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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 21:24 GMT
Giotto's fresco soon on display
Weeping angel from Crucifixion scene (picture by David Willey)
Giotto's impressionistic technique seems to show the angels actually in flight
David Willey

The restoration of one of the world's most famous fresco paintings - Giotto's masterpiece in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua - is nearing completion and will be open to the public again on 18 March.

The work, which depicts a complete cycle of more than 100 Bible scenes, covers the entire walls and ceiling of the 700-year-old chapel.

Working here day after day you realise what a genius Giotto was

Restorer Enrichetta Capodilista
At the moment aluminium scaffolding and wide platforms still rise 30 metres above ground level enabling us to come literally face to face with Giotto's medieval world.

Air conditioning tubes and electronic machines for controlling humidity are scattered around the sci-fi scene. It feels like being inside a kind of time warp.

Twenty-first century high-tech engineering and chemistry meets the 14th century.

Work of genius

Enrichetta Capodilista was busy delicately retouching and cleaning some of the hundreds of gold stars scattered across the deep blue ceiling of the vaulted Scrovegni chapel.

"Giotto used real gold leaf - the metal does not tarnish with time," she said.

An attendant a camel belonging to the three Kings as they pay homage to the infant Christ (picture by David Willey)
One of the Three Kings' camels - Giotto may have modelled the creature on a donkey
"Working here day after day you realise what a genius Giotto was. It is such a privilege to be his restorer."

Michelangelo's feat in decorating a whole wall and the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in Rome with scenes of the Creation and the Last Judgement was eclipsed 200 years before the Renaissance artist's birth by Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel.

For his time, Giotto was an even more revolutionary artist.

Working much more rapidly than Michelangelo - who painted the Sistine chapel during two different periods in his life - Giotto in only two years - between 1303 and 1305 - covered more than 900 square metres of the Scrovegni chapel's wall and ceiling with his vision of the Bible story.

Click here for more pictures of Giotto's Padua masterpiece

Giotto's very personal and direct style marks the beginning of modern painting.

This year small groups of privileged art lovers have been allowed by restorers to view the fresco paintings for the first time since they have been cleaned.

They are very funny, you can see he had great affection for animals even going to the trouble of painting the donkey's whiskers

Restorer Annika Mortensen
Some of the finer details - invisible from ground level, even with binoculars - can been seen as Giotto painted them.

They reveal an attention to minute detail which is astonishing for his time.

Annika Mortensen from Sweden, one of the restoration team, told me she had been struck by the way Giotto had closely observed the animals he painted - including Christ's donkey and the camel of the Three Kings.

"They are very funny, you can see he had great affection for animals even going to the trouble of painting the donkey's whiskers," she said.

Walking on tiptoe

The restoration project has cost more than $2m of Italian taxpayers money and began 25 years ago.

Many problems had to be solved - including that of isolating the chapel interior from atmospheric pollution by passing new local by-laws controlling air pollution.

Restorer views painting close-up on temporary scaffolding
Before long the scaffolding will be taken down
Project director Francesco Scoppola calls it a minimalist restoration, in which very little was added except when necessary to make sense out of damaged sections.

"We had to walk on tiptoe. It was like stepping very carefully and quietly while you are listening to a piece of classical music," he said

And the teams had to be careful not to commit the same mistakes as past restorers.

"The last restoration carried out in the 1960s placed too much confidence in new techniques and materials that became available at that time and which are already obsolete.

"That restoration has aged much more quickly than Giotto's original work seven hundred years ago."

Fifteen minutes each

For many centuries this was a private family chapel - visitors were only admitted once a year. That's why Giotto's paintings have survived relatively well.

Soon the scaffolding will come down. The first members of the public will be admitted in March - only by advance reservation and never more than 25 visitors at a time.

That's to avoid damaging the frescoes with condensation from peoples' breath.

Bring your binoculars if you want to see the details in close-up. And don't be disappointed if you are politely asked to leave after only 15 minutes - that's going to be the maximum time allowed for entering Giotto's time warp.

The admission fee has not yet been fixed but is likely to be about 10 euros.

The mothers of the murdered innocents with traces of real tears running down their faces (picture by David Willey)
The mothers of the children massacred by King Herod - traces of real tears running down their faces

Devils torment the bodies of the dead who will spend eternity in Hell (picture by David Willey)
Giotto delights in his depiction of the damned - Devils torment the bodies of the dead who will spend eternity in Hell

The slaughter of the innocents (picture by David Willey)
Giotto's revolutionary style influenced later painters - the pile of infants' bodies looks forward to Mantegna, even Picasso

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See also:

10 Jul 01 | Arts
Da Vinci sketch fetches 8m
23 Jan 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Discovery hints at Renaissance romance
11 Dec 99 | Europe
Sistine Chapel restored
27 May 99 | Entertainment
The Last Supper shown
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