Florence, the Hall of Maps reopens after a year of restoration

The Hall of Maps in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio reopens to the public after a year of restoration. Worth 500,000 euros, it was made possible thanks to a donation from Friends of Florence.

After a year of restoration, the Sala della Guardaroba of the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, better known as the Sala delle Carte Geografiche, reopens to visitors: it is therefore possible to return to admire the painted plates with the lands of Europe, Africa, Asia and the New World as known in the second half of the 16th century. Also nearing completion is the restoration of the globe, a monumental globe placed in the center of the room, which is being ’curated’ live under the eyes of visitors.

The restoration work was prepared by the Technical Services-Beautiful Arts and Fabbrica Directorate of Palazzo Vecchio. Worth 500,000 euros, it was made possible thanks to a donation from Friends of Florence as part of the Florence I Care program, which aims to create partnerships with private individuals for the restoration of cultural assets and public interest. Maps and globes, with the exception of some maintenance work dating back to the 1950s, had never been restored using modern techniques.

“We are reopening to the public a precious room of the museum, a treasure chest of beauty that has always aroused the curiosity of visitors because of the accuracy of the maps that depict the entire world known at the time of Cosimo I and the marvelous globe placed in the center, one of the largest and oldest that has come down to us almost entirely intact,” said Florence Mayor Dario Nardella. “Thanks to the generosity of Friends of Florence, which has always been at our side for the enhancement of our artistic heritage, we can now return to this Hall restored to its ancient splendor.”

“The restoration of the Sala della Guardaroba in Palazzo Vecchio with the maps and the globe, representing the cosmos, is one of the most fascinating projects we have undertaken in the last twenty-four years,” stressed Friends of Florence President Simonetta Brandolini D’Adda. “The marriage of art and science, combined with the restitution of a vision of the entire world at the time of Cosimo I is enthralling. Through our sole donor, The Giorgi Family Foundation, we are honored to be able to restore the entire Hall, which will be completed in the coming months thanks to the expertise of restorers, synergy with the Fabbrica di Palazzo Vecchio and an interesting study collaboration with the Museo Galileo.”

Located on the third floor of the Palazzo Vecchio’s museum itinerary, the Hall of Maps is one of the most visited rooms in the museum building and therefore subject to considerable wear and tear.

The maps, fifty-three oil-on-board paintings with wooden supports, inserted in the doors of monumental cabinets, offer detailed depictions of lands and seas known at the time of Cosimo I, embellished with a myriad of gilded inscriptions, refined cartouches, Medici enterprises and fantastic creatures, were detached and restored in the adjoining room that already hosted the restoration of the putto decorating Juno’s Terrace on the museum’s third floor, which was recovered a year ago thanks to Friends of Florence. The globe, with its circumference of more than two meters, is too large to change rooms and was only moved inside its location as work progressed.

In addition to the restorations, work in the hall involved the consolidation of the floor structure, new flooring, conservation maintenance of the monumental cabinets, and the replacement of the plexiglass panels located on the doors with the installation of “Optium Museum Acrylic”-type anti-reflective sheets. A new lighting system based on the home automation system using LEDs was also prepared.

The Geographical Maps

At the time of the Priors, the room now called the Geographical Maps did not exist, as evidenced by the traces of the confinant Chancery windows visible in the wall to the left of the entrance. When Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved into the palace, the adjoining rooms went to form the Guardaroba quarter, where all the movables of the court were kept. This room was later built by Giorgio Vasari (1561-1565), at Cosimo’s request, to fulfill the dual function of the main room of the Guardaroba and the cosmografia room. The plan for the layout of the new room, drawn up by Vasari with the collaboration of the cosmographer Fra’ Miniato Pitti, who, after an initial flanking, relinquished his role to the Perugian Dominican Egnazio Danti, who was eventually succeeded by the Olivetan Stefano Bonsignori, included: in the soffit, paintings raffiguring the constellations; along the walls, large wooden cabinets, with tables of geography on the doors and images of the fauna and flora of their respective territories on the bases; above these, busts of princes and emperors and three hundred portraits of illustrious men. Finally, in the middle of the room, two large globes were to appear scenographically from above at the opening of the central panels of the soffit; the celestial one, remaining suspended in the air; the terrestrial one, descending finally to the floor. The idea of representing the entire known world in one room in the mid-sixteenth century reflected Cosimo’s interest in geography, natural sciences, and commerce. It also betrayed, however, the intent to celebrate the duke as ruler of the universe, in the role that was allegorically attributed to him by the association of his name with the Greek word ’kosmos.’ The ambitious project remained partly unfinished. Dionigi di Matteo Nigetti made the walnut cabinets (1564-1571) that would house, first tapestries and other vestments, then silver and gold objects and infine antique weapons. Of the fifty-three geographic plates brought to completion, thirty were painted by the Dominican Egnazio Danti (1564-1575) and twenty-three by the Olivetan monk Stefano Bonsignori (1575-1586). The two groups are distinguished mainly by their different painting techniques: that of Danti, similar to painting on paper and parchment, so much so that it is reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, with inscriptions, outlines and chiaroscuro outlined in ink; that of Bonsignori, in opaque spreads of oil color, as in the most common works of contemporary painters. Therefore, although they share the same conservation history, they exhibit differentiated degradation phenomena.

