Curious art lovers who visit the Vatican Museums can now witness the restoration, until recently carried out behind closed doors, of some of the gallery’s most prized large-scale masterpieces.
In a glass-walled workshop set up in one of the courtyards of the immense building, visitors can watch restorers work on two clay angels by Bernini, the celebrated Italian Baroque sculptor dubbed "the second Michelangelo."
As organizers put the finishing touches to the new laboratory this past week, head restorer Alice Baltera donned white overalls and glasses to work on the statues.
With meticulous attention to detail, she cleaned the fragile clay with a damp sponge before using paintbrushes and styluses to apply a thin layer of pulp.
"The restoration is difficult because the clay is very absorbent and stains easily," she told AFP.
But the privilege of working on Bernini’s sculptures was more than enough compensation for the challenge facing restorers, said Baltera.
"You can see all the work that went into the piece, the marks made by his fingers, it’s very moving," she said.
Baltera describes the wonder she felt when she climbed a ladder propped against the meter-tall (three feet) plinth that supports the sculpture.
"Coming face to face with an angel is truly awe-inspiring," she said.
The laboratory had to be purpose built because masterpieces like the clay angels were too large to be moved to the museums’ usual workshops.
Flavia Callori, who runs the ceramics and metals laboratory, said it was very rare to have clay statues such as these intact. Used to shape the mould for the definitive bronze version of the statue, they were usually destroyed.
"Maybe these ones were conserved because they were done by Bernini," she said.
The restoration of Bernini’s angels will take several months to complete.
In the next project, which will run until 2012, restorers will work on another pair of large angels, the ones used to cast the bronze sculptures that frame the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The glass laboratory may be used in future on other large artworks including tapestries and paintings, according to the head of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.
Paolucci said he was really pleased that the first works to be restored in the new workshop were by Bernini.
"His contemporaries said that he knew how to bring his sculptures to life, that his marble figures seemed flesh-like," he said.
"It’s because he was Italian, from Rome. I believe that no-one like him has ever been born in any other part of the world…. Someone who said: for enough money, I could model the whole of Rome into one immense sculpture," he said.