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May 25, 2023 – Published in Design & Decor Spring-Summer 2023 issue
Uncovering history through the restoration of a 17th-century church in Qrendi
Photography Charles Tanti and Ivana Farrugia
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy in Qrendi was once the second most important Marian pilgrimage site on the Maltese islands. Sadly, the centuries-old building had fallen into disrepair, but it was recently given an extensive facelift by the Restoration Directorate, a government entity responsible for restoring and rehabilitating historical sites.
Ivana Farrugia, the architect behind this incredible project, enthusiastically explained the process that led to the unearthing of long-forgotten secrets hidden within its walls.
Restoration is a multidisciplinary operation, especially when the site spans a number of centuries. The Directorate employs over 150 people, including an administration section, restoration architects, surveyors, draughtsmen, history scholars, restorers, laboratory personnel, skilled heritage tradesmen, and more. The site team was composed of ten people but, considering all the disciplines involved throughout the project timeline – and including the active participation of the Qrendi Local Council, the Parish, and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage – the crew went up to around 30.
Restoration requires cleaning, consolidating, and protecting. Delicate cleaning is carried out using sponges, nylon brushes, toothbrushes – any implement that will not damage the stone further. Consolidation is the process of regeneration using the minimum intervention principle – to retain as much of the original material and features as possible. The authentic building is, thus, preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The initial stages of any restoration project should always involve on-site, historical, and scientific investigations.
“Just like a doctor examining a patient, you should never approach an old building without knowing its history,” Ivana began, “otherwise, you run the risk of damaging it. The church had not been used since the early 2000s, and our initial examination found severe neglect – lack of maintenance, invasive vegetation, cracked roof screed leading to water seepage and humidity, and misuse of materials in previous maintenance attempts.”
To cover deteriorated stones, cement had been plastered on part of the church facade and on all the lower courses of the internal perimeter walls. The interior was also completely whitewashed. However, this merely exacerbated the damage, because cement is laden with salts, which the local sponge-like stone quickly absorbs. When the water evaporates, the salt crystals in the stone’s pores expand and push against the stone surface, which begins to powder and flake.
“The intention was good,” went on Ivana, “but when the artistic and historic values are not appreciated, the maintenance focuses solely on the functionality of the building, risking loss of important features. Additionally, the patterned tiles had been laid directly on the soil, with the resulting deterioration rendering the floor unserviceable – and the building unusable!”
The historical research on the sanctuary delved back to 1575, when bishops regularly made pastoral visits around all the local churches and wrote detailed reports on every edifice. These documents – together with old photos, on-site surveys, and sample testing to carry out stratigraphic investigations of the interior paint layers under a microscope – helped the team delineate a course of action for their intervention on the building.
This “labour of love” led to numerous surprise discoveries at the site.
“A building is like a 3D history book,” Ivana reflected. “If approached with a good grasp of restoration principles and the proper scientific background, it will let you in on its secrets. And this one certainly did not disappoint!”
Apart from finding and repairing the original deffun – the traditional alternative to cement, made with crushed terracotta – on the roof of the church, the team consolidated the exterior walls as well as the six statues of saints displayed on the facades. During the cleaning process, underlying traces of the original colours of the statues emerged, enabling the Directorate’s skilled heritage tradesmen to re-propose their artistic aspect using a procedure called ‘velatura’ – utilising semi-transparent paint to maintain the 17th-century weathered appearance.
“Atop the main entrance, we found a coat of arms which had been painted over, but the twelve tassels indicated it belonged to a bishop. Once cleaning began, heraldic symbols surfaced, showing two blue bands, a moon, and a red part. We examined the coats of arms of past local bishops and learnt it belonged to Bishop Gaspare Gori-Mancini. We recreated only the details we could see, without adding any that were lost before it was painted over, to retain its authenticity. This re-established not only an artistic element but also a historical one, because there was no previous documentation showing the bishop’s connection with the church!”
Once the external surfaces were restored, the work moved inside. The white paint was carefully removed with small hand-held tools and appropriate paint strippers, the cement plaster was replaced by a lime-based material compatible with the stone – namely, macro-porous plaster, which allows the stone to breathe – and mouldings at the base of the pilasters, which had been hacked off to place the cement, were re-proposed to regain the lost details.
The work on the dome of the church uncovered secret number two.
“Black and white photos from the 1960s appeared to portray the dome – which is actually flat – with a design,” Ivana revealed. “As we slowly stripped off the paint, we did indeed find traces of a very simple ‘trompe l’oeil’, presenting a 3D effect of the dome with the added perspective of pilasters. To recreate this, we studied the pattern, matched the colours, and used a cardboard sample to replicate the widths of the shadows from the earlier design.” The end result was incredible!
“Another report from 1658 described the reredos, the wall behind the altar, as having a blue and gilded background. As we removed the white paint from the wall, we found traces of deep blue hues, along with gilding and other aesthetic elements, which we studied extensively. With the help of restorers from the Superintendence, we mapped out and recreated the polychromy of the reredos, again using the velatura technique.”
“A Latin inscription over the titular painting – from Song of Songs 6:10 – was another undocumented revelation. Additionally, the tiles on the steps leading up to the altar were painted directly on the floor, using a particular shape to create the optical illusion of perfectly fitted tiles, which we reproduced. The fully revived reredos was another breathtakingly beautiful discovery!”
Subsequently, the restoration crew faced the fourth – and most interesting – surprise.
From the pastoral reports, the team knew that the 17th-century church was not the original building. Because most of the cement tiles on the floor were severely damaged, they needed to be taken up and replaced, leading to the exposure of the remains of a 13th-century chapel, which had become too small for the villagers and pilgrims.
Ivana described the discovery with unconcealed enthusiasm. “Work immediately stopped, and we initiated an archaeological dig, again in collaboration with the Superintendence. The remains included basic sections of the altar apse, the side walls, the projecting pilasters which would have supported arches, and the main door jamb, which indicated that the orientation of this chapel was different from that of the present church.”
“The remains were consolidated, documented through laser scanning, covered with geo-textile to protect them, and backfilled to keep them stable.
In the process, inert waste generated during the restoration works was recycled and reutilised to make up the floor levels. After we re-laid the floor with replicas of the damaged Maltese tiles, we grooved in a red line showing the perimeter of the mediaeval chapel, so that visitors can read the multi-period aspect of the site. What lies beneath is now exposed above!”
This beautifully restored sanctuary can now share its rich heritage with future generations.
“Although it was exciting to reveal its secrets, we still took care of every single aspect – always respecting the minimum intervention principle! We restored the deteriorated internal balcony and the church’s wooden doors, and we uncovered and cleaned certain sculptural features, such as the angels’ feathered wings. One other unexpected discovery was the facial and flower motifs painted directly on the timber of the sacristy door. One hypothesis is that the face belongs to one of the Knights, Johann Wolfgang von Guttenberg, a nearby resident who often donated money to the church and whose coat of arms depicts a flower.”
“The project commenced in April 2019, with a planned timeline of two years,” Ivana concluded. “However, because of all the gems we were unearthing as well as the pandemic, we did not finish until August 2022. Nevertheless, our intervention has now restored the value of this architectural wonder, which originated in mediaeval times and continued being used up to the beginning of the 21st century.
We were, indeed, privileged to discover and share so many layers of its dynamic history!”
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