Protecting the Treasures in the Sacristies of Venice’s Churches: How and Why They Are Being Saved
Excerpted from the 1993 Save Venice Journal
In addition to being the repositories of numerous masterpieces of Venetian art, the city’s churches also house an extensive collection of sacred ornaments and vestments, less known to the general public, but of extraordinary artistic and historical value. Among their various treasures, which are mostly made of silver, are such items as chalices, patens, altar cards, reliquaries and processional crosses. Their vestments, which are predominantly silk, include copes, chasubles, stoles and maniples, delicately embroidered and decorated with ribbons and braids, all of which are an integral part of the daily liturgical life of the church and many of which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
This enormous patrimony, which the Superintendency of Fine Arts has now defined as “endangered,” has never before been photographed or catalogued in its entirety. In fact, these artifacts traditionally have been considered of minor importance when compared to the great works of art contained in Venice. Sadly, but not surprisingly, they have most often attracted the attention of antiques dealers rather than art historians!
In many cases, the church sacristies, where these items are generally stored, are not the most appropriate places for assuring their ultimate safety and proper maintenance. Environmental conditions such as high levels of humidity, wood-eating insects and dust are threatening the existence of many of these artifacts, particularly the delicate fabrics of which the vestments are made.
Thanks to a generous grant from Save Venice Inc., we have been able to begin an inventory which has long been contemplated by Dr. Giovanna Nepi Sciré, the Superintendent of Fine Arts. Under the supervision of Dr. Fiorella Spadavecchia, in charge of fabric conservation for the Superintendency, 1057 silver objects and approximately 1000 different vestments have been photographed and catalogued during the period from October of 1992 to May of 1993.
Two young research assistants, Alessandra Pranovi, a silver specialist, and Carla Falcone, an expert in church vestments, have been conducting this inventory using a new computer program designed by the Ministry of Fine Arts in Rome to substitute for the traditional manual cataloguing of works of art. After each object is photographed by Dino Zanella and Fernando Quaglia from the Superintendency’s own laboratory, it is then measured, labeled and described in detail in terms of its specific characteristics as well as its actual state of conservation.
Our project included the churches of Santa Maria Assunta dei Frari, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, San Trovaso, San Pantalon, La Madonna dell’Orto, Santa Maria dei Carmini, San Giovanni in Bragora, San Zaccaria, La Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, San Salvador, Angelo Raffaele, Santa Maria Formosa and San Nicolò da Tolentino.
For our catalogue of textiles, we began at San Salvador, because both the sacristy and its storage units containing the church vestments were in the process of being restored. At that time, we found that these items had been stored in a most haphazard fashion and were in some cases in serious need of repair. Due to the large number of artifacts located in the sacristies of the Frari and Angelo Raffaele (more than 500 items in the former, and over 200 in the latter, where many objects were also found to be in a particularly poor state of conservation), we next inventoried these churches in detail.
From the earliest stages of the project, it was clear that the diverse types of objects to be surveyed would require different methodologies and approaches. For example, for the many silver artifacts which represent a greater safety risk, but are in good physical condition, we found it sufficient to photograph them, making note of any trademarks, and then to proceed with a computerized recording of their various characteristics.
In the case of the textiles, however, it was immediately obvious that, at the same time as we were cataloguing these pieces and describing their individual characteristics in terms of their various weaves, fabrics and decorations, we should also be concerning ourselves with ascertaining and recording their various states of conservation. This realization led to a collaborative restoration effort with the prestigious German National Museum of Nuremberg.
Thanks to the interest and concern of the Museum’s director, two German restorers, in conjunction with our current inventory, are participating in a major textile conservation project. Under the supervision of Prof. Frattaroli, a recognized expert in the field, Sabine Martius, who is employed at the Nuremberg Museum, and Sabine Phillips, an outside consultant, have been working with Carla Falcone, a young research assistant hired by the Superintendency. Prof. Frattaroli has not only provided invaluable guidance, but has also designed a program to analyze and categorize the various fabrics which will be sent to the Central Cataloguing Institute in Rome for use on a national scale. She has also created a glossary of terms which have evolved from the work of this highly specialized team.
In addition to the actual inventory, we have worked at improving current storage facilities in the sacristies by testing drawers, cabinets and closets to ascertain the health of their wood, removing nails and other protruding objects, and substituting acid paper with material that is Ph neutral. We have also divided the vestments, which are now folded correctly, into those that are used and those that are not used and have separated them by color and liturgical function.
Throughout the various stages of this project, we have benefited from the support of the ecclesiastical authorities, who have welcomed this initiative with enthusiasm and in a spirit of total cooperation. By means of the curia office, the parish priests have received from the Superintendency a list of suggestions and instructions intended to assist them in taking better care of these unique and irreplaceable objects and vestments.
From the conception of the project through its actual execution, we have enjoyed the encouragement and financial assistance of Save Venice, and in particular their representatives here in Venice, Wolfgang Wolters and Lesa Marcello. For their continued interest in promoting research that seeks to further the cause of restoration and conservation, we at the Superintendency of Fine Arts are especially grateful.