ART aficionados heaved a sigh of relief after the Italian embassy brought in experts to restore some of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s (NGZ)’s permanent artwork, which has now been restored to its original condition after suffering wear and tear over the years.
The collaboration between the gallery and the embassy will also see the Domboshawa rock art paintings and the Italian Chapel in Masvingo benefitting from the restoration programme.
The programme, fully funded by the Italian government, will also benefit old paintings from 100 to 300-year-old masters like Italian Giovanni Batista Caracciolo and French painter Stanislas Lepine.
Italy, considered one of the world’s cultural heritage centres, has a long-running relationship with Zimbabwe, including the 5th Zimbabwe pavilion at the Venice Biennale arts exhibition and also sponsors musical collaborations between local and Italian musicians.
NGZ director Doreen Sibanda is ecstatic about the significance of the Italian intervention as several of the country’s treasured artworks will be cleaned and restored.
“Some of artworks had some problems, just general wear and tear over the years, and have been restored to their original beauty. That means a lot because you can have the works, but if you cannot keep them up to as good as they possibly can it is not good because it means you are giving people not the authentic image,” Sibanda told IndependentXtra on the sidelines of a press unveiling of some of the works that had been restored.
“This is a painstaking and expensive process that requires highly skilled personnel to do it and we do not have that kind of skill in the country.”
She said three had been cleaned and restored so far. More of the artworks would be done by NGZ staffers. Six of them joined the Italian restorers — Emiliano Antonelli and Benedetta Proto — in the restoration exercise which the gallery described as “a free university” because universities in Zimbabwe do not offer this particular course.
“The fact that we have been able to train some of our own staff to work with the Italian restorers also is very good because it means that they will never look at things with the same eyes again because they will now be able to identify if there are any problems and how it can possibly be fixed.”
Italian ambassador Carlo Perrotta could barely hide his excitement at the work that had been done by his compatriots and the ongoing collaboration between his country and the NGZ.
“I am flattered, but I am not surprised. I am flattered by the trust put by the NGZ in the team of restoration experts from Italy, who are currently in Harare to bring back to their pristine splendour a number of canvasses by Italian and other European masters, dating back to the 17th Century and even before,” Perrotta said.
“As acknowledged also by its number one position in the Unesco list of cultural heritage treasures, Italy is by far the world’s number one cultural superpower and nowhere is the above more the case than in the restoration of artworks, of which the most significant percentage, from all ages and almost all styles, can indeed be found in the Belpaese, as Italy is also known.”
He said because of Italian mastery, Italian restorers have been hired for restoration work funded by other countries, as in the case of the United States at the Great Zimbabwe Monuments.
“I would also like to express my deepest satisfaction in seeing that Zimbabwean restoration experts are taking part in the restoration work at the National Gallery, teaming up with the Italian experts with a view to learning new techniques and also making the Italian team aware of the challenges faced by African countries in their relatively recent approach to restoration and the solutions that have been found by them,” Perrotta said. “The same two-way concept also applies to the upcoming restoration of the painting at the Italian Chapel in Masvingo, as well as to the protection of the Domboshawa rock art painting that Italy has been participating in since March this year together with France, Spain and Unesco.”
He said samples from the Domboshawa rock paintings will be taken to Italy for testing in preparation for restoration work to be done in March next year. The historic Italian Chapel will also be restored to its original glory.
Meanwhile, safekeeping and conservation of the prized artworks have been some of the major concerns for the gallery as conditions deteriorated and also as a result of the worsening threat of pollution.
NGZ curator Raphael Chikukwa said the national gallery has had a leaky roof for years, after it was battered by a hailstorm in 2012, exposing the huge collection to the elements, including dust.
“We are, however, grateful that the Norwegian embassy gave us US$500 000 for a new roof and ceiling before they departed,” Chikukwa said.
“The air conditioning has also not been functioning for some time—that is a huge threat. We are currently frantically seeking funding to fix the air conditioning so much that these works, which are going through restorations, will not deteriorate again.”
Added Chikukwa: “This is a continuation of a relationship that started many years ago, including even a lot of Italian citizens resident in this country. So for us it is a continuation because remember the visibility of the 5th Zimbabwe pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019.
“We are grateful to the Italian embassy because this is shared history because we have Italian masters and others from Europe as well in the gallery, hence this has given us a new lease of life as the NGZ.”