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Wall Paintings: Studies and Conservation

Seminar_09_1The Department of Built Heritage of the Faculty for the Built Environment, University of Malta organised a two-day seminar on “Wall paintings: studies and conservation” on the 9th and 10th September 2009 in the Old University in Valletta. This seminar was an excellent opportunity to review the issues involved in the conservation of wall paintings in Malta and abroad, as well as to describe the study phases necessary to arrive at suitable and often innovative solutions. Two world-famous scholars, Prof.  Maria Perla Colombini from the University of Pisa (Italy), and Ms Sharon Cather from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (UK) featured as keynote speakers and introduced general issues specific to wall paintings. The peculiarity and the conservation challenges posed by local wall paintings were mostly presented by local conservators, who had undertaken extensive research Seminar_09_2in occasion of their degree dissertations in Conservation Studies. The local wall paintings presented during this seminar included the paintings at the Former Jesuits’ College (Valletta), an oil painting on stone by Giuseppe Calì in the Parish Church of Cospicua, the frescoes and wall paintings at St Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs, and the vault paintings in Our Lady of Victory (Valletta).  The seminar also included a final session featuring stakeholders other than conservation specialists, including curators from Heritage Malta and the St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum, the President of Din L’Art Ħelwa and a field archaeologist from the University of Malta. This final session was an occasion to present the perspective and concerns of these stakeholders who take care of important sites in Malta and who, at the same time, deal with issues such as management and public access.



Case Studies in the Conservation of Historic Buildings and Monuments in Malta


On the 15th and 16th November 2002, a seminar entitled "Case studies in the conservation of historic buildings and monuments in Malta" was organized by the Institute for Masonry and Construction Research, University of Malta, for the students attending the postgraduate course on Conservation Technology for Masonry Buildings. Undergraduate students attending the 5th year of the Architecture and Civil Engineering course at the University of Malta were also invited to attend.

Guest speakers at the seminar were local architects and civil engineers who are currently working on, or have recently completed, restoration and or/rehabilitation works on historic buildings in Malta. Speakers on the first day of the seminar included 5 architects working at the Restoration Unit of the Works Division, Ministry for Resources and Infrastructure: Arch. Norbert Gatt, Arch. Hermann Bonnici, Arch. Ivana Farrugia, Arch. Chanelle Busuttil and Arch. Amanda Degiovanni. Also taking part were Arch. Claude Borg from the Malta Centre for Restoration and Prof. Alex Torpiano, Director of the Institute for Masonry and Construction Research, University of Malta, representing aoM partnership.

stthomas1After a brief introduction to the seminar by Dr JoAnn Cassar, M.Sc. course co-ordinator, the floor was taken by Arch. Norbert Gatt, whose presentation was entitled "Rehabilitation of St Thomas Tower Battery." The talk commenced with an explanation of all the preliminary work which was carried out before the project could be initiated, including archival research, excavations to support historical evidence and surveys. Information was then given on the two main parts of the project: the restoration of the Tower itself (for which no use has yet been indicated) and the rehabilitation of the battery situated in front of the Tower.

victorialines1The next presentation was by Arch. Hermann Bonnici on the "Victoria Lines Rehabilitation." Here the audience was informed that this particular project concerned 12 km of fortifications which spread from Madliena to Fomm ir-Rih. Arch. Bonnici spoke about the preparatory work which was needed before the project could commence, including historical research, surveys, photographic documentation and the gathering of information on materials and techniques. Works currently in progress include cleaning, also to improve water flow which was being restricted due to the build-up of sand and soil in the stone channels. Work has also been carried out to reinstate parts of the fortifications which had collapsed, and for which most of the stones could be identified.

ball1Arch. Ivana Farrugia spoke about "Restoration of Sir Alexander Ball's Monument - an example of the multidisciplinary and multifaceted nature of restoration". This presentation explained the restoration of the monument, which was carried out as part of a larger project including the embellishment of the surrounding gardens. Emphasis was placed on the participation of a multidisciplinary team, which carried out the necessary preliminary work, including historical research, architectural surveys and laboratory tests. A conservative approach was taken throughout this project, in that it was decided not to completely hide the deterioration which had occurred.

salvatore1Another presentation along the same lines was that by Arch. Claude Borg on "The Salvatore Church (Kalkara) - a multidisciplinary project". This was a didactic project, which involved students for the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) and the Malta Centre for Restoration (MCR). Documentation was here emphasized as being an important part of the project. This included also laser scanning of the church resulting in the production of 3-D models. Other preliminary work included also the taking of core samples to verify the mode of construction of the church (and hence its structural stability) and the installation of crack monitors. Also presented was the work that was done in an attempt to save the badly deteriorated "deffun" coating on the roof. In the end, it was decided to replace this with a new coating, also made of "deffun" - the construction of this was explained in detail.

