Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Handle with Care: Titian's Masterpiece Finally Returns to I Gesuiti
After an absence of two years, Titian's masterpiece The Martyrdom of St Lawrence was reinstalled in the church of Santa Maria Assunta (aka I Gesuiti) in Cannaregio yesterday morning. It underwent an extensive year-long restoration in Piemonte and then, after returning for a short stint at the Accademia here in Venice, spent last spring in Rome as part of a big Titian show at Scuderie del Quirinale.
The restoration was funded by the Bank of Alba and according to an article in last May's Telegraph, was done just in time: "saving it," according to one of the restorers, from falling into "an irretrievable state." In the course of the restoration, experts also believe they discovered a hitherto unnoticed self-portrait by the artist, long-obscured by the accumulated grime of passing time and perhaps also by a sloppy attempt at restoration by the French 200 years ago after Napoleon looted it from Venice and took it to Paris: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/9272885/Is-Titian-self-portrait-hidden-in-The-Martyrdom-of-St-Lawrence.html
In other words, even if you've seen the painting before, you've probably never seen the painting as it appears now.
The restoration was performed by Nicola Restauri in Aramengo, in the province of Asti, and the workshop's website is informative, nicely put together, and worth a look if you're at all interested in restoration. It's also in both Italian and English: http://www.nicolarestauriartrestorations.com/
I'd been waiting to see this painting, widely considered to be one of Titian's greatest, for over a year; ever since someone affiliated with the church had told me one day last fall that it was due to return in a couple of weeks. I've been checking in at the church periodically ever since. This past Monday I stopped in, with very low expectations, and found a pulley rigged up at the top of the tall niche in the first chapel on the left and a few workers cleaning up the space. "Tornerà il Tiziano?" I asked one of them, expecting to be disappointed. "Sì," he replied, "domani mattina."
Which is how I happened to be in the church for the re-installation.
It was, at least for me, a fascinating and admirable process to watch: the care and the skill and the coordination of it all. And perhaps I admired the workers and their expertise and calmness and sure hands even more because I've had to do some fine art handling myself in the past.
For a time I worked for a magazine in New York whose quality (it published Nobel Prize winners such as Nadine Gordimer and Naguib Mahfouz, along with pieces by other folks like Michael Cunningham and photos by the likes of Nan Goldin) was equaled by its unconventionality. Its office was in an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just a short way down the hall from where its founder/publisher/art director lived. He was one of the most unique people I've ever met--while making no effort to be so--and a man of remarkable humility and kindness. But sometimes the stress of publishing a magazine could get even to him, and the more stressed he got the more anxious I (who acted as his assistant) became.
Not because he would, as was and is only too common for someone in his position, fly into rages and start abusing his staff. He never bore any resemblance to a devil in Prada (which he didn't wear).
No, when his stress had finally reached an absolutely unbearable level he--and how I dreaded this!--he started re-decorating his apartment.
It was hell.
Not because he was a bad decorator. No, he was extraordinarily, famously gifted in that regard. The problem is that he'd inherited a collection of major modern art works from his parents, who'd been collectors, and I would be called upon to help him move them about his cramped apartment.
Now, the Matisse bronze--one of only three copies in the world, if I remember correctly--he could move with no help from me, along with the small de Kooning canvas. The massive Rothko, of the type that was easily going for between 8 and 10 million dollars at that time, luckily required more wall space than the apartment offered in any place other than where it already was. But the large major canvases by Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet...!
The last thing I wanted to do was touch them, much less have to carry one end of either of them through an obstacle course of couches, a pair of vivid blue leather club chairs from the Paris flea market, a fiendishly low amoeba-shaped one-of-a-kind artwork coffee table which seemed to be especially designed to trip people up....
There are professional art handlers in New York who do this kind of thing for a living: people with the steady nerves of surgeons and a comparable amount of insurance coverage. I had neither.
So I watched the re-installation of the great Titian yesterday with a certain amount of awe, inspired not simply by the painting itself, but by the people who handled that truly irreplaceable 15-foot-high canvas. Hugely happy to finally be seeing the painting in person for the first time--and equally happy not to be any way involved in putting it up.