The San Salvador altarpiece is one of the most precious examples of mid-14th-century Venetian Gothic silver. It has been located since the 16th century on the main altar of the church of San Salvador, but ‘screened’ – like theatre scenery – by Titian’s painting of the Transfiguration of Christ, and is revealed only during the three festivals of Christmas, Easter and the Transfiguration. Very few, including Venetians, know of the existence of this very precious masterpiece. The altarpiece is divided into five registers whose front is entirely lined with decorative elements in embossed, chased and partly gilded decorative elements.
An earlier central body can be distinguished, made up of three central bands connected by an iron hinge to the upper and lower bands, which closed on themselves like shutters. The first and fifth band have decorative elements that are of a different and later style. The background of the five registers is covered with rhomboid elements in gilt silver and decorated with embossed floral motives. There are more than 100 decorative elements on this background, among figures of saints and architectural elements. The figures, some of which weigh as much as 800 grams, are also made from silver sheet, beaten according to the decoration. The figures in the three central panels with their tight clothing are in the typical style of the late fourteenth century and recall those on the iconostasis of the main altar in St Mark’s basilica.
The center of the altarpiece is occupied by the Transfiguration, which, as a manifestation of Christ divinity, alludes to the name of the church of San Salvador. Four saints of particular importance to the church and Venice are shown on each side of the central scene, under the arches; among them are Saint Augustine, whose rule was followed by the canons of San Salvador, Saint Theodore and Saint Mark, the patron saints of the city.
State of Conservation
Apart from the natural deterioration of the constituent material, numerous works carried out at different times and in different ways were evident, such as reconstructions, additions, displacements, coloring, soldering, dismantling and reassembles. The entire surface was blackened by layers of altered protective materials mixed with dust and corrosion produced by the metal beneath, which made reading of the original color of the work difficult. Numerous pieces of the altarpiece were missing, there were scratches on the metal sheet and various damages and deformations.
To begin, photographic documentation of the altarpiece was carried out. All the decorative elements were then dismantled to allow for deeper and more precise cleaning. The preliminary cleaning of the surface consisted of removing greasy substances and residues of wax, and the signs of old protective materials. Removal of the dark layer that hid all the parts was made by immersing the individual pieces in a saline solution for a few minutes and then completing the cleaning with mildly abrasive substances. They were finally all carefully rinsed to remove any residues of the chemical substances used in the cleaning.
The figures were left immersed for several hours, repeatedly brushed and then dried. The damages that threatened the stability of the figures were repaired by gluing small pieces of silver sheet or silk fabric to the backs of the damaged parts, in this way avoiding any kind of soldering.
After the original forms in the most seriously deformed areas had been repaired (the stability of the haloes) the attributes and the decorative elements were checked and the tabs necessary for reassembling the figures on the support were reinstated. At the end of the restoration, two protective layers were applied to all the surfaces to isolate them from the surrounding environment and slow down their deterioration.
All the sheets on the base were cleaned to remove the greasy substances: the residues of wax and the signs of old protective materials. The corrosion produced by the metal was removed with the same substances used for the figures, but applied in compresses. The cleaning residues were removed by suction and rinsing (carefully preventing water from coming into contact with the wooden support). All the elements were then reassembled and damaged areas of the base were repaired. The restoration and dismantling of the elements revealed unknown aspects of the work and clarified previously unknown aspects of how it was made. It also provided considerable new information, opening up questions that can only be answered through further study.