The Hall of Alexander VII Chigi: a 75m-long triumph of art and architecture inside the Quirinal Palace in Rome, official residence of the president of the Italian Republic. This September (2011) it will be opening to the public following a restoration project that has lasted more than 10 years and has so far cost €2 million.
Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), the baroque artist mostly famous for frescoes in Palazzo Pitti (Florence), Palazzo Barberini (Rome) and Palazzo Pamphilij (piazza Navona, Rome), was the grand designer of the interior of the hall in 1656-1657. The Black Death may have been raging outside, but inside the Quirinal Palace, da Cortona created colourful Biblical scenes and monochrome trompe d’oeil scenery of columns, 17th century cityscapes, statues and nature.
A century and a half went by – and then came Napoleon Bonaparte. He never got as far as Rome himself, but in 1808 his guards entered the Quirinal Palace and the Pope in residence was eventually ejected. By 1811 Napoleon ordered the redecoration of the palace as his own residence. The Galleria Alessandro VII Chigi (named after Pope Alexander VII) was redesigned (under the guidance of architect Raphael Stern) as the quarters of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria.
So what was once an imposing hall, 75m long and decorated by one of the masters of 17th century baroque fresco, was transformed into three consecutive chambers, one painted almost entirely egg-yolk yellow, much of the original frescoes painted over and most of the elegant windows overlooking the courtyard boarded up. Napoleon had, in a word, ruined one of the most splendid official halls in Rome.
His crimes against art included painting over Pietro da Cortona’s elegant monochrome scenes, leaving many of da Cortona’s columns crudely truncated, dividing up a wonderful space into three smaller chambers thus removing the Biblical frescoes from their sequence and – perhaps worst of all – shutting out much of the natural light.
Almost 200 years go by before another all-conquering invader comes along to leave its mark on the Quirinal Palace. This time the invader is no human, but electricity – new safety standards at the end of the 20th century mean that Galleria Alessandro VII needs to be renovated and rewired.
So in 2000 the work began, financed by the Soprintendenza Speciale for Rome’s museums and heritage (the second phase of work in 2011 is being funded to the tune of €500,000 by the Bracco Foundation). Art historian Rossella Vodret, together with Louis Godart, artistic heritage conservation adviser to the President of the Republic, set out to restore the hall to its 17th century glory.
The windows overlooking the courtyard are opened and restored. In some cases the original 17th century wooden blinds and baked terracotta floor tiles in yellow and red can still be seen. The recent restorations haven’t attempted to remove the partitions dividing the hall into three – so it remains separated into the Yellow Hall, the Hall of Augustus and the Hall of Ambassadors (where there is still considerable work to be done by September when it will open to the public).
The team of restorers were able to carefully remove the layers of post-17th century paint to reveal the original designs. Pietro da Cortona’s art was then restored with the help of the artist’s original design plans, which are held in the Kunstbibliothek, or Art Library, in Berlin.
According to Rossella Vodret, it is likely that Pietro da Cortona did not paint the room himself. She says: “The project is more likely to have been directed and designed by him. Some of the monochrome paintings are, however, so wonderful, we asked ourselves if Pietro da Cortona might have done them personally.”
Some of the details that have been uncovered and restored include an oval plaque showing a scene of piazza del Popolo including the gate designed by Bernini and the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, home to the Chigi family chapel.
Louis Godart points out a curiosity to some of the journalists assembled at the palace in April: on one of the 17th century wooden window blinds, there is some faint writing. The team noticed it when they were restoring the window. The flamboyant hand-writing says: “Help me, I am a prisoner here.” Was someone once held captive there? Could it be the writing of a Pope? Or of a child? We will probably never know.
The slideshow below shows some before and after shots of Galleria Alessandro VII Chigi: