Barracks or convent ?

Written by  Giovanni Lamborghini

A shorth istory of the church of San Guglielmo and its frescosA prtion of the frescoes removed from the convent of San Guglielmo: Saint Francis receives the stygmata

One of the oldest monastic settlements in Ferrara, the San Guglielmo monastery, once stood where the Palestro Barracks stands today. Monks started living there in 1250, and built a Romanesque style church in 1354. The fresco entitled La Preghiera nell'Orto [the prayer in the garden] may date back to this time. Carlo Volpe attributes this fresco to the Maestro di Verucchio and it can now be seen in Casa Romei picture gallery. The monastery was further enlarged in the middle of the XIV century, with significant decorative work being carried out under the patronage of Niccolò II of Este. In 1621 Guarini reminds us that the San Guglielmo monastery, the oldest in the province, also became "the biggest and most magnificent". San Guglielmo was closed at the time of the Napoleonic suppressions in June 1798, and made over into a barracks.I Santi Gismonda, Tommaso e Libera damaged during the war (Photo Archive of Soprintendenza P.S.A.E. di Bologna, file Casa Romei). The church, by then was deconsecrated, was stripped of all its altar-pieces in 1832 and the sacred furnishings were sold off. The building was actually used as a cattle shed. It was then sold to the army in 1885 who expanded it to use it as a barracks. We have no news of the precious fresco work until the Bologna heritage office requested the historic buildings' inspector, Arturo Figlioli, to make an initial inspection in April 1931. He sent a brief report giving an account of the state of disrepair of the walls, where traces of frescos were found but were hard to read as they were covered by layers of limewash. By 1933, nothing further had been done; however, the fresco seemed to have taken on considerable importance as the municipality decided to detach it at its own expense even though funds were scarce in those years. The planI Santi Gismonda, Tommaso e Libera (Photo Archive of Soprintendenza P.S.A.E. di Bologna, file Casa Romei) how it is exhibited today, after restoration, at Casa Romei. was to show it at the renaissance exhibition as can be noted from a note sent to the heritage office from Renzo Ravenna, the podesta of Ferrara and chairman of the Ariosto centenary celebrations committee. The municipality was able to avail of considerable financial assistance to launch the famous Ferrara renaissance exhibition thanks to Italo Balbo's help. The minister included the San Guglielmo fresco among the list of works to be presented at the exhibition, and a note by the podesta of Ferrara informs us that Mauro Pelliccioli, the famous restorer from Milan, was put in charge of restoration operations. Clearly, the municipality found itself having to deal with a good deal of red tape to detach the fresco, which is never described, but theLa preentazione al tempio damaged during the war (Photo Archive of Soprintendenza P.S.A.E. di Bologna, file Casa Romei). authorisations probably did not arrive in time for the exhibition which was to be held between May and October 1933, and there is no sign of the San Guglielmo frescos. The files of the time are silent on the matter and we don't know whether the fresco was detached at that stage or not. According to the files in the Ravenna heritage office, it seems that the three panels known as La Presentazione al Tempio [Presentation at the Temple], I santi Tomaso Gismonda e Libera [Saints Thomas, Gismonda and Libera] and San Francesco riceve le stimmate [St. Francis receives the stigmata] were detached from San Guglielmo in 1933 but this could not be confirmed and the restoration dates were also unavailable. The frescos can be now seen at the Casa Romei museum. We need to go forward to May 1947 when a list of paintings was drawn up by the secretary of the Ferrara picture gallery. Our frescoes were mentioned as having suffered damage from the violentLa preentazione al tempio (Photo Archive of Soprintendenza P.S.A.E. di Bologna, file Casa Romei) how it is exhibited today, after restoration, at Casa Romei. bombings of 1944 and pictures were published showing the damage caused by the war - wide gashes, loss of colour and damage to the frame. They were then restored by Alessio Verri from Bologna. The bombs that fell in 1944 also hit San Guglielmo which had been transformed into the Teatro del Soldato ["Soldier's Theatre"] in the meantime, causing the roof to cave in. This brought other elements of the artwork to light: the fresco La Preghiera nell'Orto [The prayer in the garden]. Ferrariae Decus and the provincial tourist board took steps to get the pictures detached and Arturo Raffaldini, the celebrated restorer, was put in charge. However the files from the Bologna heritage office tell us that the restorer and the authorities found it very difficult to make on-site inspections due to opposition form the military authorities. They only finished putting up the scaffolding for the fresco detachment work on 11 January 1951, when Raffaldini started work. It took him a few months of full-time work to complete the detachment, and the frescos mounted on a frame were taken to the picture gallery by Gualtiero Medri in July 1951. Since there is no evidence providing even a minimum description of the subjects in theThe restored portions  of the Cricifixion on permanent display at casa Romei. pictures, we can just deduce that they are the frescos known as the Crocifissione [Crucifixion] and La Preghiera nell'Orto [The prayer in the garden]. Due to the decision by the military authorities to demolish the ruins of the church of San Guglielmo in 1954, the heritage offices decided to detach the surviving fragments, but there is no information about them. Due to the lack of records, or their silence on the matter, it is therefore difficult to provide certain data on the restorations of the church of San Guglielmo, both from the chronological point of view and the operational point of view, but it is possible to imagine the very rich story of its glorious past when walking through the Casa Romei rooms where the few remaining frescos create a very nice exhibition in themselves, a rare witness to the artistic heritage of Ferrara in the thirteen and fourteen hundreds.

Latest from Giovanni Lamborghini