stelmo1Arch. Chanelle Busuttil spoke about "New Interventions on Historic Sites." This included works carried out at St. Elmo Examination Hall, the installation of a lift at the Palace of San Anton, repair work on the Wignacourt Aqueducts and the embellishment of the Lower Barrakka Gardens. The need to prevent the new additions from "competing" with the old buildings, whilst at the same time making sure that the new interventions are completely recognisable and also reversible was emphasised. In the case of the St. Elmo Examination Hall and the lift at San Anton Palace, this was achieved through the used of modern, lightweight materials. The building of a stone retaining wall at the Wignacourt Aqueducts and a preliminary design for new materials for pathways and services at the Lower Barrakka Gardens were also explained and discussed with the audience present.

castille1A move away from stone buildings to wooden roofing materials was made by the next speaker, Arch. Amanda Degiovanni, in the talk on "Conserving the material or Losing the craftsmanship". Two case studies were discussed: Ta' Braxia Chapel and Auberge de Castille. In the case of Ta' Braxia Chapel, where the roof consists of timber beams and stone slabs resting on masonry, it was pointed out that detailed, close-up inspection of the internal parts of the roof showed that the damage which appeared to be extensive from the outside was really confined to a few elements. An entomological expert was brought in, who confirmed that the damage was dormant, thus precluding the need to carry out extensive works on the site. In the case of Auberge de Castille, where serious damage had occurred to a load-bearing wooden beam, careful examination of the climatic conditions within the room showed that it was the unfortunate location of an air-conditioning unit, which was the cause of the problem. After carrying our careful restoration works on the damaged parts of the beam, advice was given to alter the conditions within the room to prevent the problem from recurring.

fortmanoel1The first day of the seminar was concluded by Prof. Alex Torpiano who gave a richly illustrated overview of the problems occurring at Fort Manoel. The various buildings and fortifications on Manoel Island were shown, and the problems associated with them explained. Whilst some of the damage was caused during the Second World War, much of the damage seen today is in fact due to neglect and vandalism. An interesting discussion followed on the concepts of "authenticity", "reversibility" and the use of new materials (should we?) when the old materials and techniques are still readily available. The need to preserve the old materials at all costs was challenged by the speaker, and then enthusiastically discussed by all present. This was a fitting conclusion to the first day of the seminar.

Day 2 was devoted entirely to presentations and discussions on the project for the Malta Stock Exchange Building in Valletta (the old Garrison Church at Castille Place). Speakers included Arch. David Felice, Arch. Joanna Spiteri Staines and Project Manager Arch. Emilio Sacco, all from Architecture Project (AP). Also participating in the seminar were Mr Gaetano Lauricella, from Peter Cox (Italia), who executed the works on the timber truss, and Professor Franco Laner, Professor in "Tecnologia dell'architettura" from the Dipartimento di Costruzione dell'architettura, University of Venice, who was consultant to Peter Cox on the timber works at the Stock Exchange.

The first speaker was Arch. David Felice who explained the background to the Stock Exchange project, including the history of the building itself. It was explained how the Development Brief changed along the way, resulting in concepts and ideas also changing with time. What was required in the end was to provide mainly office space for a maximum number of 70 persons in a building that was to extend vertically rather than horizontally. One initial important decision which took place was that of having a passive environmental control system in the building - this stemmed mainly from the fact that there was no room to house equipment on the (sloping) roof.

stockexchange1This presentation was followed by that of Arch. Joanna Spiteri Staines. Speaking about the roof, she explained that there were serious loading problems, as this was originally made of slate, which was later covered with 10cm of "deffun". This caused serious problems of loading on the timber truss beneath. The works carried out on the wooden truss were then explained by Gaetano Lauricella. He spoke of 3 main problems concerning the roof: the need to repair the heads of the beams, which were seriously deteriorated, the need to strengthen the structure and the necessity to insert a skylight. The technicalities involved in the carrying out these three interventions were explained in detail, with many illustrations of the work in progress. An interesting talk by Arch. Emilio Sacco, Project Manager, on  "Making it all work on site" explained the practical difficulties which had to be faced in the day-to-day work, such as the introduction of large and heavy machinery, including cranes and excavating machines, into a small building with small apertures and which was already roofed.

The last presentation was by Prof. Laner on "Techniques for the restoration of timber". The speaker gave an overview of the use of wood in a remarkable variety of structures, which is possible only because of the intrinsic properties of this material. Various problems associated with damage to wood were also explained. The point was however made that, in his opinion, in the case of wooden structures, it is perfectly legitimate to replace rotten parts of a wooden structure, using the same materials and the same techniques. He emphasised that we should be attached to the concept rather than to the material. It was also necessary, however, to treat each situation that arose on a case-by-case basis.

After a stimulating discussion in which many of the members of the audience participated, closing remarks on the seminar were made by Prof. Alex Torpiano, Director of the Institute for Masonry and Construction Research. It was augured that other similar fora for discussion would be organised in the near future.


Next Courses

The following courses are due to open in October 2018:

M.Sc. in Conservation of Decorative Architectural Surfaces 

(Preparatory Programme).

Last Updated: 7 November 2011

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