A New Miracle at Santa Maria in Vado

Written by  Anna Maria Iannucci
Thanks to the efforts of the Monuments and Fine Arts office and the Foundation, one of Ferrara' s favourite places of worship is to reopen.
An ancient and venerated place of worship since the miracle of the blood in late Medieval times, the church of Santa Maria stood at a point where the Po could be crossed, hence the name Santa Maria "del Vado" (from the dialect Italian meaning "the ford").

Under the domination of the Este family (1264 to 1598), Ferrara rose to become a city of enormous prestige, thanks to a major construction programme including the erection of defences and a rapid series of additions to the town itself. It was in this period that Santa Maria in Vado "changed address" when Ercole I d'Este ordered work to begin on the building of the new Basilica in 1495. The renowned architect of the Este court Biagio Rossetti is recorded as being the master of works for the new church, designed by Ercole de' Roberti. Over the years the construction site attracted a succession of different architects and artists, including Alessandro Balbi, who in 1594 oversaw the reconstruction of the Cappella del Preziosissimo Sangue.

The earthquake of 1570 made urgent repairs necessary and the work led to a modification in the Renaissance aspect of the basilica, especially as a result of the construction of the coffered ceiling, in which were set seven large canvases by Carlo Bonomi, Domenico Monio and Giulio Cromer, painted between 1617 and 1621. The works by Grassaleoni, Faccini, Casali and Bonomi, who created the absidal semi-dome, also date from that period.
The weakness of the foundations of the left hand colonnade nearly led to a complete collapse in 1829. Faced by this emergency the municipal engineer Giovanni Tosi ordered the reconstruction of the threatened part, a task that also involved redoing the decorations; but despite this the transept was left badly weakened and, between 1920 and 1924, repairs were made under the aegis of the Dept of Monuments and Fine Arts of Ravenna.

These various repairs and modifications, having changed the Renaissance façade, led to the current definition of the architecture, the spaces and the decorative areas, with the result that Santa Maria in Vado became a remarkably dense concentration of art in which architecture, painting and ornamentation were all closely linked.
The state of conservation of the church, especially of the roof, has always been a source of worry - especially owing to the sheer size of the surfaces involved - as is borne out by the partial repairs made between 1948 and 1994.

The deterioration of the roof has also had a deleterious effect on the ceilings. In 1993 the painful decision to close the church to the public had to be made as chunks of plaster were beginning to detach themselves from the ceiling while a part of the roof around the bell-tower collapsed. Happily, the bell-tower was rapidly reconstructed with the aid of government funds. But the ceilings and the paintings (tempera over lime) were sodden with damp owing to the water leaking through the roof.

As a consequence of this the surface of the paintings was peeling off while whole sections of plaster were coming away from the ceiling. The large oil paintings set into the ceiling were badly marked and stained while the colours were fading and they had to be taken down for the various phases of cleaning, consolidation and restoration.

In carrying on its traditional support for all work intended to safeguard the city of Ferrara's cultural heritage, the financial help of the Fondazione della Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara, in agreement with the Italian government, has made it possible to undertake the restoration of the Basilica. So far, this work has been carried out in two stages that have once more rendered usable the transept, the presbytery and the Cappella del Preziosissimo Sangue, the principal area of worship.

But the dimensions of the church are such that the restoration carried out so far represents only a fraction of what needs to be done: both the Fondazione and the department of Monuments and Fine Arts have expressed their mutual intention to carry on the task and have set themselves the objective of a complete restoration of Santa Maria in Vado to be completed early in the coming century.

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