A Vision of Restoration at San Miniato
Restoration work at San Miniato al Monte (11th c.), the Florentine basilica near to Piazzale Michelangelo, has just been completed. The project, which began in 2017, was funded by the Friends of Florence, an American association founded in 1998 with the vision of preserving Florentine and Tuscan heritage; continual support and donations from its members across the world have seen this project through to the end. Restorations were overseen by the Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape for the city of Florence, with Dr Maria Maugeri directing the latest conservation work. In his remarks on the project, the Abbot of San Miniato al Monte, Padre Bernardo Gianni, eloquently makes the comparison between the beauty of the mosaics and the community’s gratitude to the Friends of Florence: neither can adequately be put into words.
Initial conservation work began in 2017, on the Chapel of the Crucifix; in 2019, subsequent work was done on the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal; and in 2022, attentions turned to the restoration of a number of features in the nave, including the pulpit, transenna, apse, altar, mosaics and a terracotta figure of Il Crocefisso (Christ crucified). Features were found in varying states of preservation, with damage ranging from the fairly superficial to more complex, structural issues. It is worth noting that the process of restoration begins long before the brushes and cotton swabs appear: the early stages involve in-depth analysis of the work and its state of preservation, as well as thorough research into the techniques and methods required to restore the pieces.
Restoration of the pulpit included the removal of waxy deposits and brown stains using soft-bristled brushes and laser treatment respectively; the floor was also in need of repair, due to cracks caused by water infiltration. The transenna – a highly decorative wall panels (about waist-height) with rosette motifs – cordons off the apse and the altar; it was found in comparatively good condition. Stucco, putty or marble powder were applied to damaged parts; and the usual cleaning procedures, either by brush or scalpel (for more stubborn, waxy deposits) were a further part of the treatment. As for the apse, its five niches and Corinthian columns, both made from serpentine stone (a deep, translucent green) and marble, were fairly well preserved; but the tops of the columns required some attention. Soft sponges, demineralised water and alcohol solutions were all used to clean the apse; the altar was also extensively cleaned, and later required grouting too (lining the spaces between tiles with mortar).
In addition to laser treatment, a second example of technological assistance included the use of thermographic mapping to ascertain any damage to the plaster in the mosaic above the altar, enabling the restorers to get a fuller impression of its structural integrity. The mosaic, dating to 1297, depicts Christ standing between the Virgin and St. Miniatus, surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists (Matthew is represented by the man; Mark the lion; Luke the calf; John the eagle), all in iridescent golds, blues and reds. But the mosaic serves more than purely an aesthetic role: its iconography and iconology are a vital didactic source and their upkeep ensures the smooth continuation of study and religious practice at San Miniato al Monte. Lastly, Il Crocefisso, a glazed terracotta figure of Christ on the cross, dates back to circa 1515 and is believed to have been part of a larger altarpiece at some point. The cross is mounted on a second, larger cross, with the latter likely being a later reinforcement, when the cross was relocated to the apse. Showing significant signs of wear, botched attempts at repair and layers of pictorial detail spanning multiple generations, Il Crocefisso underwent extensive work to restore it to its former glory. The figure of Christ now glistens with a milky white sheen and his musculature is more sharply defined than before.
Ongoing restorations at San Miniato al Monte have been consistently and whole-heartedly supported by the Friends of Florence, who have shown true commitment to the project, and to what this project represents more broadly – the preservation of Florentine and Tuscan heritage. In addition, the church has the team of restorers to thank, who worked tirelessly on the restorations over the years and in complete harmony with the community of Benedictine monks, who reside permanently at the adjoining monastery. A truly beautiful sight to behold, a visit to San Miniato al Monte following this most recent glow-up would be a day well-spent. (Sophie Holloway)