Wednesday, Feb 01, 2023

Art angels

In the silence of the Sacred Heart Cathedral near Gol Dak Khana,only the huge scaffolding gives a sign of the activity behind the altar.

A clutch of art restorers from the famous Lorenzo de’ Medici Art Institute,Florence,is restoring a 75-year-old fresco at the Sacred Heart Cathedral

In the silence of the Sacred Heart Cathedral near Gol Dak Khana,only the huge scaffolding gives a sign of the activity behind the altar. There the main fresco of Christ and his 12 disciples,painted by unknown artists 75 years ago and which had begun to show signs of age,is being quietly restored to its original glory. The man presiding over the work is the Italian art restorer Lorenzo Casamenti who “has been chasing god all over the world for the past four decades and Delhi is the latest stop”. Casamenti is the head of the Department for Restoration at the prestigious Lorenzo de’ Medici Art Institute of Florence and a master of “more than 800 church restorations across Italy as well as Brazil,Argentina and Chile”.

“The painting would have died in two years since the colours had become faint,” says Casamenti. He recollects his first recce to the church in September to view the painting: “I felt the familiar sense of exhilaration,of bringing alive an exquisite work of art that would otherwise be lost in history. The faces of the apostles were of 12 Indian priests and each has a story attached. I couldn’t wait to get to work.”

Helping Casamenti is a seven-member army of his top students,including the Jewish American Rachel Sanders,her compatriot Holly Hedberg who is “more spiritual than Christian”,the Turkish Muslim Ilkhur Yildiz who proudly wears a headscarf and does her afternoon namaaz during lunch break and the Korean Alexandro Whedbee.

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“India was part of my destiny,” says Casamenti. “I was approached by the former head of the Meerut diocese Bishop Patrick Nair when he visited Rome six years ago for the beatification of Mother Teresa. He wanted me to look at the photographs of a worn-out mural at the St Francis Church in Dehradun. A year later,I was in Dehradun and then fresh summons brought me to Meerut where I repaired seven paintings in a week. Every time I look at a grimy painting,I remember the throbbing in my veins when I first restored the Michelangelos and the Donatellos,” grins the 64-year-old Casamenti as he effortlessly leaps off the scaffolding to mix dollops of paint.

Hedberg,who flew from Iowa to Florence to learn art restoration,argues. “This isn’t actually a true fresco. There are parts where the artist worked on dry plaster so that the paint would not seep in as should happen in a fresco.” Casamenti nods: “The main figure of Christ is fresco but not the apostles. In Europe,80 per cent of a fresco is on wet plaster,while in India a lot of work is on dry plaster.” The team has brought special mineral pigments and glue from Florence,which Casamenti loves to call the capital of art restoration.

Thanks to the grants by the de’ Medici family,Casamenti’s 26-year-old institute does not accept payments for restorations. “We pursue the cause of imagination,not profit,” he says. The churches,however,provide their travel expenses and board and lodging. The team is up on the scaffolds nine hours a day,scraping and painting soundlessly as they pursue their two-week deadline. As the faithful troop in everyday,the Jewish Sanders finds herself a fly on the wall during the Mass. She loves the experience. Casamenti,too,likes the Mass,except for the rows of candles that release smoke and choke paintings. “In Italy,we now have electric candles. Pop a coin,and a candle flickers with an electric flame. No smoke,no damage,” he says.


Hedberg is awed by the “strange colours — green eyebrows and blue hair on Christ and his disciples that somehow look normal when seen from the distant pews. From a few inches away,it is awe-inspiring”. She is busy with the apostles’ cloak work and dabbing colours on the food at the last supper. Christ’s face is Casamenti’s area; he enjoys playing with the light and shade that lend the Lord’s face its divine aura. Isn’t there an urge to add a few original strokes to mark their own style? “But that wouldn’t be true!” cries a horrified Casamenti,as Yildiz interjects that their “pride lies in making the art like new”.

Has Casamenti ever worked on anything except divinity? “While working in a church in Chile in April 2008,I was urgently called to fix the broken nose of a Gandhi statue because President Pratibha Patil would be visiting,” he says. “Marble powder,sand,cement and glue were all I needed.” He pauses and says softly: “But,isn’t the Mahatma also God?”

First published on: 07-03-2009 at 01:30 IST
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