21. Saint Chuckie

It felt like being on the set of a horror movie, with life-size figured just waiting to come to life and terrorize us all. But in reality, it was a field trip to the Bureau of Antiquities in Matera, a facility staffed by only four women, that restores damaged and deteriorating pieces of art from the entire Southern Italy region.

Most of these pieces come from churches damaged in the major earthquake of 1980, but others are stolen pieces recovered by the Italian police force dedicated to this purpose. (One cache was found wrapped in burlap and buried in a field.)

Each piece brings its own philosophical and technical questions, centered on the purpose of that particular restoration of that particular piece. Should a painting have its patches of lost pigment filled in, or left as is? Should A statue have a missing limb replaced? Often, the restorers seem to be undoing the work of previous restorers, which while well-intentioned, is no longer considered the proper way to proceed. In each case, a decision is made based on aesthetic and historic considerations.

My favorite was a statue of St. Rocco, which was being treated with the million little injections of chemicals to fight its extensive termite damage. A decision has been made to not replace the missing feet, but to leave as is.

The task seems Sisyphean, considering the centuries of artworks in the thousands of churches here. And funding, judging by those four ladies working away at it, seems totally inadequate to the task. One of the other program participants and I inquired if it would be possible for us to come next year as volunteers, and just work in that facility. I was also thinking it would be a fantastic placement for a student looking for a summer internship in art history, or a year-long fellowship after graduation. But sadly, we were told it would not be possible to navigate the Italian bureaucracy to allow that to happen.

So the statues sit, waiting, to take their revenge. Not by hacking us to death while we sleep, but by slowly rotting away.

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