How a total novice took up medieval art restoration in the Italian countryside

  • Tonio Creanza runs a workshop where volunteers learn how to renovate Renaissance paintings and frescoes
  • Participants also get to enjoy the incredible food from the surrounding countryside
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 8:30pm

“Is it OK,” I ask, “to put my hand here?”

“Here” is Jesus’ brown hair, on a 700-year-old fresco of the crucifixion, in a cave church in Puglia, Italy. Jesus’ eyes are depicted as closed, giving the portrait an oddly serene feel. My task is to use a scalpel to scrape away calcium deposits on the right eye (a spider is sitting on the left one), and I need to ground my hand on the fresco to get good leverage.

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Tonio Creanza glances over from the fresco he was working on. “Sure,” he says. So I start scraping.

That someone like me – well-meaning but completely untrained and unskilled – would be applying a razor-sharp instrument to an ancient treasure is due entirely to Creanza, a 50-year-old George Clooney lookalike who hails from the Puglian town of Altamura. In 1989 he launched a summer workshop designed to bring in volunteers to work on preserving and celebrating some of the treasures of his native region.

The idea has grown over the years. Today, Messors – the organisation he runs with his wife, Canadian-born Jennifer Bell – offers several workshops each summer. In three of them, the emphasis is on preserving and restoring ancient frescoes and Renaissance paintings. In the other, participants repair shepherds’ fences, make pecorino cheese from sheep’s milk, and learn to bake the local yellow bread.

My wife, Gigi, a committed Italophile, had always harboured a dream of doing art restoration work in her favourite country, and found the Messors website while looking around for a way to do so. She was enthusiastic, I was game, so one day late in June, we find ourselves on a four-hour bus ride from Naples.

Tonio’s university student nephew, Marco, picks us up on the side of the road and drives us to Messors’ rented palazzo – a very large town house in the middle of the nearby town of Gravina.

We and the other 12 participants – from the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Singapore, Denmark and Belgium – sleep in the palazzo for the 16 days of our programmes. We take most of our meals buffet-style in the large, elegant dining room. They are prepared by Jennifer, Tonio, Marco and other members of the family, using exclusively local ingredients.

Dinner the first night sets a high bar. We have a frittata di maccheroni (a sort of pasta omelette), bruschetta, marinated mushrooms and artichokes, burrata, rolled aubergine, hot and cold sausage, arugula ricotta, fresh cheese with walnut, and tiramisu. It is accompanied by local red wine, some of that yellow bread, and olive oil produced by the Creanza family for six generations. And it is all incredibly good.

As Tonio likes to say: “It’s all about the food.”

Those words are in my mind the next morning as the group set out for a walk that gives us the lay of the land. Just a couple of blocks from the palazzo, an older couple is sitting in the shaded doorway of a house, selling figs from their garden out of a crate.

Tonio explains that these are the early summer figs, the green-skinned “fioroni”, not to be confused with the early-autumn variety. I ask for three, which the man indicates will cost half a euro (63 US cents), but he throws in two more at no charge.

We come to the edge of the town and take took a bridge across a ravine – “gravina” in Italian, hence the name of the town – to the site of a long-abandoned church and burial ground. We proceed up a hill another mile or so as the late June sun gets hotter.

Tonio and Jennifer point out the bounty. We taste the fruit of a quince tree, a bay tree, wild rosemary and arugula. Tonio takes a rock and cracks open some almonds from an almond tree; they taste like butter. Even the most notable and strange feature of the landscape – the tiny white garden snails proliferating on plants, posts and pretty much everywhere – are, potentially, food; a Puglian delicacy is snails with mint.

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Our destination is Botromagno, a settlement from roughly 2,600 years ago that was a hub of traffic and trade because of its proximity to the Appian Way. No structures remain, but the ground is covered in pottery shards, loom weights and other artefacts, some with painted designs still visible. We all collect the pieces and Tonio assesses them with a practised eye. “That one’s Roman … Neolithic … sixth century BC …”

It’s tempting to pocket the pieces, but Jennifer says that is against the law. We return our bounty to her, for donation to a local antiquities museum.

The most helpful training for our work with the frescoes comes a couple of days later, when we make frescoes of our own in a makeshift studio in the barn of a nearby “masseria”, or farmhouse. “Fresco” derives from the Italian word for fresh, and the basis of the form is applying pigment to fresh, wet plaster.

“The ‘giornata’ is the portion of the fresco that can be completed in one day,” Tonio says. “And that’s what we have today, one day.”

For my design, I choose a sunflower, à la Vincent van Gogh. Some participants work from a sketch, or a cartoon they’ve drawn, but I choose to apply the pigment (powder mixed with water) with a free hand.

The result isn’t a masterpiece, by a long shot, but it teaches me one key thing about this art form: the pigment penetrates deep into the plaster, meaning that a fresco is durable, and even if one scrapes a bit deeper than one intends, it’s unlikely much damage will be done.

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The next day, when we start our restoration work, that lesson proves valuable, as it prevents me from being intimidated by the prospect of applying a scalpel to centuries-old artwork. Our first work is at Carpentino, an underground church dug out of soft limestone, like more than 100 other “rupestri” in the region. It has 15th-century Franciscan frescoes, including the Jesus with his eyes closed.

Twenty years ago, Tonio came upon the cave while exploring in the area. He was met by the landowner, who was understandably alarmed at this trespasser on his property holding a shotgun. They reached an agreement whereby Messors could work to improve the site, as long as the programme asked for no accommodation or compensation.

Carpentino is one of three sites we work on. Another is Jesce, a 16th-century farmhouse turned monastery whose most striking feature is the abundant graffiti carved into the plaster walls over the centuries. In one spot, you can clearly read “Francesco Paolo Rossi, 1713”.

The third is Fornello, a large underground cave church containing three layers of Byzantine frescoes produced during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. It is open to the elements, so the rain and moisture cause calcification deposits to form on the frescoes.

As the days pass, the frescoes at Fornello, Campertino and Jesce become gradually but noticeably clearer.

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That is satisfying. Equally so is settling into the rhythms of Gravina in Puglia, which we find to be the perfect town to spend a couple of weeks in. In the morning there is the sound of church bells ringing and the sight of swallows dive bombing through the empty streets.

After a breakfast featuring the remnants of last night’s bread with fresh butter and home-made jam, we head to a morning of work in the caves, returning to another lunch featuring delicacies such as seafood risotto and fried stuffed zucchini flowers. Afterwards, there’s time for a nap or just some reading before an afternoon of work, then another great meal.

One day I decide to take a break from fresco work and recreate the walk we’d taken on the first day. Sure enough, the same man and his wife are in the same doorway, with a crate in front of them. I’m looking forward to some more figs. However, when I look in the crate, I see golf-ball-sized green and red tomatoes; fig season, abruptly, is over.

I buy a kilo of tomatoes for a euro and a half, and as the man is throwing in the two extra, his wife explains, I think, how to ripen the green ones. After my walk, I take the tomatoes to Tonio’s nephew Marco, and he makes a salad out of them for that day’s lunch.