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Vitale da Bologna

Written by  Giovanni Lamborghini

The presence of the Bolognese painter in the Santo Stefano church in Ferrara

A piece of fresco from the Santo Stefano church, now in the Casa Romei MuseumIn 1949 Giulio Righini, President of Ferrariae Decus (a society devoted to the safeguarding of historic monuments) and art scholar, was responsible for the discovery of fragmented frescos in a room at the base of the bell tower of the Santo Stefano church in Ferrara. He attributed the painting to Vitale da Bologna, who had worked in Ferrara during the period between 1334 and 1359: the finding was supported by a close study of the frescos on the wall on which they were painted, as well as the relevance of details in the profiles, the eyes of the characters and the overall style of the work of art.

Almost fifty years later, this attribution was confirmed in an article by Alessandro Volpe in Nuovi Studi, entitled: "Vitale a Ferrara, sventure e risarcimenti", Image documenting the discovery of the frescoeswhere he explains why he agrees that the painting is by Vitale. Most of the criticism following Righini, therefore after the removal of the painting, concentrated on the deteriorated quality of the frescos, and this is largely due to the poor execution of the restoration, even though not entirely the fault of those who carried out the actual work.

The church of Santo Stefano, where the frescos were found, was an ancient parish church previously noted in the XI century, part of the Ferrara Cathedral Chapter as- sets from 1083 until the XVII century. The bell tower, built in 1275, collapsed in 1339 and was rebuilt over the following years but without major consolidations. It is likely that after the reconstruction of the tower, the walls of the chapel under the tower were painted by Vitale with scenes from the life of St. Maurelio who, together with Saint George, is the patron saint of Ferrara.Image documenting the discovery of the frescoes

Following the earthquake in 1570, the church was restored and Vitale's frescos were covered with several layers of lime. In the 1920's Ferrariae Decus undertook the restoration of the facade and apse in a Gothic style and the right-hand side was renovated in the forties. A few years later, in September 1944, Ferrara was heavily bombed resulting in the total destruction of the Santo Stefano church ceiling.

It was probably Pieces of detached frescoes from the Santo Stefano church, now in the Casa Romei Museumduring this period – the first months of 1949 – following a careful explorative survey of the building, that the frescoes of St. Maurelio were revealed. It has already been stated that had Giulio Righini's discovery been given wider attention, the authorities would have been more diligent and would have supervised a more accurate res- toration. Pieces of detached frescoes from the Santo Stefano church, now in the Casa Romei MuseumThis would have better preserved the paint surface and made it easier to interpret the a secco details, which might have made the attribution to Vitale easier.

Initially the restoration work was carried out by Enrico Gessi, who had little practical experience in fresco removal; it was one year later that The Superintendence assigned the removal operations to the famous restorer Arturo Raffaldini, who had previously worked on major restorations of large and complex works of art.An image from the Forties of the Santo Stefano church

On June 20th 1950 the stripping of the uppermost pigment- bearing layer had begun, but Raffaldini met with many prob- lems: once the first layer of canvas had been applied the second sheet could not be positioned because the glue had not com- pletely dried and, in some points, had dried incorrectly. Only by heating the small chapel and the canvas layers, Raffaldini managed to strip the frescos, which were taken to Florence in order to be transposed onto another canvas and mounted on a wooden frame, and then handed back to the city of Ferrara. In conclusion, we would like to add information taken from the archives: the Santo Stefano frescos would have been ex- amined in Raffaldini's workshop in Florence by Mario Salmi, renowned art historian and, at that time, Vice President of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Fine Arts, an indication that academic circles had been informed of a discovery of considerable historical value.

These are the reasons why scholars and critics have debated at length whether to credit this important work of art in Ferrara to Vitale.

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