The globe

The globe in the center of the Hall of Maps is the oldest large globe to have come down to the present day, built with great ingenuity in years when the technique of constructing this kind of scientific instrument was still far from being fine-tuned and codified. The first documentary record of the globe dates back to early 1564, when we learn from a letter sent by Giorgio Vasari to Giovanni Caccini on January 29 that the latter had sent him “the appamondo” from Pisa by river. The globe was made by the friar Egnazio Danti, who had already taken care of thirty geographic plates and was certainly not yet finished in 1568, when Giorgio Vasari thus described it to the future in Lives degl’accademici del disegno. It is very likely that the globe, once finished, was not placed in the Sala della Guardaroba, as it was not mentioned in the palace inventories of 1570 and 1574. It may therefore have been placed from the outset in the Pitti Palace where it appears in a 1587 inventory. Along with the other scientific artifacts in the Uffizi Gallery, in 1775 it passed into the Museum of Ancient Instruments attached to the Specola in Florence and only in 1958, after other vicissitudes, did it reach its original home in the Sala delle Carte Geografiche in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The restorations

As for the Geographic Maps, the wooden supports are generally in good condition. The pictorial layers, on the other hand, have reacted differently to the stresses endured over the centuries and to the restorations conducted in the past, with aggressive cleaning, which have irreversibly worn and stained part of the surfaces. In Egnazio Danti’s panels such vicissitudes also produced corrugation and color slippage phenomena, localized especially in the seas. The reading of the paintings was disturbed by previous restoration interventions: several layers of altered and yellowed protective varnish, numerous overflowing retouches, in varnish and oil, and a diffuse brown patina.

The restoration was mainly aimed at improving the legibility of the figurations, through selective interventions of removal or thinning of the restoration materials and pictorial integration of the old lacunae and consunctions brought back into view by cleaning.

The intervention, supported by a campaign of multispectral photographic documentation and non-destructive and micro-destructive analysis, made it possible to recover chromatic values consistent with the original ones, such as the intense lapis lazuli blue of Danti’s seas and Bonsignori’s brilliant tonal passages. The work was carried out in the room of the museum adjacent to that of the Guardaroba, to allow visitors to witness its progress and the restorers to maintain a constant confrontation, with each other, for an optimal sharing of the modalities of intervention, and with the paintings from time to time removed from the doors of the cabinets and, at the end of the restoration, placed back in their place. Currently, the restoration of Stefano Bonsignori’s panels is finished and that of Egnazio Danti’s paintings is nearing completion.

Egnazio Danti’s large globe has undergone several restorations over the centuries, the first in 1595 by the astronomer and mathematician Antonio Santucci delle Pomarance and the last in 1958 by Florentine restorers from the private and public sectors. Precisely the temporal proximity of the first restoration with the presumed date of completion of the globe’s construction (1571), together with the reports by Santucci himself, projected to us a conservative situation that had already been critical since the end of the 16th century, further worsened by the damage produced by repeated movement and exposure to the elements during the period when, in the 19th century, the globe was in the courtyard of the Specola Museum, disassembled from its external iron structure and placed on a wooden base. Diagnostic investigations and the study of existing documentation have made it possible to clarify several aspects of the execution technique and to distinguish the materials used in previous restorations. Initial cleaning tests with gelled solvents revealed several overlaps of restoration materials that covered numerous abrasions and gaps in the pictorial layer, along with three large gaps at breakthrough damage. The time-consuming and difficult cleaning was carried out in two stages: with the first, the thick layer of almost total repainting with varnish colors and natural resins, altered and pigmented from the origin, was removed; with the second, the punctual removal of a great many black residues of an additional old oil-based pictorial intervention, possibly dating back to a nineteenth-century restoration.

This revealed the original, highly refined, though extremely patchy, color scheme: the geographic grid lines in cinnabar red; the seas in lapis lazuli ultramarine blue, with gold mission inscriptions; and the landmasses, painted on a malachite and ochre base, embellished with a myriad of gold dots and with the place names in black.

Cleaning is currently being completed. The work will continue in the coming months with the plastering of the gaps and the undertone pictorial integration of the numerous color deficiencies. The restoration took place in view of museum visitors in the Cloakroom Room, where the globe was disassembled from its metal elements and placed on a temporary structure, specially designed and built to allow restorers to rotate it and easily work on the entire surface.

The outer metal structure also underwent restoration. That iron structure, consisting of a base mounted on four feet, a meridian pivoted at the ends of the axis of rotation, the horizon and an ecliptic semicircle, was unreadable before restoration, obscured by inconsistent deposits and oxidation phenomena. In addition, due to remote subsidence, the meridian rested on the base, preventing rotation of the globe. The current intervention has made it possible to ascertain that the main irons that have come down to the present day, despite repeated disassembly and restoration recalled by the sources, are the original ones. The cleaning, aimed at removing aged protectives and surface corrosion, has brought to light details of grading and engraved or punched inscriptions previously not visible. Future phases of the restoration will be aimed at improving the assembly of the structure, up to the desirable restoration of the rotation mechanisms.

The collaboration with the Museo Galileo

The City of Florence and the Museo Galileo have begun a collaboration to study and develop an interactive application to explore the Globe and the Hall of Maps as a cultural enhancement of the environment and the cultural heritage housed here. The Municipality of Florence guarantees the availability of high-resolution images of the maps and diagnostic investigations aimed at restoration, while Museo Galileo is in charge of digitally reconstructing the Hall of Maps according to the project described by Giorgio Vasari; elaborating an interactive exploration of the digitally restored globe to make readable even the most damaged parts today, which will consist in the detailed reading of all the cartographic information detectable on the globe, from cosmographic data (meridians and parallels, constellations, degree scale, mile scale) to ancient and modern Ptolemaic maps, from data derived from literary tradition to the drawing of newly discovered lands (from South Africa to the New World), place names, cartouches, islands, orography, possible political divisions of the continents; to experiment with an ideal reconstruction of the original globe; to make available to the City of Florence a significant excerpt of the final product, compatible with its use within the Palazzo Vecchio museum tour.

Florence, the Hall of Maps reopens after a year of restoration
Florence, the Hall of Maps reopens after a year of restoration

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