Before moving to France I ran my own historic preservation business. To make ends meet I took lots of different jobs: historic research, building investigations, conditions’ assessments and lighting design. To be honest, anything that got me into an old building made me happy, so I enjoyed all of these tasks. But nothing was more fun than a paint analysis project. To be part of the process in which a building casts off its ghostly white shroud to regain its original appearance is really a treat.
For a paint analysis project I took small samples from historic buildings and studied them microscopically to determine how they had been painted originally. I noted the sequence of paint layers and matched the significant colors to an industry-accepted standard. When the investigation was finished I would recommend an appropriate palette for repainting, with the goal of returning this:
|The Kreischer Mansion, Staten Island, New York.|
Europe has gone through similar periods of embracing color and then turning against it. But because the buildings here are so much older, the pattern has been repeated more than once. This is particularly true in churches, where, despite revolutions and rising damp, it’s still possible to find painted decoration that dates to the 11th and 12th centuries. Here too the use of color ultimatley fell out of fashion, and because the walls had often become black with candle soot, many church interiors were whitewashed, concealing, though not always destroying, the original decoration.
|Original 12th century decoration |
at Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe
And now dust, sooty candles and diesel fumes have once again turned those colorful interiors black, and once again, many churches are being restored. As part of the restoration of the Cathedral of Saint André here in Bordeaux, the 1860 paint scheme is being painstakingly recreated. Not only are the allegorical paintings in the chapels being restored, but also the brightly-colored patterns that once decorated the walls, columns and vaults.**
When we visited last month the restoration of the choir had been completed and most of the ambulatory ceiling had been cleaned and restored. What was once a dark and dismal space is now breathtakingly luminous.
|The newly restored choir|
|Detail of the faux marbre decoration|
|Recently restored ambulatory|
For a link to a detailed article (in English) on the restoration of Chartres, including a video (in French) click here.
For a map that shows the locations of the painted churches in these posts, click here.
**It appears that Saint André may have been on the cutting edge of 19th century decorative practice. When the chapel walls were cleaned during the first phase of the restoration work, it was discovered that thin sheets of silver metal had been used in selected locations to provide additional brilliance. This turned out to be aluminum leaf, which at the time was almost prohibitively expensive. It’s use at St. André is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, uses of the material in a decorative capacity.
As mining and smelting practices improved, the price of aluminum fell. However, in 1884, when it was chosen to crown the tip of the Washington Monument, aluminum still cost about $1 an ounce, roughly equivalent to a laborer's wages for one day.