Monza Cathedral, built in the early fourteenth century, stands on the ruins of a late-sixth-century oraculum, or “queen’s chapel,” reputedly commissioned by the Lombard Queen Theodelinda. The cathedral has had a number of additions over the centuries, most notably the side chapels, bell tower, and adjacent cemetery dating from the fourteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, respectively. While the cathedral is known for the quality of paintings and interior stucco-work, it is particularly celebrated for the frescoes found within the Theodelinda Chapel, located on the northern side of the cathedral transept. There, wall paintings from the mid-fifteenth century painted by Milanese artists from the Zavattari workshop recount 45 episodes from Queen Theodelinda’s life. Earlier representations of saints and evangelists, painted by other artists in the fourteenth century, decorate the chapel’s vault.
Restoration of the Chapel’s Stunning Frescoes
The frescoes by the Zavattari workshop were in poor shape when we began work in 2007. The mural cycle is vast—approximately 5,400 square feet (500 square meters)—painted on walls facing in different directions and of considerable height. Sandbags, used during the Second World War to protect the walls, had inadvertently increased the interior’s exposure to moisture and salts, and resulted in the degradation of the frescoes. Earlier restorations performed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were now failing as solutions to problems in the chapel. WMF, with support from the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage, along with Fondazione Gaiani, with help from the Regione Lombardia, Marignoli Foundation, and the Fondazione Cariplo, performed extensive analysis to identify cracks and sources of moisture, which led to the improved protection of the structure and the colorful paintings and stucco-work. The conservation team cleaned the fresco walls and repaired detached or cracked plaster surfaces. Specially designing lighting was created to illuminate the chapel’s frescoes, enhancing the visitor experience. The project was completed in early 2015, and a completion ceremony was held later that year.
Our work at Monza Cathedral recognizes the important civic and religious roles the cathedral continues to serve within the city of Monza. In its efforts to protect the Theodelinda Chapel and its frescoes, WMF has helped preserve a valuable piece of local artistic and cultural history. Interventions in the chapel have saved some of the finest paintings by Renaissance Milanese masters, whose work comprises much of the rich artistic legacy of the region.