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The Cagli Media Project
Institute for Education
in International Media
Andrew Ciofalo, Director

Pre-eminent Restorer of Cagli’s Art Treasures
Story by Julia Gaspary

Artist Michele Papi

Embedded throughout the mountain town of Cagli, Italy, are unique and irreplaceable pieces of artwork. Brightly colored stained glass windows reflect the sunshine and ornately carved stone archways support the weight of homes and shops. Elaborate frescoes decorate the insides of buildings, and even some facades throughout the town.

Frescoes are paintings created using pigment on damp plaster. The artist and his assistants apply several layers of ever-finer plaster to a wall. Then the painter creates his work on the final layer while it is still wet. When the plaster dries, the picture is part of the wall.

Just as cars need to be serviced and computers need to be updated, art needs to be restored. A combination of the elements, pollution, and natural deterioration take their toll on the plaster masterpieces. Luckily, for the residents and visitors of Cagli, there is a man perfect for the job. Michele Papi, 47, has restored more than 150 pieces of art in the city of Cagli alone.

In 1997, an earthquake shook Le Marche. The effects were devastating; homes were ruined, shops destroyed, and many of the region’s churches were badly hit. Consequently, a significant amount of artwork was damaged.

“Rome gave the Marche region and Umbria a certain amount of money to repair the damage from the earthquake,” says Alberto Mazzachera, an art historian and vice mayor of Cagli. “That budget was not enough to finish the cycle.”

As a result, a team of administrators from Cagli was organized to estimate the cost of the remaining repairs. The team selected which of Cagli’s many frescos and pieces of art would be restored. Different foundations, banks, and companies in Cagli funded the remaining costs. Mazzachera estimates that the price of repair is about 400 euro a square meter.

Papi and his team of three assistants made most of the repairs after the earthquake. Aside from the frescos, which must be repaired on site, most of the work is done in a converted 14th century church set on a hilltop in Papi’s native town of Urbino.

Inside the workshop is a jumble of canvas, statues more than 400 years old, and completed renovations safely stored in bubble wrap.

“Until a couple days ago, you could hardly walk around in here,” says Papi. He recently completed renovating 20 paintings by the artist Anastasi for an art exhibit in Senigallia.

Up the aluminum steps of the loft is one of Papi’s assistants, Alessia Bani. She is cleaning and re-stretching the canvas of a pair of 17th-century paintings by an unknown artist. She has already completed the work on one of the paintings and is in the final stages of restoring the second.

It has taken Bani two months to “cover the parts of the painting that were worn away.” Once the second painting is restored, the paintings will return to Cagli.

Papi, a graduate of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Urbino, specializes in restoring anything that is painted, including frescoes. Throughout Cagli’s Basilica Catredale are numerous examples of Papi’s expert artistry.

On the outer wall of the basilica is an archway that in the 14th century served as the main entrance to the church. When the archway was walled up in the 18th century, the intricate details of the arch were concealed. “I moved the entire wall back so that everyone could appreciate the archway,” says Papi.

While he was restoring the archway, Papi realized that some of the stones in the archway had been taken from ancient Roman ruins, meaning that pieces of the arch dated back to the time of Christ. That project, which he began in 2002, took him eight months.

Above the archway is a faded fresco of the Virgin Mary and child. Six years before he took on the project of restoring the archway, Papi worked on the fresco. “Before I restored it, it was black. The entire project took me three months. It was not only a matter of cleaning them, but you have to try solvent after solvent until you find the right one to clean this fresco,” he says.

The interior of the basilica is even more astonishing. Immediately above the entrance are “standards,” pictures painted onto both sides of a fabric that is a mixture of reed fiber and linen. Enormous portraits of saints and biblical figures on canvas border the two aisles that lead to the altar. Painted angels support the glass dome above the altar. Papi restored each one of these magnificent pieces of art.

The “standards” were handed to him as tiny pieces placed in a box. It took him three years to piece together the small fragments which he then sewed and glued fiber by fiber. “All of the things that you do must be able to be undone. You cannot use modern superglue, natural glue only,” says Papi.

Much of the artwork had never been restored before. “All of the paintings on each of the altars has a significant meaning,” Papi says. “Restoring a painting on canvas is much more difficult than restoring a fresco.”

Papi, whose favorite piece of art is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, is nowhere near the end of his restoration career. Soon he will begin to restore the entire exterior of 115 Via Lapis, an apartment building in Cagli that is covered in frescos. At the same time, he will continue to restore artifacts and paintings from around the Marche region of Italy. Thanks to Papi, the work of centuries of artists will yet again be viewed and appreciated.

Video by Brett Kahn
Photos by Cindy Dew
Web Design by Alex Cirillo