The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, the Preti piece that occupies pride of place at the Vittoriosa parish church, is set to regain its former majesty as restoration works come to an end. Anna Marie Galea meets up with restorers Roderick Abela and Paul Muscat to learn more.

Nowadays, there are few things in life which have me stopping in my tracks. A beautiful piece of music that I come across accidentally when I leave YouTube open unattended while I’m doing something else, a book which conveys profound meaning…

And, very recently, a painting so majestic that I was nothing short of awed when I sat in front of it to interview its restorers, Roderick Abela and Paul Muscat of ReCoop.

The painting I am referring to is The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, which is the titular painting of the Vittoriosa parish church and Mattia Preti’s biggest piece in Malta, a gargantuan project that he completed at the grand age of 76.

Having started their restoration work on it in December, the piece has not presented its restorers with a lack of surprises. Here, Roderick and Paul talk about the trials, tribulations and rewards of working on such a unique piece.

“This project was envisioned by the previous parish priest, Fr Joe Mizzi, who really wanted to do something about restoring the painting. That’s where Bank of Valletta stepped in and offered to finance the project, with the condition that ReCoop would undergo the restoration.”

When the project was given the green light by the Curia Foundation in December, the two restorers took down the painting and carried out a scientific analysis on it. “By the time works were to begin, there had been a change in parish priest, but we found that Father Mizzi’s successor, Fr Karm Busuttil, was equally enthusiastic.”

Not knowing exactly what they would find, once they took down the four by (almost) six metre piece, they started their usual interventions. “One of the main reasons the painting needed to be restored is because the middle was sagging. The canvas backing was not the painting’s original, as the painting had already undergone a previous restoration in the 70s.”

The previous restorer had added a new canvas to the back of the original canvas in order to keep the canvas stretched. However, over time the new canvas started to lose its strength.

At the time that of the previous restoration works, the only thing that was available was Jute sack material which, the two restorers tell me, is basically like potato sack-like material.

“Unfortunately, although it was not known at the time, this material deteriorates with age. Fluctuations in humidity can also cause the painting to move by up to three centimetres. The more the old canvas sagged, the more the painting couldn’t be pulled back,” they explained.

In addition to this, the painting also had a biological infestation of cockroaches in the lower right hand corner.

“While we are used to seeing flour beetles and woodworm, cockroaches are particularly uncommon. During the treatment, the old lining was removed but this proved to be a challenge in itself, because previous restoration works had used very heavy glue to stick the canvas to the original.”

The glue had hardened and become extremely brittle – and there were thick layers of it. Its removal was a lengthy process, because it had to be done while making sure that what was underneath was not damaged.

“We humidified it a little bit at a time and scraped it off little by little. I estimate that by the end of it, we had removed between 15 to 20 kilograms of glue.”

Once the glue was removed and the painting relined, there were other things to take into consideration, such as how the painting would eventually be put up again. “Throughout previous restoration works, a wooden stretcher had been used so that the painting would be stretched out for as long as possible. At the time, this was the best and only option, but nowadays, there is more choice and we thought to use the system that was used on the Caravaggio at St John’s Co-Cathedral.”

After we cleaned it and looked at it closely, we were able to conclude that he did in fact probably paint most if not all of it

The restorers opted for an aluminum frame, mainly because it wouldn’t react to any of the elements. The frame also has a system of springs at the back to pull the canvas.

“We have a specialist who has set the springs at the back to have a particular force. We even opted for a very particular, cold relining process where we relined by reactivation. With this system, you don’t need to use any glue. Of course, relining such a big piece is no joke; you have to find a space big enough for it to fit in and then cover the front of the painting entirely with Japanese paper to make sure that nothing is damaged. “It was only after the relining was done that we could turn our attention to cleaning the painting and filling in the holes left by time and the elements. First, we will stucco and level the holes, then we varnish, retouch it, and varnish it again. It’s only after this process has been finished that we will mount it in the new frame.”

Although still a work in progress, there is no denying the majesty of the painting and, much like Preti’s life, it too has an interesting backstory.

“Since this painting was completed when Preti was of a somewhat advanced age, historians have always been at odds about whether or not he did most of it, or if his bottega of apprentices were far more involved than usual. The painting is vast and he could have hardly done it sitting down. However, after we cleaned it and looked at it closely, we were able to conclude that he did in fact probably paint most if not all of it. His style is unmistakable.”

It is clear from their faces that it is discoveries like this which make Paul and Roderick love their jobs so much: “Ever since we started ReCoop in 2004, we have worked on many beautiful pieces. Originally, we were individual conservators with our own specialties but we found a lot of strength in joining forces. In this way we are able to give all our clients exactly what they need without them having to shop around for different things. Our philosophy has always been to bring together a multi-disciplinary team that will be able to make sure that each item put in our care will reach its full potential. We view restoration as a process and as a way of preserving the things which our fathers left us for our own children; we feel we have an obligation to do that.”

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