Project Description

Painted – Wood Crucifix, 15th century
Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Island of Torcello, Venice

Restoration of Painted-wood Crucifix, 15th century

Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice

Project Director
Ministry of Culture, Monuments and Fine Arts
Office of Venice

Giovanna Menegazzi & Roberto Bergamaschi s.n.c., Venice

Venetian Heritage

Project included in the framework of the UNESCO – International Private Committees Joint Programme
for the Safeguarding of Venice

Start date
January 2010

End date
November 2011

27.460,00 €

This sculpture hangs above the iconostasis of the famed Venetian-Byzantine basilica in Torcello, built in the 7th century and rebuilt in 1008 at the behest of the newly-installed bishop Orso I Orseolo, son of the doge Pietro II Orseolo. The cathedral’s current structure dates to that renovation. The crucifix dates to the latter half of the 15th century. It is set 11 meters up, upon a wooden cross that is painted black (probably not originally).
The relief sculpture is carved in linden wood. One solid piece of large proportions extends from the neck to the feet. The head is attached to the body with long, iron nails (the head of one of the nails can be seen inside the mouth). The sculptor exhibited excellent understanding of the wood support and sculptural technique, as seen in the attachment of the arm to the torso. The large pins, made of the same solid wood as the limbs, are set in special housings carved in the trunk and glued. There are many other solid pieces of smaller proportions that complete the carving, attached in the right part of the loincloth and at the arm joints.
A preparatory layer of animal-based glue and plaster was spread on the wood. Air bubbles make this layer fragile. On the top layer is the tempera painting. It is very light colored in the flesh, composed mainly of white lead and yellow ocher. Minute details were painted meticulously, such as the pubic hair and tufts at the back of the neck, on the edge of the loincloth, originally pure white, mainly with white lead and protein oil binding agent. There is a gold leaf band along all the edges made with an amateur technique. The crown of thorns would have originally been a bright green.
The wood support was seriously damaged by wood-eating insects causing small parts to fall off (some fingers of the hand and some toes, details of the crown of thorns and the loincloth), though not structural weakening. The high degree of humidity in the church led to the formation of cracks, though limited by an excellent choice of wood and the hollowing of the inside of the wood trunk, including its core.
All the original polychromy was completely overpainted with a thick, tenacious layer of an orange, lipid- based binding agent. This first restoration appears to have been done several centuries after the crucifix was made and it must have been already in a condition of serious disrepair. Before this work, there were many falling pieces and a complete non-coherence, or even detachment, of the base’s painted layers. The original polychromy was particularly patchy on the face, legs, arms, and loincloth, and more intact on the chest. The second and complete overpainting that could be seen when it was restored dates to the mid-19th century. It has a dark flesh and blue-green loincloth with polychromy that was also very damaged with large gaps in the material including on the layers underneath.
The non-adhering polychrome parts were pre-reinforced, so cleaning was started on the greasy dust and then the entire polychrome surface and wooden parts were attached, reinforcing the arm connections. After the first phase of preparation of the piece was completed, a more complex phase was begun involving the removal of the overpaintings. This was done with special solutions and organic solvents in liquid solutions or thickened according to the needs. The restoration continued by sealing with plaster-glue and retouching with watercolor the material gaps that were on the surface. Then a moth-prevention treatment was applied and, lastly, the piece’s surface was covered with a protective layer.