. After this first cleaning interventions, some of those features have already come to light again. Once the restoration work is over, other details will most likely become visible too.


According to many art historians, there is no clarity as for the original destination of the work. It appears that initially the work wasn’t located where it is nowadays, that is in the civic palace (the present Museo Civico). Has the restoration disclosed any element so far which could shed some light on the relationship between the painting and the architecture which hosts it?


As far as the origin of the work’s display is concerned, many discussions have been taking place over the years. Up to now however, no one has managed to collect enough evidences which would support one or the other thesis, that is whether the fresco has been detached or not. Hence, through both the analysis of the masonry around the painting and very in-depth archival researches, we will try to determine, once and for all, the original display the work was meant for.


It appears that the Corinthian columns which delimit the scenery might not be original. What has the restoration unearthed in this regard?


The columns, as well as the upper architrave and the underlying frame are indeed painted parts that initially must have been entirely original. Sadly, over time, they underwent various structural trauma due to the continuous building’s transformations, starting from the ceilings, which at the beginning was a wood paneled one, by proceeding with the insertion of a wood frame around the work, then building and inserting an underlying altarpiece and perhaps (who knows?) by detaching and relocating the fresco by Piero della Francesca. Thus, what we do see at the moment and what marks the fresco’s perimeter is the result partially of reconstructed portions by the many restoration works carried out in the previous centuries, where you could actually spot three different historic periods up to the last restoration work which dates back to the sixties, accomplished by Florentine restorer Dino Dini.


What could you tell us about the colours in the work? What’s the relationship between how they look today and how they must have looked originally?


Certainly, at the time Piero realized the artwork the colours’s sparkle must have been magnificent. Today, 600 years later, this whole feeling has lessen to a very large extent, not only for the obvious course of time, but above all for the negligence of the people who worked around this piece. All the “restorers” or pseudorestorers who somehow had access to the work hadn’t possibly well understood that the Resurrection is erroneously regarded and named as “fresco”, when in effect it is not. It is indeed a mural painting realized almost entirely with at least three types of technique, reminding more of painting on panel board, where the technique of the buon fresco has been employed to a very little extent. The work’s placement in a public, yet not of worship building, the modest height from the ground, and the rather restrained dimensions are, in my opinion, the main causes of the poor conservation of this masterpiece. The above mentioned problems will certainly require a major attention also from the chromatic perspective, that is why the further steps in the restoration have to pay significant care to the parts realized with weaker techniques, like tempera painting in comparison to those executed with fresco, which are indeed more resistant. Last but not least: we ought to find a final balance in order to achieve the best possible outcome.


Did any element come out to better understand the modus operandi of Piero?


We have already ascertained that the work has been executed in 18 working days, that doesn’t necessarily mean however that it took him exactly 18 days, as for the techniques adopted and studied allowed Piero to keep on working on them as long as it was required in order to attain the final expected result. Such range of techniques favored the executor to employ colors which couldn’t actually be used if the technique of buon fresco was applied, like the Christ’s pink cape which is a lacquer, the shrubberies’ green, copper resinate, the purple/light blue of the soldier sleeping on his back, that is lapis lazuli. To transfer the drawing from the paper where it was first made onto the wall Piero availed himself of the spolvero technique, which is a very precise technique. It consists of pricking the outlines of the drawing, placing it over the wall then dusting it with a cloth sack filled with charcoal powder, which by passing through the punctured holes would mark the design on the surface. Thus, the artist was able to  see on the wall what he had first drawn on the preparatory paper.


Would it be possible, through your studies, to verify whether the work was done entirely by the master or if there was any help at all?


The analysis has confirmed that the painting is utterly original and that it was executed by only one person: Piero della Francesca. Unfortunately the results from the previous restoration works haven’t been quite respectful towards the artwork, especially as far as the patch of countryside which covers the area on the side of the Christ and the sky is concerned, notoriously the weakest sections, which have been subjected to irrevocable damages, as one can visually spot but that have also been highlighted the analysis itself.


What is the final aim of the restoration work? How long do you expect this project to last?


I suppose the ultimate goal of any restoration lies in the streamlining of the global conservation of the artwork, in accordance with the course of time, with the message the artist intended to convey, and with the balance which existed at first and has to keep on existing in spite of any action carried on it. The restoration work now underway is expected to  be accomplished by the end of 2016, unless unforeseen complications arise.

December 11, 2015