Painstaking care: Conservator bringing life back to a 1480 Italian fresco

Published: Friday, Sept. 16 2011 6:20 p.m. MDT

Catherine Orange-Fischer restores Polidoro di Bartolomeo's "Crucifixion with Saints," a fresco transferred to canvas from 1480, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Curators at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts needed help restoring a 15th-century fresco. And they didn't expect to find that help locally until the new Utah Symphony conductor came to town.

Polidoro di Bartolomeo's “Crucifixion with Saints" was created in 1480 and was removed from the wall of an Italian church. It has areas where paint is completely gone and has some repairs that were made probably in the 19th century that haven’t lasted.

Restoring the work takes expert skill. “You never want to do anything to a painting that cannot be undone very easily,” explained Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “You have to be very deliberate and very careful about what it is that you’re going to do.”

But the museum knew of no one in Utah with the training and the experience to do a conservation treatment of fresco. Then there was a “very happy accident.”

“We hear that the new conductor of the Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer, is married to a woman who has long worked as a paintings conservator with an expertise in restoring and conserving mural paintings,” Dietrich said. “It's just so unbelievable that it has worked out as it has.”

His wife, Catherine Orange Fischer, has spent her 30-year career preserving artwork in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. She is donating her services to the museum.

It's with the light touch of an expert hand that she restores the centuries-old fresco. The daily discovery of what's underneath all the dirt and grime makes her feel as one with the painting and the artist.

"I feel so grateful that I can touch what he has painted and that it is so beautiful,” said the Swiss art restorer. "When you see the faces, I mean with all the expressions they have, I mean, yes, I feel close to the painter."

It’s a very slow process. Cleaning the painting using just big Q-tips and water takes several weeks. Restoring the painting will take several more weeks.

Dietrich said the museum has a responsibility to care for all of the objects it has. “What Catherine is doing for us and for this museum will ensure that this painting is here for many, many generations to come,” she said.

This fall, museum visitors will have the rare opportunity of watching Fischer work. The area where she is working is roped off and is brightly lit — something unusual in museum galleries — so she can see what she’s doing.

Contributing:  Viviane Vo-Duc

E-mail: cmikita@desnews.com

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