Wooden sculptures of St. Peter and St. Paul adorn the main altar of St. Peter's church in Trogir. They were made by Venetian woodcarvers of the Seicento and are now among the most beautiful Baroque wooden sculptures in Dalmatia. Both have been conservated twice in the Croatian Conservation Institute: before St. Peter was displayed in the exhibition "Tesori della Croazia" in Venice in 2001, and in 2007.
Introductory notes on the sculptures
Until the end of the 18th century, the church of St. Peter in Trogir belonged to a convent of Benedictine nuns. One of three convents of the Benedictine order in the town of Trogir, this one housed daughters from noble families. Tradition has it that it was established by the Croatian-Hungarian Queen Mary, wife of Bela IV, who stayed in Trogir while seeking refuge from the Tartars in 1242. The church was extended and modified in several phases: from the first phase of the early mediaeval cult, through the 15th and 16th centuries, when the torso of St. Peter above the main portal was made by Nikola Firentinac (Nicholas of Florence). The last alteration has been dated to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the church was furbished with altars and organ. Its Baroque appearance has been preserved to date.
The main altar is adorned with Baroque wooden sculptures of Sts. Peter and Paul. They form a frame for the monumental gilded wooden tabernacle. The tabernacle, of the aedicule type, features spirally twisted columns, a dome decorated with hermai and a painted depiction of the Resurrection of Christ on the door leaves – a copy of Tintoretto's work of the same title.
The sculptures of St. Peter and St. Paul are positioned on either side of the tabernacle. They are life-sized, standing in a contrapposto position, on top of low prismatic pedestals. The saints are dressed in long gilded robes and mantles, which leave their ankles and sandalled feet uncovered. The robes and mantles are decorated with shapes of leaves and flowers composed of punched circles, and with red and black flowers drawn along the hems. In his left hand, St. Peter holds the keys and a closed Gospel. St. Paul has a large sword in his right hand, and in his left hand he also holds the Gospel.
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The first author who wrote about the sculptures was Kruno Prijatelj, who described them as the most beautiful Baroque wooden sculptures in Dalmatia, emphasizing their suggestive nature and naturalistic feel. He attributed them to the Venetian workshops of the middle of the 17th century, somewhere between Alessandro Vittoria and Giusto Le Court. The characteristic folds with their pronounced plasticity and autonomous undulation, firm bodies with their prominent movement, and a certain pathos in the gestures and physiognomies, were expressions of the general spirit of the Seicento. They bring the statues closer to Venetian mannerist painting than to contemporary marble sculpture. Preserved contracts reveal that wooden sculptures were often made from drawings by famous painters of the Seicento.
"Tesori della Croazia"
An exhibition entitled "Tesori della Croazia" ("Treasures of Croatia") was set up in the church of San Barnaba in Venice. The works of art displayed came from central Dalmatia, particularly from the region of Trogir. One of the exhibited sculptures was that of St. Peter.
In 2001, the sculptures of St. Peter and St. Paul were brought to the premises of the then conservation workshop at the Split Department of Conservation. The plan was to subject both sculptures to conservation treatment, before the Venice exhibition. However, in the light of the complexity of the interventions and the short time limit, attention was focused on the sculpture of St. Peter, which was eventually displayed in Venice. On that occasion, in 2001, only the most essential interventions were made on the sculpture of St. Paul, consisting of stabilization of the wooden support and the painted coat.
Both sculptures were restored again in 2007, and on that occasion all the phases of conservation treatment initiated in 2001 were completed.
Conservation of St. Peter
The sculpture of St. Peter displayed visible traces of prior restoration, the chronology of which was established during the 2001 intervention.
When the sculpture was repaired for the first time, probably in the early 20th century, the prominent surfaces of the drapery were coated with thick reddish varnish with an admixture of bronze powder. This coat made the glittering appearance of the original gilding significantly darker. At the same time, the flesh-toned parts were coated with oil paint in a very pale pink tone. The pedestal, beard and hair were coated with brown oil paint. The reason for the overpaint might have been the damage to the original painted layer on the face. After the additional coat was removed, it became visible that the surface of the polychromy and the wood on the right-hand side of the saint's face was charred.
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The second repair, made later in the 20th century, consisted of a new coat of paint applied to the sculpture of St. Peter. The prominent sections of the drapery were once again coated with bronze paint. The flesh-toned parts received a partial ochre-orange coat with a thin layer of dark patina and varnish applied to the entire surface. In this new colour composition, the distinct locks of hair and beard were coated with greyish-brown oil paint. The pedestal was painted dark brown, with occasional black tone. The entire surface of the sculpture was covered with layers of wax of diverse thickness, caused by candles dripping over the sculpture.
