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RESTORATION OF THE BRAMANTE COURTYARD
At the request of Pope Julius II, Architect Donato Bramante began his great project in 1504 to construct a theatrical space with a dramatic façade and staircase upon the available terrain within the villa on Vatican Hill. His design was intended to integrate nature, provide access to the most beloved antique statues, and offer a serene walk throughout the rest of the palace. Over time, modifications altered Bramante’s original design, such as when the medieval palace next to St. Peter’s needed to connect to the Villa Belvedere atop the hill.
Today, the Courtyard’s four façades are still among those that have remained quintessential in defining renaissance architecture, and are at last being restored according to techniques used at the time of their conception and construction. The most distinctive section the Courtyard, the Wall of the Nicchione, is part of the northern façade of the Bramante Courtyard. Its construction commenced under the building direction of Pirro Ligorio at the request of Pope Pius IV (Medici 1560-65), and received its large hemispherical niche during the papacy of Clement IX (Albani, 1700-1721). It is here where the large, 4-meter high bronze Pinecone, originally located in the Campus Martiusand later in the atrium of the old St. Peter’s Basilica, stately resides in its niche, providing the alternative namesake, The Pinecone Courtyard.
State of preservation
Over the course of hundreds of years, the walls of the Bramante Courtyard exposed to all weather conditions suffered much damage aesthetically and integrally. One of the major previous attempts at restoring the courtyard was in 1957. Unfortunately, the walls were hardly renovated; instead, the entire surface area was painted over in a muted yellow hue to mask the damaged areas.
Lamentably, the weakened areas became more feeble still. Different parts of the building suffered from fragmentation and falling debris, which, in turn, endangers the six million visitors that every year walk through and nearby these famous architectural elements. For many years, the four sides were closed off with provisional barriers to protect the visitors, who resultantly could only view the architecture and sculptures from a distance.
Direct observation of the surface’s health confirmed that which was intuitive from ground level: the finishes on the upper areas of the edifice were subjected to greater stress due to erosion and serious drainage problems. The latter issues needed to be addressed simultaneously to protect the collections that would be vulnerable to leaks in the fragile roof.
Extensive investigation went underway to determine the definitive color. Upon research and analysis of the original wall and plaster layers, it was found that Bramante’s façade was originally a Travertine white. Travertine is actually not a “color” but a “concept” of many layers of plaster bonded strategically together. Whereas the previous interventions in the 20th century were neither loyal to classical methods nor characteristically archival, the chosen restoration plan would faithful to the original architectural techniques of Bramante in the early 16th century. The exterior layers of plaster applied in the Travertine method would transmute into part of the original structure of the wall. This technique, combined with elimination of any synthetic materials would together facilitate that all inevitable future wear and aging would occur gracefully and uniformly, without buckling or cracking.
The fundamental goal of the restoration is to bring the Courtyard back to its original state as Bramante intended. This involves cleaning and removing residues of previous treatments, deep superficial consolidations and integration of the missing and degraded parts, removal of plaster, restoration to its original state, finishing the surface with mainly traditional materials, reconstructing the drainage lines and overhauling the roof, reclamation of the water systems, and installing a new lighting system.
Work began with three smaller “pilot” sections in order to confirm a more accurate cost analysis for the entire courtyard. At the conclusion of the pilot sections’ restoration, conservation went underway for the Wall of the Nicchione in September 2016. Restoring this section was not limited to the hemispherical niche, but rather includes all facades of the north face. In working on this labor-intensive section of over three thousand square meters, it was evident that in addition to the façade, the antique wooden structures also required much attention and conservation.
The repairs and consolidations executed in the pilot sections were analogous in nature to those in the entire surface. The extent of degradation in these sections confirmed the magnitude of work necessary for the whole. Also, the effort required to work on the pilot sites was congruent with and largely confirmed the preliminary cost and timing estimates for the entire Courtyard.
To date the entire surface area of the Wall of the Nicchione is reinforced and consolidated. And completion of applying the travertine technique will continue over the entire surface area. In the same manner of the Wall of the Nicchione, restoration will proceed similarly for the other three alls: the Ancient Library Gallery, the Braccio Nuovo, and the Chiaramonti Gallery.
The restoration project of the Bramante Courtyard will not only return the courtyard walls to its original travertine cream color, but it also focuses also on recovering the original spirit of the overall design that the Architect Donato Bramante had in mind. He intended one of the wings of the Bramante’s courtyard to be one long rooftop terrace for the Pope to stroll with a commanding view of both the wonderful cityscape of ancient Rome but also the Vatican gardens. This project seeks to restore its crowning jewel: the restoration of the antique portal of the Etruscan Museum that opened up to the rooftop terrace passageway that once connected the Belvedere Villa with the Apostolic Palace.
There is still about three years of work estimated for the rest of the courtyard, at the end of which will involve completely new lighting and security systems. The project also envisages a revised layout for the entire courtyard, beginning with a trial implementation with the north face following its restoration. In particular, the location of the on-site Egyptian statues and monuments will be modified, after the new lighting systems are in place. These renovations and modifications will ensure that for years to come, the millions of museum goers will be able to safely enjoy and fully savor the beauty of the Courtyard and that of the collections lying there within.
The Italian & International Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums have chosen to support the Restoration of the Bramante Courtyard.