The painting works within the matroneum was supervised – just like with the dais – by Anna Mossler. Part of the team did not change either – some liked the work in Aula so much that they worked here for another year. Most of the team was composed of conservators from Kraków and Toruń, who had to move to Wrocław for a few months, leaving behind their family and private lives. Unfortunately, this is the price you have to pay for the willingness to work on such extraordinary objects located so far away from your home.
The biggest challenge was the conservation of the coping painting. A few, sometimes even a dozen of people worked for 6 or 7 days a week. The conservators spent between 8 to 14 hours a day on scaffoldings.
While most of the team worked from scaffoldings on the coping or the balustrade, several people worked on window recess paintings.
Conservators of works of art dealing with, for instance, paintings, often have a specialisation. This is particularly important in the case of aesthetic conservation, i.e. reconstruction of some fragments. Some specialise in plant ornaments, other in illusionistic architecture and other in drapery or gilding. For this reason, while recreating one figure, several or – depending on the needs and size of the area that requires reconstruction – even a dozen people work on it in total.
The work of an art conservator, and incredibly a specialist in coping paintings, requires – contrary to popular belief – enormous strength and persistence. Conservators spend most of the time standing with their heads and arms raised.
Analysing iconographic materials can provide a short break after many hours of work on coping. Although it is not a physical but intellectual work, it allows you to “catch a breath”.
In this case, the lying position had nothing to do with leisure. Sometimes it was the only way to get a full view of a fragment of a painting, in order to compare it with the archival paper photo or – as in this case – a digital version.
Everyone has their ways of coping. Various platforms, ladders, and sometimes a regular bucket turned upside down can be proven helpful. After several hours of work in a position shown in the photo, the spine and many muscles are at risk of damage, fortunately, the art conservators know how to deal with it.
Before the conservators could start the structural conservation, including works such as cleaning the painting, they had to evaluate it first and then choose the most appropriate technique. With the experience gained from the work on the dais area, i.e. knowing what techniques were used in previous conservation works, and knowing how to immediately differentiate the original fragments made by Handke from re-paintings made in later years, the preparatory work within the matroneum area did not take too much time.
One of the first stages of structural conservation was cleaning the painting from surface dirt.
Structural conservation also includes works such as desalination of the painting with a special pulp [white fragment in the central part of the photo]. Since Aula’s decoration was created nearly 300 years ago, some areas of the painting were so weak that they powdered even when lightly touched. To keep as much of the original painting as possible, in many cases it was necessary to apply special strengthening compresses [semi-transparent patches placed below the pulp]. Special glue contained in the compresses penetrated the painting, resulting in its strengthening. After removal of the compresses, the paintings could be safely treated with another conservatory processes.
The work of an art conservator requires silence, focus and great concentration. It is also easier and faster in a good team, where you can always ask for advice or support. Although it may seem that more people could fit on the scaffolding, there cannot be too many of them because they would interrupt each other’s work. For this reason, the conservators often worked in two shifts. The first group that would go to work was called “early birds”, and the other “night owls”.
The work of an art conservator requires artistic talent and construction skills. They are particularly useful, for instance, when – as in the situation captured in the photo – it is necessary to save falling parget, on which the original painting is preserved.
Construction tools are useful at almost every stage of the works. When all fragments of the painting are evaluated, the conservators can start with the removal of re-paintings and all kinds of fillings. On the coping above the matroneum, there were a lot of them, and most of them were made after the war in the ‘50s and ‘70s of 20th century, especially in places where – due to the bombing – the parget fell off. Fragments that required removal were marked by conservators, among others, like in the upper-left corner of the photo.
During their work, the conservators are exposed to many inconveniences. One of them is dust that is made during or after the preparation of the surface for reconstruction. In these situations, work is only possible with masks and protective goggles. Some also put hats, scarves or foil on their heads to protect their hair from damage.
Within the matroneum, there are fewer sculptures and mouldings than on the podium, so the specialists in this field could work a little bit more calmly than those who worked on paintings. Those pieces of art above the matroneum, were in much worse condition than those above the dais.
In many conservators’ opinions, the most interesting moment is the stage of aesthetic conservation, including, for instance, reconstruction of decorations in areas where the original material was lost. This is where remarkable art skills come in handy. Usually, there is no room for improvisation because it is necessary to recreate what was originally presented. For this purpose, photos are beneficial. Unfortunately, there were not too many.
Detailed reconstruction was required, for instance, for Wrocław’s coat of arms placed next to the personification of Wratislavia. In this case, photographs were used not only to sketch individual elements, but also to make stencils in 1:1 scale, based on zoomed-in images.
One of the last stages is watching the paintings from the right perspective. Unfortunately, it is not possible while the scaffolding is still standing there. One way to overcome this problem is to go under the scaffolding and watch the paintings through a small hole created after sliding the platform.
Translated by Inga Schulz (student of English Studies at the University of Wrocław) as part of the translation practice.