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Decades after Florence’s great flood, an art hospital renews still-damaged treasures

It's part museum, part workshop, part hospital for threatened treasures. At the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Italy, conservators work to restore cultural and artistic masterpieces, some of which still bear the damage of a devastating flood nearly 50 years ago. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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    Finally tonight, a story of a historic flood and bringing together ancient craft and modern science to restore masterworks.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from Florence, Italy, for his ongoing series Culture at Risk.


    An artwork brought back to life after nearly 50 years. This is one of five wood panels comprising Giorgio Vasari's Last Supper, a massive painting, some 21-feet-long in all, first completed in 1546, and now, after many thought it impossible, approaching a complete restoration.


    This is probably the only place where you can expect a miracle.


    Cecilia Frosinini is overseeing the reconstruction of The Last Supper at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the OPD, in Florence, Italy, one of the world's foremost institutes of art preservation and restoration and a place itself forged by tragedy.

    It's hard to imagine today, but, in 1966, this famous piazza and much of Florence was underwater, with devastating consequences for the art treasures for which this city is so renowned.


    It all started suddenly.


    November 1966, days of rain swelled the Arno River, sending water, oil and sediment into Florence, in the city's worst flood in nearly 400 years. It was captured in this documentary by filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, narrated by actor Richard Burton and broadcast on Italian state television.

    More than 30 people died and thousands of priceless works of art and manuscripts were damaged or destroyed. The disaster inspired an outpouring of support from around the world, enlisting donations and young volunteers, known as Mud Angels, to descend upon the city to help clean up the mess.

  • LUDOVICA SEBREGONDI, Art Historian, Santa Croce Church (through interpreter):

    Here, the water reached nearly 20 feet. It was so shocking. And with the water came damage. It moved everything everywhere.


    Ludovica Sebregondi is an art historian at the Santa Croce Church, which sits just a few blocks from the river. Parts of the church and its famed museum were completely submerged, including where Vasari's Last Supper hung. It remained underwater for more than 48 hours.

    Another victim, a huge crucifix by Cimabue completed in the 13th century, its paint almost completely washed away by the waters. The damaged crucifix has returned, as have many other works, this time to the museum's higher ground, in case the waters should return.

  • LUDOVICA SEBREGONDI (through interpreter):

    Many of the artworks have been restored in these 50 years, but one has yet to be returned. The most famous of all is The Last Supper by Vasari. It's a symbol of the flood.


    A symbol because of its size and the extent of its damage. After the waters receded, Vasari's work was covered with sheets of fine paper, in an emergency measure to prevent the paint from separating from the wood. That bought time, but for more than 40 years, few believed it could be saved in one piece.


    Many of the old restorers advised that, basing on their experience, based on their experience, the only possible way was to destroy the wood or at least to try to preserve the wood, but to separate in two.


    A decision was made to wait, until new restoration methods gave OPD officials confidence they could preserve it in its original form.

    And, in 2009, the work began. The OPD, whose name translates to the Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones, has a storied history itself. Dating to the 16th century under the Medici family, it produced the finest inlaid mosaic and stonework, using techniques that can still be found at its museum workshop in Florence today.

    In the 20th century, it turned to conservation, and, expanding into a Renaissance-era fort after the 1966 flood, it dramatically broadened its mission and scope.

    OPD director Marco Ciatti:

  • MARCO CIATTI, Director, OPD:

    We needed new techniques. Mainly, the flood was the starting point with the new relationship with science.


    Around every corner, a work by one master or another, a Botticelli sitting on an easel, Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi, usually in Florence's Uffizi Museum, awaiting a cleaning, and more recent works, an early Jackson Pollock that's just arrived. It's part museum, part workshop, part hospital for threatened treasures.

  • TON WILMERING, Getty Foundation:

    The dark areas are less dense, so that's where paint has been lost, and you can very clearly see the splits between the planks.


    Ton Wilmering, an expert in wood restoration, showed me a large X-ray image of part of the Vasari. Wilmering is with the Getty Foundation, which helped fund the Vasari project.

    For the record, the Getty Trust supports the NewsHour's arts coverage.


    And when the water receded, it pulled some of the paint, it pulled some of the gesso, which is the layer in between the wood panel and the paint, to the bottom. And…


    You mean the painting literally sort of falls?


    Sags, exactly.


    It sags. I see. I see.

    So what are you doing here? You're taking a picture of the painting.


    Yes, we're trying to measure not only the visible image of a painting, but also what is beneath the paint layer.


    Raffaella Fontana is a physicist using multispectrum scanning techniques to peer beneath the surface of paintings, a noninvasive way to create complex models of their many layers.


    And then there are conservators and restorers that pick up our data and decide how to work on a painting.


    One of those restorers is Ciro Castelli, using knowledge and tools that date back further than the Renaissance masterworks themselves. He was a young carpenter just beginning his career when the flood hit. He helped removed mud and then began to work with expert wood restorers.

  • CIRO CASTELLI, Wood Restorer, OPD (through interpreter):

    To work on wood, you need to know it. Knowing how wood reacts is vital for restoration. We can't restore a painting if we don't know about its structure. Woodcraft spans more than centuries. It's millennia.


    Castelli came out of retirement to work on the Vasari paneling. And a key goal of this project is that he not only apply his special knowledge to this individual work, but also train a new generation of restorers.

  • CIRO CASTELLI (through interpreter):

    Working with younger people is a way to stay young, not just as far as the spirit is concerned, but in the activity itself as well. Working with younger people means passing on our knowledge, which benefits those of us who provide the knowledge too.


    There is concern here, amid Italy's continuing economic troubles, about funding to train and employ this next generation. Still, as the 50th anniversary of Florence's Great Flood approaches, Cecilia Frosinini hopes to have the Last Supper finished and returned to the Santa Croce Museum.


    Giving back this painting to the city is a very important symbolic act.


    And you're going to make it in time?


    We are really, really going for this deadline. I think we will make it.


    From Florence, Italy, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.


    You can go behind the scenes, even more online, where you will find producer Frank Carlson's photo essay on the OPD and the Santa Croce Museum.

    And, tomorrow, Jeff returns with a second story of Culture at Risk in Italy, this time a dying hilltop town that's coming back to life through engineering and tourism.

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