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Research and Conservation Effort Lends New Meaning to Holy Site

June 12, 2007

LOS ANGELES—More than two million pilgrims a year visit the Pontificio Santuario Scala Santa, located in the historic center of Christianity in Rome.  Now visitors can see a portion of it, known as the San Silvestro Chapel, as they have never seen it before – utterly transformed by a conservation effort supported by the Getty Foundation.

Built in 1589, the Scala Santa contains an ancient marble staircase believed to be the very steps Christ ascended to receive his judgment by Pontius Pilate. The walls of the stairway are covered with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The stairs lead to the San Silvestro chapel which is decorated with frescoes, including landscape paintings by the influential Flemish artist Paul Bril. 

The Bril paintings were so obscured by the soot from countless candles over four centuries of worship that the Padri Passionisti, the sanctuary’s historic custodians, held little hope that the paintings had endured.  But careful conservation using techniques such as state-of-the-art laser technology revealed the landscapes in such astonishing clarity that they provided a whole new meaning for the chapel, which was to represent paradise to the pilgrims who ascended the steps.

“We can now see the original purpose of this room,” explains Mary Angela Schroth, project coordinator and manager for the conservation project.   “The conservation revealed a unity of iconographic, artistic, and theological identity that was previously invisible.”

This revelation comes as a result of a research and conservation effort that will serve as a model for the field of conservation, according to Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation.  The Foundation funded an extensive three-year conservation planning process for Scala Santa that resulted in comprehensive documentation of the site and its murals. This information guided the recently completed conservation treatment project—which also was funded by the Getty—and will guide preservation of the site for years to come.

The Foundation is currently the only funder for the kind of comprehensive research and analysis done at the Scala Santa. “Few, if any, conservation projects can afford a careful planning process,” says Dr. Marrow.  “But a thoughtful plan and a road map for the entire project can prevent serious mistakes and surprises along the way.”

In fact, research for the Scala Santa project enabled conservators to correct one such mistake, made over 100 years ago.  In an attempt to freshen the chapel, a lead white paint was used to brighten parts of the paintings.  Over the years, the lead white darkened, creating disfiguring black blotches.   Scientists on the project were able to develop a new process that reversed the darkening effect, eliminating the unsightly blotches.

The recent reopening of the San Silvestro Chapel in Rome will be followed by the publication in late 2007, also funded by the Getty Foundation, of the first volume of a multi-volume series detailing the conservation.

“The work of the Scala Santa team, working closely with the staff of the Vatican Museums, is exemplary.  The Getty Foundation is proud to have supported such an important project,” says Dr. Marrow. 

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Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications

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