When the sculpture was brought to the Croatian Conservation Institute, it displayed a range of unstable elements demanding urgent intervention. It is composed of several pieces of wood, and with time the joints had become loose. Fissures in the locations of the joints threatened to separate the sculpture into parts. The painted layer was also unstable in certain areas, threatening to fall off, while the bronze coating was severely oxidized. The entire surface was covered with a thick layer of surface impurities.
The stratigraphic analysis of a sample of the painted layer and test probing confirmed that the original polychromy and gilt were well preserved. For this reason, the goal of both interventions, in 2001 and in 2007, in addition to stabilizing the wood and the painted layer, was to remove all the overpaint and revive the original appearance of the sculpture.
The unstable areas of the painted layer were underglued, and the wood was consolidated. The detached elements of the wooden structure were glued together. The adhesive applied was bone glue, which was originally used for gluing together the wooden elements. Some joints could not be reattached because the pressure necessary to bring together the detached surfaces could have caused fracturing of the wood. Those joints were filled with inserted pieces of new wood, shaped to fit.
In both interventions, all the layers of overpaint were removed from the sculpture of St. Peter, both from the surface of the gilded drapery and from the saint's flesh. The overpaint was removed with a combination of chemical activity by solvents and additional mechanical cleaning.
Minimal reconstructions were made only where necessary to restore the functional stability of the sculpture and complete its contour. The charred surface on the right-hand side of the saint's face was reconstructed and retouched. The intervention on the sculpture of St. Peter was completed with the reconstruction of the gesso and retouching and reconstruction of the water gilding.
Conservation of St. Paul
The problems presented by the condition of the sculpture of St. Paul prior to its conservation corresponded to those presented by the sculpture of St. Peter. The main cause of instability was the separation of individual wooden elements, which were originally glued together with bone glue. The separation of elements of the support resulted in an unstable painted layer in the vicinity of the joints.
The same type of overpaint was found on St. Paul as on St. Peter. This came as no surprise, because the two sculptures formed a pair, and they had been treated the same in the repairs described above. The additional coats applied over the gilded surfaces had been discoloured, and the punched holes were filled with blackened dirt. Tiny drops of wax covered the gilding. Some elements of the wooden structure were missing in the area of the drapery and the pedestal. A number of small holes were visible over the whole surface of the drapery, caused by nails driven into the wood of the sculpture. The overall condition of the structure could be assessed as stable. In the places in which the painted layer was missing and the wood exposed, damage caused by woodworm could be observed. In such places, the wood was soft to the touch and dropping off.
In 2001, the treatment of the sculpture encompassed the following: stabilization of the painted layer and gilding with bone glue, consolidation of the wood with Polaroid B72 synthetic resin, and removal of surface impurities. Thereafter, the sculpture was returned to the church. In 2007, the sculpture of St. Paul was brought back to the workshop and subjected to a comprehensive conservation treatment.
Where necessary, the unstable areas of the painted layer, gilding and wood were underglued and consolidated again. The repeated need to underglue the painted coat was a consequence of the microclimatic conditions in which the sculpture had been kept. The detached elements of the wooden support were glued with bone glue. The largest fissure, on the right lateral side of the sculpture, had been filled with pieces of wood in previous restoration interventions. Some of the pieces had come from the sculpture itself, with visible traces of the original gilding, and they had been used by the craftsman to fill in the hole. On the surface, the fissure had been filled with a thick layer of gypsum. After the gypsum, inserted pieces of wood and accumulated dirt had been cleaned away, the fissure was carefully filled with pieces of new wood, shaped to fit.
As with the sculpture of St. Peter, in this case the surface impurities were also removed, together with the layers of wax and all the overpaint. The gesso was reconstructed in the places in which it had been damaged. The damage to the painted layer was retouched, and the damaged segments of the gilding reconstructed with gold leaf.
The restored sculptures of Sts. Peter and Paul are now adorning the main altar of St. Peter's church in Trogir. They frame the tabernacle and enrich the church interior with their excellent rendition and monumentality.
- Kruno Prijatelj, Barok u Dalmaciji, in: Barok u Hrvatskoj, Zagreb, 1982, 773.
- Zoraida Demori Staničić, Tesori della Croazia – Catalogue unit No. 26, Venice, 2001, 87-88.