Florence, restoration of frescoes featuring Giovanni Acuto and Niccolò da Tolentino begins in the Duomo

Two masterpieces of art history, the frescoes of Giovanni Acuto and Niccolò da Tolentino by the great Renaissance artists Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno, begin restoration work in Florence Cathedral.

The two legendary condottieri Giovanni Acuto and Niccolò da Tolentino, respectively works by Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno in Florence Cathedral, reproduced in all art history textbooks, will soon be restored. Commissioned and directed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, under the tutelage of the ABAP Superintendency for the metropolitan city of Florence and the provinces of Pistoia and Prato, the restoration is made possible thanks to funding from American Express. The work was entrusted by the Opera to restorer Daniela Dini, who had already worked on the two works in 2000.

Giovanni Acuto and Niccolo da Tolentino.

With his army, called “the white company,” consisting of two thousand Welsh archers equipped with enormous bows, almost two meters high, the Englishman John Hawkwood, nicknamed in Florence Giovanni Acuto (1323 - 1394), was a legendary condottiere and captain of fortune in the service of various states and finally of the Florentine Republic. Niccolò da Tolentino (c. 1350 - 1435) after fighting for the Malatesta passed into the service of the Florentines and for his exploits was appointed captain general of Florence. For the Florentines he fought, bringing victory, the terrible Battle of San Romano (1432), made immortal by Paolo Uccello in the famous triptych.

Both monuments are located in the wall of the left aisle of the Cathedral, where we see them today at a lower height from the original one, as can be seen in an engraving that predates the 1842 detachment and in which it can be seen that the upper edge was at the height of the capitals of the columns. Almost equal in size (the monument to Giovanni Acuto measures 855x527 and 833x512 cm and that of Niccolò da Tolentino 833x512), seemingly similar they are in fact profoundly different. Of the two monuments only Acuto’s is signed, and this is the first time Paolo Uccello signed one of his works, in a gesture of proud vindication.

The restoration

Today’s restoration is preventive and conservative in nature, an approach that is now considered central to the discipline of restoration: works of art are intervened on when they show the first symptoms of deterioration, as in this case, in order to avoid aggravating the damage and then having to carry out invasive and costly interventions. The two frescoes are in a fairly good state of preservation, but being twenty years since their last restoration, the pictorial surface is obscured by a uniform dark patina caused by the accumulation of acid particulates produced by pollution and inert dust deposited over time.

The intervention involves dusting with soft brushes over the entire pictorial surface to remove the most superficial dust, while the deeper dust will be removed through a light pad cleaning with absorbent cotton and deionized water with Japanese paper interposed, while trying to maintain as much as possible the previous pictorial retouching that has been extensive. Finally, a pictorial retouching to be done by tonal glazing in the gaps that occurred with the light cleaning, through the use of natural pigments (vegetable and/or mineral) bound by ammonium caseinate.

The two frescoes have undergone various restorations over the centuries: of an aesthetic nature those of 1524, executed by the painter Lorenzo di Credi, and of 1688, which restored vibrancy of color on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Ferdinando, son of Cosimo III, to Violante of Bavaria. Conservative in nature that of 1842, when, in a very daring operation, they detached them from the wall and placed them on a hemp canvas framed only at the sides. The two frescoes were then placed on the counter-façade of the cathedral, where they remained until 1946. Philological-conservative in character were those of the 1900s and 2000s. Fundamental was the 1953 restoration performed by Dino Dini when the works were in poor condition with the risk of loss of large areas of the painting. In the 2000 restoration by Daniele Dini, the two works underwent complete cleaning and extensive tonal glaze painting retouching.

The history of the two monuments

In August 1393, when Giovanni Acuto was about to leave Florence, the Florentine Republic ordered the execution of a sculptural cenotaph in his honor in the Duomo, which was absolutely exceptional for a still-living personality. At the time, however, the Opera del Duomo failed to carry out the execution of the monument. A year later, in March 1394, Giovanni Acuto would die and be buried with great honors in Florence Cathedral and later his remains moved to his hometown at the behest of England’s King Henry II. A year after Acuto’s death, the project to create a marble tomb in the cathedral would be resumed but abandoned in favor of a fresco painted by Agnolo Gaddi and Giuliano d’Arrigo known as Pesello. It was a commission that was part of a context of celebratory works intended to make Santa Maria del Fiore a pantheon of eminent personalities in 14th- and 15th-century Florentine history. Nearly half a century later, on May 26, 1436, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore resolved to make a cenotaph to Giovanni Acuto, and just four days later, on May 30, Paolo Uccello’s name appeared for the first time in an actual contract, where it was expressly requested that the monument be made of “green earth.” The commission involved redoing the previous fresco by Gaddi and Pesello, which must have deteriorated in the meantime. After a month the fresco of the condottiero was finished, but here was the twist: it was not deemed suitable by the commissioners and a remake was ordered. Paolo Uccello was ordered to replicate the painting, which was completed by August 1436, just in time for the solemn inauguration of Brunelleschi’s dome (August 30). Paolo was additionally given the sum of 64 lire “for his faticha and price of painting twice the person and chavallo of messer Giovanni Aghuto.” After the second and final version of the fresco, on December 17, 1436, the Opera asked Paolo Uccello to also change the inscription on the sarcophagus, which reproduces the last lines of a panegyric to Fabio Massimo: DUX AETATIS SUAE CAUTISSIMUS ET REI MILITARIS PERITISSIMUS HBITUS EST. Paolo Uccello’s commission of the cenotaph to Giovanni Acuto is not the only one for Florence Cathedral, and they show that the artist was considered a leading figure. In February 1443 he was commissioned to paint the clock face on the counter façade and two months later to gild the star of the hands and paint the blue on the surface below. In the same year he was commissioned to design two stained glass windows for the eyes of the dome: the Resurrection, the Nativity and the Annunciation, the latter of which was lost in 1828.

The monument to the condottiero Niccolo da Tolentino (c. 1350 - 1435) has a shorter, more linear history. He died in 1435, and there is evidence of a large crowd at his funeral attended by Pope Eugene IV. Twenty years later, in October 1455, the Signoria of Florence resolved to honor the memory of the condottiero with a monument in the Duomo confirmed “in manner and form” to that of Acuto, which would be finished the following year as per the final payment recorded by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, for a sum of 24 florins. Such a tight timeframe between the design of the painted monument and its execution suggests special attention on the part of the Signoria, perhaps motivated by the lifetime friendship between Niccolò da Tolentino and Cosimo il Vecchio. Andrea del Castagno had already worked for the Opera in 1444 as a supplier of cartoons for stained glass windows, in 1446 for painting a lily and two spirits on the Duomo organ and then an Agnus Dei and for gilding the same instrument.

Florence, restoration of frescoes featuring Giovanni Acuto and Niccolò da Tolentino begins in the Duomo
Florence, restoration of frescoes featuring Giovanni Acuto and Niccolò da Tolentino begins in the Duomo

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