Healing hands | Monocle

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Rome is a cultural destination that stands in its own category. Walk a few paces in any direction and you’ll come across a sculpture, artefact or building of artistic significance. Yet city hall’s chronic underinvestment is bringing many of these treasures to attention for all the wrong reasons. Creaking infrastructure, unfinished projects and a collapsing church ceiling are signs of a city that seems incapable of taking care of itself.

But inside Merlini Storti’s restoration studio, some remarkable work is afoot. A procession of easels bearing canvases mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries leads to a modern glass-top desk where studio co-founder Valeria Merlini is sitting in a lab coat. “At school I thought I was a rather talented artist,” she says, before recounting the mortal blow received from her art teacher. “He said I was useless. Although [he also said] I could copy very well and should consider restoration.”

It might have been a slightly inglorious entry point but it worked as inspiration nonetheless. Merlini later met fellow restorer Daniela Storti and, after setting up close to Piazza Navona in 1990, the pair have gone on to run one of the city’s most prestigious workshops. Nowadays the team, which comprises five full-time members of staff, has become particularly respected for the variety and scope of its expertise. With clients spanning the Vatican Museums to religious orders and private collectors, it seems Merlini’s plain-talking art teacher was right.

“In fact, I had always wanted to be a doctor,” says Merlini, whose current profession is not so far removed from her childhood dream than it may at first appear. Treading the line between creative intuition and the precision of medicine is every good restorer’s modus operandi: a successful operation is not a fanciful interpretation of what is no longer visible but a strict conservation of what remains. “We look after works of art like a doctor looks after a patient,” she says. “You have to look at the patient or painting holistically: both have a personality, both have different ways of responding to treatment.”

Rome, with its countless palazzos, national museums and galleries, has a large and constantly ageing population of illustrious cultural patients. The sheer quantity of assets that the Eternal City boasts has also always been problematic. The cost of restoration varies hugely depending on the task at hand; some work on large canvases can last up to a year. That’s why a large number of these treasures end up being left to crumble away, to the shock of many foreign visitors. “The more things you have, the more money you need to maintain them and the thinner you have to spread yourself,” says Merlini.

Rather than focus on trying to secure public funding, Merlini Storti has sought potential customers in the private sphere, offering a level of skill that’s paid accordingly. With plenty of competitors around the country, from in-house museum labs to many other private studios, Merlini Storti has had to work hard to attract its clientele. “We have always tried to increase interaction with private clients by organising restorations with a lot of visibility,” says Merlini, putting her business hat on. “This has come after intensive research of private sponsorship models.” Public awareness is not just socially responsible here: there is a good business case for using the studio’s talent as the best possible calling card.

That applies to Merlini Storti’s education projects too. Some years ago the studio set itself up inside an auditorium of the Liceo Visconti high school to share its trade secrets. For four months, students had a vast 17th-century canvas depicting “Christ Among the Doctors” by baroque master Luca Giordano in their midst – and day by day could follow the painstaking work of the restoration studio. “We wanted to show them just how much effort goes into conserving an object like that,” says Merlini.

In a corner of the studio, 30-year-old Rome-born Chiara Scognamiglio allows a series of tiny brushstrokes to gently build up a layer of colour on a young man’s cheek in a portrait from the 1600s. While studying fine art, Scognamiglio realised that creating a painting from scratch was not her forte. “But I’m pretty good at reproducing and I’ve always loved working with colour,” she says modestly. In this careful craft, oil paint is never used: colours are bound with a light varnish and gradually coat the filled-in cracks or missing sections. “Our interventions must be easy to remove,” she says, explaining one of the fundamentals of modern restoration technique.

Technology has made some conservation work easier: scans can now be done in-house using portable machines and digital photography allows for ample documentation. These are tasks that would have added weeks to the process in the past. But the importance of a restorer’s human knowledge remains unchanged, says studio co-founder Daniela Storti. This is also true of the work that she and her all-female staff carry out in the contemporary-art field. “Dealing with contemporary pieces is in many ways more difficult,” says Storti. It’s not only the field’s material choices, which include found objects, plastics and organic matter, that complicate things: there’s also the fact that a living artist must be approached and consulted. The challenge, however, doesn’t seem to make the task any less satisfying. “When the artwork is relatively recent we take on the role of art historian and critic,” says Storti. “By studying the methodology or materials ourselves and devising a conservation approach, our work becomes truly innovative.”

Indeed, as in the work of a doctor, a key part of art restoration is consultation – followed by the diagnosis and course of treatment that results. “Timescales are crucial,” says Merlini. “Being in the operating theatre for too long is as bad for an artwork as it is for a patient. A painting’s purpose is to be seen, not to lie naked in a vulnerable state.”

This was true for one of the studio’s most eminent recent patients, the Church of San Girolamo dei Croati. The studio has been on-site at this spectacular baroque building for the past year restoring the magnificent frescoes by painters including Giovanni Guerra, whose work dates from 1589. “If a church is closed for 10 years that can be damaging,” says Storti. San Girolamo has remained open all the way through its restoration.

Keeping the church doors open to the faithful and tourists alike is a logical move for the team but the added logistical complexities that this involves certainly require devotion of the non-religious kind. Part-artisans, part-conservation consultants, the women at Merlini Storti take on the role of cultural reanimators too. Thinking back to the Liceo Visconti project, Storti is very clear about the studio’s aims. “We are showing, very practically, that all this heritage belongs to everyone,” she says. “It is theirs and we want to show them how to protect it.”

Preservation order – artworks the studio has saved:

  1.  ‘The Madonna of the Pilgrims’
    Caravaggio, 1604-1606, oil on canvas
    This stunning rendition by the baroque master is property of the Church and was restored by Merlini Storti in 1999.
  2. ‘The Conversion of Saul’
    Caravaggio, 1600, oil on wood
    Nicoletta Odescalchi hired the all-women restoration team to fix her priceless possession in 2006.
  3. ‘Spring’
    John Kirby, 2002, oil on canvas
    The work of this British contemporary painter was in a private collection when it was taken in for conservation in 2016.
  4. ‘Still Life’
    Giorgio Morandi, 1919, oil on canvas
    In 2015 the team restored this evocative painting in situ at the headquarters of its owners, the oil and gas multinational Eni.
  5. ‘The Sacred Family with San Giovannino, San Giacomo Maggiore and San Marco’
    Giulio Romano, 1521-1522, oil on wood
    Another high-profile intervention, this renaissance master was restored on-site in the Chamber of Deputies in the Italian parliament.

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