Saving the treasure of the past: now and forever

From ancient statues and medieval altarpieces to 19th-century paintings and theatrical costumes. Silvia Foschi, co-ordinator of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Restoration Programme, tells Giulia Rhodes why the private sector must help shoulder the cost of preserving Italy’s artistic inheritance

Giulia Rhodes


The Cavaliere of Marafioti, a mounted horseman atop a winged sphinx, is 2,500 years old. The terracotta statue – almost a metre-and-a-half in height – is one of the extraordinary artistic treasures left behind by the Greek colonisation of southern Italy from the end of the 5th century BC.

This month, fresh from a two-year restoration project, it will go on display at Milan’s Gallerie d’Italia before returning to its home at the Museum of Reggio Calabria in July.

The Cavaliere is among 150 artworks featured in the latest tranche of Intesa Sanpaolo’s conservation scheme. For Silvia Foschi, its co-ordinator, choosing favourites is difficult, but she admits that this – the oldest piece – has “a special place in my heart”.

In 1911, the distinguished Italian archaeologist Paolo Orsi discovered the site of the ancient temple of Marafioti in Calabria, painstakingly reassembling the Cavaliere from more than 180 fragments of terracotta.

In recent times, explains Foschi, stop-gap repairs were unable to keep the statue’s decline in check. “The materials were suffering. It was extremely delicate. It was in dire need,” she says.

Since its inception in 1989, the Restituzioni programme has overseen the restoration of more than 1,000 such publically-owned treasures.

“Our Italian artistic heritage is enormous, spanning almost 30 centuries, covering the entire peninsular and hugely varied in material and technique. Works of art are not only in our museums but everywhere – in our churches, archaeological sites and streets.”

This incredible work comes with a hefty price tag. One the private sector – especially in difficult economic times – must share, she says. “This is not perhaps what people expect from a bank, but this heritage belongs to us all. There is a pressing need to preserve, value and safeguard it for this and future generations.”

Projects are run through partnerships between specialist state bodies and museums, and the bank’s dedicated team. “It is a very respectful collaboration. We never try to take the place of the experts,” says Foschi.

It is they who choose the works and the best-qualified restoration studios, before the bank assumes responsibility for organising and financing the work.

“We are guided by need, not by potential visibility for the bank. It is not hard to find sponsors for the Sistine Chapel, but we want to give a future to works which reflect variety, which have great value in their own areas – though they may not be the most famous.”

The programme aims to expand awareness of the country’s rich artistic oeuvre within Italy and beyond.

It includes not only pieces which have come into Italian hands from overseas, but also – for the first time this year – international works. Three bas-reliefs in the Slovak town of Banská Štiavnica show how the programme’s sphere of operation is growing alongside that of the bank itself. “Each territory – be it region or state – has an identity and a history which must be saved,” says Foschi.

Every two years, an exhibition, catalogue and website share the works with as wide an audience as possible. “Everything we restore must be available for public viewing, even after our exhibition. It is not to be returned to archives.”



PIETER PAUL RUBENS (Siegen, 1577 – Anversa, 1640)
The Resurrection of Christ, 1615-1616 ca.
oil on canvas
Firenze, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti

Investment in the range of specialist restoration skills – genres in this year’s exhibition include painting, altarpieces, fresco, sculpture, mosaic and costume – will help support an internationally-renowned Italian industry which has been hit hard by recession.

Engaging schools and students with the programme is particularly important, adds Foschi, providing inspiration for future generations to enjoy, produce and conserve art.

“We have a huge patrimony in need of preservation. It is an inheritance – culturally and also financially – for our descendants and we must not risk it,” she says. “This task – from which we are learning new things all the time – will never be finished.”


The Cavaliere of Marafioti was restored in a studio open to the public in Reggio Calabria. At the Gallerie d’Italia, visitors to the Restituzioni exhibition can enjoy another work in progress.


When maintenance work began on the floor of the nearby church of San Pietro all’Olmo in 2005, excavators unearthed pieces of painted stone. Eventually around 10,000 fragments were recovered.


They were, explains Foschi, the shattered remains of “a beautiful cycle of medieval frescoes, extremely rare in Lombardy”. At the start of the 11th century an earthquake destroyed an earlier church on the site. The rubble was used in the foundations of its replacement.


Behind glass walls in a bright studio, restoration experts are engaged in a vast and intricate jigsaw puzzle. Huge tables are spread with stone fragments while the rest lie in countless boxes.


“Imagine trying to work this out,” says Foschi. “The pieces are tiny, there are no photos. Slowly, slowly they are putting the scenes together. It is incredible work which deserves to be seen.”


The Restituzioni exhibition runs from April 1-July 17, Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan.



Cover photo:
Young Horseman (Dioskouros?) atop a Sphinx, known as the “Marafioti Horseman”
420–400 BCE
all-round statue group, polychrome terracotta (traces of colour)
from Locri (Reggio Calabria), Marafioti, Greek temple, 1910 excavation
Reggio Calabria, Museo Archeologico Nazionale


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