From 2014 to 2016, the Prada Group supported the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, in Florence, in reaching the final stages of the restoration of the Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari. The painting, that water and mud engulfed during the Arno river flooding in 1966, was considered almost impossible to recover.
Antonella Casaccia is the young restorer who has worked on the project from the start.
“The first time I laid my hands on Vasari’s Last Supper I was a terrified 24-year-old.
I had been passionate about restoration for some time: the seed had been planted several years earlier, when our high school history of art teacher took us on a trip here, to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. I was just a young girl, but it had a deep impact on me. After graduating I took the entrance exam for the Postgraduate Training School and was one of very few to get a place.
The Opificio provided me with brilliant teachers and some extraordinary opportunities. But luck played its part too. In 2006, when I was about to start my dissertation, the 40th anniversary of the flood was being commemorated in Florence. To mark the occasion Giorgio Vasari’s masterpiece Last Supperwas retrieved after years in storage at Florence’s archaeological heritage department, covered in a thick layer of mud; it was the only major work that had not yet been restored after the disaster.
The painting was taken to the laboratories at Fortezza da Basso, and the job of studying the state of preservation of the work was entrusted to me and Ilaria: young, on the cusp of graduating and frightened to death, but enthusiastic nonetheless. Scarcely believing it, we got to work on our tests and experiments: me on the surface of the painting and Ilaria on the wooden support. One year later we had tackled just a few centimetres of a painting almost six metres across. But the first step had been taken, and we had taken it.
Once I had received my degree, I accepted a job abroad. However, this was not the end of my relationship with Vasari; indeed, it had only just begun. A few months later I was called back by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure for the next stage of the project, along with Ilaria and some other young restorers: Debora, Lucia, Chiara, Elisabetta.
It’s difficult to explain how you feel when faced with such an important work of art. You develop an extremely close relationship with the painting, andacquire an in-depth understanding of the painter’s technique. The job requires infinite attention to detail: countless difficulties present themselves, and you continually ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing. But you are also determined; you feel like you have to get to the end so that everyone can admire the masterpiece in all its beauty.
This restoration project was particularly complex. In spite of the support we had from a great team of professionals, headed by Marco Ciatti, at certain points we began to seriously doubt ourselves…
The task kept throwing up new problems, and eventually we were even forced to pause our work.
Only in 2014 did work recommence, and it was then we realised that we were going to succeed. Opportunities like this normally only come about once in a lifetime. But for me the opportunity arose twice!
From all these years of work there is one moment I remember above all others: we had just finished the main part of the work, and suddenly (I don’t know why we hadn’t thought of it earlier) we said to each other: “we’ve finished, we can lift the painting up!” After months, even years, of examining a great painting from above from just a few centimetres away, sometimes in the dark, with just a small spotlight… Finally seeing it upright from the right distance was disconcerting: the work was complete, Vasari was whole! It was an emotional moment.
I think the city of Florence and the whole world will experience similar emotions when, in a few days time, the work is returned to the basilica of Santa Croce, where it was in 1966. That’s when I will leave behind a work that has been at the centre of my life for over ten years, the end of a long and tormented love affair. I have been incredibly lucky to be involved in such an important project, and I will probably never do anything of such significance again.
So what is my next challenge? Apart from getting a bit of rest, I’m very interested in restoring contemporary artworks. I have a Master’s degree, but the main reason I know I can take on this challenge is my knowledge of ancient art. Whatever I do, the lessons Vasari has taught me will always stay with me. I am reminded of the quip my dissertation supervisor made when he presented us with the restoration project: “One day, all of this will be yours”.
Florence, 21 October 2016