The Descent from the Cross fresco by Daniele Ricciarelli da Volterra (1509-1566) has been unveiled after three years of painstaking restoration work and decades of neglect.
On the Pincio, near the foundations of the gardens of Honorius Lucullus, Roman emperor, some French monks, the Minimi, began to settle in the Middle Ages. One of them, Francesco di Paola, councillor to King Louis XI of France, obtained land from Louis successor, Charles VIII, in order to build a small gothic church and monastery. The present church, Trinit dei Monti, with its characteristic two bell towers, was built on this spot and completed in 1588. Its interior became the showplace for mannerist painting, a style that flourished between the Renaissance and the Baroque. The church then went through various vicissitudes and now belongs to Les Pieux Etablissements de France Rome et Lorette and the pious nuns of the Sacro Cuore.
Among the many frescoes was one with a stucco frame, especially made for it by Daniele da Volterra, a student of Michelangelo. Because he had been given the inglorious job of covering his masters witty but indecent exposures of body parts in The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel with diaper-like white folds of cloth, he was nicknamed Il Maestro delle Braghe or the Master of underpants. But he was also one of the most admired of the Mannerists and his grand Descent from the Cross, painted in 1545, drew famous travelling painters and intellectuals from everywhere. However, plunder, earthquakes and other natural depredations slowly rendered the large painting indecipherable. Then in 1880 a well-meaning, newly-invented restoration technique proved nearly disastrous. The restoration was so clumsy that the surface was reduced to a grey-black mass of incoherent swirls. Now Les Pieux Etablissements and the Italian state authorities have saved the fresco with thorough, modern restoration technique. It was begun in 2002 by the most experienced and competent restorers to be found and it was done with exquisite care. The results were finally unveiled at the beginning of March.
Now a badly disfigured fresco has been splendidly resurrected. The Descent from the Cross has been treated with such breathtaking accuracy it now looks as if it was painted yesterday. The bitter greens, yellows, the dusty pinks and blues typical of its period have again become as strangely artificial as those of Michelangelo. It is even like his work in its absence of personal feeling. In its centrifugal agitation around a moment when a dead body is loaded down from the cross, the movement is expressed more by the incidental drapery stirred by hidden breezes, than by the overstressed limbs of the protagonists. The bodies are peculiarly long and the faces empty and unindividual. What speaks most is the cool intelligence and the intricacy of the composition. The inventive layout, this intrinsic abstraction, must have been what fascinated Volterras contemporaries and admirers of Mannerism. But for us moderns, Volterra seems alien; the fresco is a riddle as an emotional experience, as is all mannerist work to us. It seems coldly theatrical and too rhetorical. However, the cleaned fresco presents not only a masterpiece of restoration but a glimpse into the difference in art tastes of different periods.
Trinit dei Monti church, Capella Bonfil. Piazza Trinit dei Monti 3.
Tel. 066794179. Open church hours.
Tours Tues-Fri, for reservations tel. 0669941646.