Samuel Bugeja 1920-2004

The Silent Artist

Samuel Bugeja - The Restorer

From the Eyes of Peter Bugeja, Samuel Bugeja's Son

The Restoration

The Miraculous Cross Mount Carmel Basilica, Valletta Before and After

Over the years, it became clear to me that many have a preconceived image when it comes to famous paintings in churches and museums, that of being painted on canvas. This is the immediate image people in general have, perhaps less so now as we slowly become a nation that is appreciating our heritage and more information becomes available on the internet. Some of the most beautiful paintings that can be found are Alfresco paintings, many of which are world renowned, such as Michelango’s Sistin Chapel.

The word fresco means “wet”. The actual painting is executed whilst the plaster is still wet and it actually becomes part of the plaster. This allows the fresco to look virtually the same for hundreds of years as long as it is not exposed to water or sunlight. Frescoes are permanent because of their chemical composition. Lime paste, which is produced by heating calcium carbonate with limestone, is the active ingredient in the wet plaster on which the fresco is painted on. When lime paste is exposed to air it changes back into insoluble calcium carbonate which is a hard crust. If pigment is applied to this type of plaster when wet, it becomes trapped and becomes permanent because it is chemically stable.

The techniques used for restoring frescoes vary and does depend on the extent of the damage. For example, many people do not realize that the majority of frescoes in Florence, Italy have been removed and re-attached in the same place where they were originally painted. The process of “tearing” the fresco off the original wall is called ‘Strappo’.

Considered to be the worst flood since 1557, the 1966 flood of the River Arno, Florence, 101 people died and damaged and destroyed endless amount of art masterpieces. Many of the historic works have been restored and new restoration methods were devised. Some of the methods were already known, established and came immediately into use after the flood. One of the techniques used is the Strappo technique in order to save the frescoes after the flood. The Strappo technique was established in the mid 50’s and evolved further in early 60’s.

Alfresco Restoration - Before & After

The Strappo technique was used for the first time in Malta by my father, a bold move that was considered the only solution to save seriously damaged frescoes at the Mdina Co-Cathedral. This decision was fully supported by Cesaro Brandi, considered the world's leading expert in such restorations at the time. Later this technique was also used at the B’Kara Basilica. The restoration at B’Kara was extremely complex which unfortunately had extensive frescoes already lost over the years.

But what does this entail? What did this mean in real terms? The following is intended to provide a simple explanation of the Strappo technique process. By doing so, I believe you will be in a better position to appreciate the complexity and expertise needed to attempt such a delicate restoration on frescos of mammoth historical importance.

Frescoes demand complicated treatment. Normally water, once it evaporates, will leave a layer of residual salt on the surface of the wall that absorbed it. In some instances, the resultant efflorescence obscured painted images. In other cases, the impermeability of the fresco plaster causes the salt to become trapped beneath the surface, causing bubbles to form and erupt, and the paint to fall. The adhesion of the plaster to the wall was often also seriously compromised. A fresco can only be detached when fully dry. To dry a fresco, workers cut narrow tunnels beneath it, in which heaters were placed to draw out moisture from below (instead of outwards, which would have further damaged the paint). Within a few days, the fresco would be much drier. It is critically important that the correct measures are taken from the roofs of the churches as seeping water over a period of time destroys the beautiful frescoes over time.

The Strappo process is normally initiated with a very gentle cleaning of the fresco with deionized water to establish the resistance of the colour. At times this is not possible due to the extensive damage of the frescos and often a ‘fixer’ is sprayed from a distance to safeguard as much of the flaking painting as possible.

The next stage is to affix a layer of highly thin and soft cheese cloth or a soft thin transparent paper over the painted fresco. This is affixed with animal glue which is formed through hydrolysis of the collagen from skins, bones or tendons. This glue is heated to make it extremely manageable and ‘runny’. Once the first layer has been affixed, then the process is repeated a number of times.

The drying glue creates a very strong outer layer which besides protecting the painted fresco, has a stronger cohesion than the painted fresco layer to the wall or ceiling. After a few days the phase of the actual detachment (strappo) begins. A gentle tug on the cloth will start the process of removing the painted plaster layer from the rougher dry plaster wall or ceiling. The careful assistance of a long flexible blade, like a putty knife, may be needed. Once removed The fresco is laid on its face and excess plaster is removed from the back of the fresco layer.

Once the back of the fresco is gently cleaned, layers of then canvas are applied using a strong non-water soluble glue (PVA or acrylic resins). This is then allowed to dry. The fresco with its new back is turned over and the layers of cloth and animal glue are slowly removed with warm water and steam. Once the animal glue has been removed, the fresco is then restored as needed with watercolour paints. As the fresco is being fully restored to its former glory, it is critical the outside wall or roof is properly cleaned and waterproofed so that external water damage prevention is achieved. Finally, the fresco is returned and affixed to its original position on the wall or ceiling.

As can be seen, the Strappo technique is a delicate and lengthy process. One that requires patience and close attention to detail. For the first time in Malta, the restoration of the Mdina Cathedral frescos underwent the above process during the sixties and seventies. My father was predominantly assisted by my two brothers, Joe and Gerald. Concluding the major restoration of the whole Cathedral frescos took just over 12 years on a part-time basis. Towards the last section of the restoration, I was old enough to be able to go on the high scaffoldings and assist my father and brothers (I have to say against my mum’s better judgement as she always used to be worried about all of us being on these high scaffoldings). Although referring to a period of over 40 years ago, this remains one of the most memorable experiences I had with my father and elder brothers.

My father always focused on ensuring one safeguards the original paint, every single pin drop of the painting dealt with extreme care. I still remember his continuous, over and over instructions ‘careful, be gentle, that painting needs to be handled with extreme care and delicacy’. To my father, the restoration process represented one of his most enjoyable yet stressful periods. One that strengthened his resolve to safeguard artistic treasures across Malta.