Times of Malta, 6th November 2008, by Joe Felice Pace
Visitors to the Balzan parish church lately must have noticed the restored small lateral dome dominating the chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Part of the painting peeled off on July 5, 2006 but it has now been restored by artist and restorer Alfred Briffa, helped by his son Chris.
A technical commission, with expert help, assessed the damage and paved the way for restoration. Valuable information was given by Valent Chetcuti, the church sacristan, who had helped Emvin Cremona when he painted the dome in the mid-1970s when Fr Karm Sciberras was parish priest.
There had been strong opposing views about the dome in the 1680s and 1690s. The villagers of the time, including experienced masons, had their own opinions about the order of the roof and the side domes, according to the report of the pastoral visit of Bishop Cocco Palmieri in 1693. Finally it had been decided that there should be a koppla kallotta, a low cupola in the form of a skull-cap.
Mr Briffa established that exposure to the elements could have caused the problem to the dome painting.
He believed there were two climatic elements, an internal one and an external one. The situational climatic conditions of the two identical side domes are different. The one near the belfry has much more protection from the sun, he noted.
The commission appointed by the parish priest had noted that relative humidity reaches higher values within the rosary lateral dome when compared to the opposite unaffected dome, probably due to the orientation of the building.
Mr Briffa reported that he did not find any traces of water seepage. Neither did he notice any damage due to condensation.
Tests to assess damage that may have been caused by air-conditioning did not point to this being a problem.
During the restoration process Mr Briffa said he noted that between the stone and the picture, Cremona had laid a layer of grey lime that acted as an isolating film. He also used white lead (bjankett) which is very adhesive but also very heavy. He had used the same process at Floriana and Ħamrun, with the same results, Mr Briffa remarked, adding that the late artist could have been experimenting.
The weight factor had also been noted by the commission. In fact, it had said that the subsequent weight of the canvas painting and adhesive extended the detachment once initiated.
In order to find a solution, Mr Briffa had at first thought of constructing a fibre glass support around the cupola to secure all the pieces. But he had to discard the idea after a close inspection of the structure as there were too many irregularities on the surface that would have created void patches.
He had, therefore, to go for a consolidation process that meant the cleaning of the cupola and the removal of extra material stuck to it. The whole surface was stuccoed and the stonework treated. It was then sanded in order to create more grip when the fallen parts were in place again.
Protection came through the application of Paraloid B 72, a solution of synthetic granules that helps the gripping process and seals the stone against the effects of porosity.
The consolidation of the back canvas had to be a two-way process. A layer of irreversible vinylic glue was applied in order to ensure that it would stick both to the stonework and to the picture. Following which the detached parts were fitted onto the stone.
Mr Briffa Jnr cleaned the pieces of stone and other material that had stuck to them. Section by section, as Cremona had shaped them, they were put in place. A close look-out for any air bubbles took place the following morning. Air was extracted by an injection process, following which a physical control check was undertaken, followed by a round of hand-tapping.
When all parts were in place, the Briffas applied putty filler plaster to the edges and when this had solidified any extra stock was removed. For the retouching phase, Mr Briffa used the dots (puntini) method, the parts that had come off requiring more retouching.
The final task consisted of colouring the mural painting. Natural watercolours were used, these having been considered by Mr Briffa as the best for restoration works. For the varnish treatment, he used light colori a vernici recommended for such cases.