ON November 16, 1519, the Villa de San Cristóbal de La Habana was founded. The city's first religious ceremony was recorded for history on three enormous canvases by French painter Jean Baptiste Vermay. They portray the first mass; the first Council meeting; and Bishop Espada's blessing, with the presence of the Captain General and other authorities of the era's colonial government.
Since 1828, everyone who visits the Templete has been able to enjoy these works of art, but for the last few months, the principal piece, "La inauguración del Templete,"has been under restoration.
Leandro Lucas Grillo, the workshop's leading specialist, explained, "In 1995, Eusebio Leal Spengler, heading the City Historian's Office, decided to create the Jean Baptiste Vermay Easel Painting Restoration Workshop, to begin to restore these three canvases that captured an important moment in history."
At that time, the paintings were restored by a team of eight professionals, who spent two years on the "La primera misa." Then, in 1998, they finished work on "El primer cabildo," and finally in 2001 concluded the restoration of the largest piece, which is now again being refurbished.
"We are now working on a conservationist restoration of the principal canvas. This consists of removing some touch-ups that were made in the last repair, given the accelerated oxidation of pigments, caused by the intensity of solar light that changed the tone of the paint slightly. Along with this work, a part of the canvas frame that was damaged by termites is being replaced," Lucas continued.
The specialist reported that this restoration process is a basic one, even though there are several problems to be addressed, since the piece is fundamentally in good condition.
Among the many easels in the workshop, one stands out given its size. It is the largest in the room, and was constructed by the workers themselves to hold pieces as large as those they are now restoring.
The site is specifically focused on easel paintings, a term used to describe oil paintings on any kind of surface - be it paper, cloth, wood, or metal - for which the artist must use some kind of support, like an easel, to complete the work.
Over the years, the workshop has restored many paintings. The team of ten professionals, is also responsible for preserving the collections of the city's museums, and additionally provides technical advice to museums, historical homes, and other sites where important paintings of this type are displayed.
"We have provided collaboration to museums as far away as that in Segundo Frente, in Santiago de Cuba. We restored Baracoa's city shield, and a mural at the Marianao Hospital here in the capital. There have been many consultations during the year," Lucas commented.
The workshop staff has also collaborated with associations in other countries, including students and restorers in the Italian city of Florence, between 2001 and 2005. Currently working on the team is a young Spanish restorer, who has been completing an internship since February.
"Coming here was interesting, given the issue of weather conditions, that are very different in a tropical climate, due to the level of humidity and temperature. The experience has been very positive; I've learned many techniques, used new materials, like wax, that in my country we don't employ. I've acquired experience, and that's what's needed, because this work is very practical," said Violeta Álvarez Areces.
RESTORING A PIECE
When Leina Moya Saldivar finished high school, she enrolled at the City Historian's Workshop School, and is today one of the auxiliary restorers working on repairs to the "Templete" painting.
For her, the most difficult part of the work is re-establishing the color - a technique that requires a great deal of patience and concentration, since it involves the restoration of small details.
"From the first moment the restorer gets involved with the piece, a complicity between the two emerges, that is natural and necessary. One must become sensitive to the piece, study every detail, know the materials used, and the process to follow," Lucas explained.
Every move must be studied, be it the simplest or the most complex, the restorers insist. From the very beginning, one must be very cautious, since any operation done incorrectly can damage the piece.
The process is long and complex, lasting months or even years. Restorations can be partial or total. The partial ones may, for example, only involve removing dust, but even this must be done carefully to avoid damage to the painting.
"Passing the feather duster incorrectly can remove paint. Cleaning the surface of the pictorial layer like we do, with chemical substances that are very strong, can be difficult, thus having plenty of knowledge on the issue is a necessity", Lucas noted.
The majority of the pieces arrive at the workshop heavily contaminated with fungi and dust, requiring workers to protect themselves adequately, as well. The Historian's Office guarantees protective gear that is often imported from Europe, and can be costly.
CARING FOR THE CITY'S PATRIMONY
The restoration of a painting involves many steps, but there are two that are especially gratifying to restorers.
"What I most like is the chromatic restoration. It is the last operation done, and with it the restoration is completed. After so many hours of work, finding every detail, you see the lost work reappear, and the final result is very satisfying," Lucas says.
For Yamir Chig Bello, a young restorer at the workshop, the most interesting phase is the cleaning.
"Many times we find pictures that cannot be appreciated in their totality and when you clean them, discovering everything lying under the dust is a very satisfying sensation. The colors and elements, that you couldn't see at first sight, appear," he explains.
Physically manipulating a painting is a great responsibility for the restorers. Committing an error implies altering a unique patrimonial piece, and the goal is to preserve it - thus the commitment that one notes when listening to the restorers talk about their work.
"Although it is little known, it is very important. Returning value to a piece that has deteriorated implies preserving patrimony and bequeathing it to future generations," Chig states.
"We are making a contribution to restoring a part of history that had been lost, while at the same time allowing the work of our predecessors to live on, over time," adds Lucas.
Today there are eight specialists and assistants working on the restoration of "La Inauguración del Templete,"a canvas measuring six meters high by four meters
long. The plan is to complete the work in time for the city's anniversary, and return to its original site this piece of artistic patrimony depicting key moments in the city's history, showing the world the beginning of Havana's life.