Restoration of the Saint Martial Chapel at the Palais des Papes in Avignon

1. Restoring the chapel of Saint Martial
by Matteo Giovannetti at the Palais des Papes d’Avignon
Photo : Didier Rykner

11/3/14 - Restoration - Avignon, Palais des Papes - For the last ten years the Chapel of Saint Martial painted by Matteo Giovanetti at the Palais des Papes in Avignon has remained closed to the public due to restoration plans which took longer than expected to get underway, for obscure administrative and budgetary reasons. But after all, what are ten years compared to the almost seven centuries of existence since the Italian painter arrived in Avignon commissioned by Pope Clement VI ? The work has finally begun, thanks to funding (1 million euros) by the city and the French government, with the help also of the Fondation BNP-Paribas (100,000€). The restorers are Italian (Arké, a Roman firm) and a scholarly committee directed by Dominique Vingtain, Curator at the Palais des Papes and at the Musée du Petit Palais, includes several authorities of this period [1]. Standing high up on a scaffolding to look at a mural painting close up is always a fascinating exercice and all the more moving when seeing figures emerge from the blackened surface, revealing all their beauty.

2. Matteo Giovannetti (c. 1322-1368)
A detail in the frescoes
at the chapel of Saint Martial undergoing restoration
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. Matteo Giovannetti (c. 1322-1368)
A detail in the frescoes
at the chapel of Saint Martial
undergoing restoration
Photo : Didier Rykner

Matteo Giovanetti, born in Italy around 1300, studied in Viterbo before arriving in Orvieto in the early 1320’s, where he no doubt met Simone Martini, then continued on to Assissi. However, there is no information concerning his career before Avignon where he arrived in 1343. His productions at the Chartreuse de Villeneuve-les-Avignon and at the Palais des Papes were extensive but, except for a few isolated fragments, the latter only shows two painted ensembles : the décor of the Chapel of Saint Martial and that of the Chapel Saint Jean, executed a few years later. The mostly legendary life of Saint Martial is represented on several levels : eight scenes narrating his childhood and youth appear on each of the sections of the vaulted ceiling, while the walls are each divided into two scenes, one above, in the form of lunette, and the other, in the middle, in rectangular shape. Finally, the lower part of the chapel has an architectural décor in trompe l’oeil.

4. Matteo Giovannetti (c. 1322-1368)
A detail in the frescoes at the chapel of Saint Martial
undergoing restoration
Photo : Didier Rykner

The artist used a mixed technique : fresco and extensive touch ups after drying. While the former has resisted well to the passing of time, the dry paint areas have often fallen off. Some previously painted figures show up as "ghosts", for example the birds forming a frieze but the faces were generally painted al fresco and are therefore better preserved. The restoration work consists first in consolidating the plaster which bubbled up in certain areas as well as the pictorial layer which in places is about to fall off. Then the layer of polyvinyl acetate from an earlier restoration must be removed as it put pressure on the pictorial layer and had darkened it significantly. Finally, the last stage will be a cleaning of the surface, extremely dirty due to various elements (calcium oxalates, linseed oil, dust, dirt...).

In some spots, the results are simply spectacular in comparison with the former state. The restoration is supposed to take one year, but the chapel will not reopen to the public, conditions have not yet been determined, until the spring of 2015. The goal is to avoid having crowds (the Palais des Papes attracts as many as 600,000 visitors a year) threaten the conservation of this newly restored masterpiece.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 11 mars 2014


[1] The committee includes Michel Laclotte, Dominique Thiébaut, Isabelle Pallot-Frossart and Etienne Anheim, along with delegates from the company carrying out the work, the contractor and the DRAC.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in News Items : Free Online Access to 250 Publications at the Getty

Next article in News Items : The Musée d’Orsay Acquires a Watercolor by Schwabe