This week’s dream
Restoring frescoes in the Italian countryside
The last time I visited southern Italy, I had real work to do, said Ben Yagoda in The Washington Post. “That someone like me—well-meaning but completely unskilled”—could find myself restoring a 15th-century fresco in a cave church surprised even me. But thanks to a Puglia native who has devoted himself to preserving the region’s culture, paying novices like me and my wife have been joining summer workshops and scraping away at these priceless treasures for 20 years. Fourteen of us stayed together for two weeks in a four-story townhouse in Gravina, eating meals prepared by the family that runs the program. The work, though slow, was gratifying, and “equally so” was the chance to settle into the rhythms of humble, charming Gravina.
Without the brief training we received, I would have been worried about taking a scalpel blade to a 600-year-old depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. But Tonio Creanza, the founder of the program, had first taken us to a farmhouse studio to show us how to make our own frescoes. As I applied pigments to the wet plaster, I realized why the old murals are so durable: The painting is part of the wall itself. But in the cave churches where we worked, moisture causes a buildup of calcium deposits. Chipping away at them was often slow work, but the results could be dramatic. One day, my wife, Gigi, scraped and scraped at a patch of wall in a large cave church layered with Byzantine frescoes. Only when she stepped back did she realize she had uncovered an image of a bird.
Gravina proved “the perfect town to spend a couple of weeks in.” On the days we worked, we woke to the sound of church bells, spent our morning in the caves, and then returned for lunch—perhaps seafood risotto with stuffed fried zucchini flowers. Easy afternoons were followed by another great meal. Early on during our stay, we happened on an elderly couple selling green figs from their garden, paid almost nothing for three, and were given five. Several days later, the same couple was selling tomatoes. I paid the man for a kilo and had to stop him from throwing in more.
Creanza’s organization (messors.com) offers an all-inclusive two-week workshop for $3,420 per person.