Letter from Goya brings blush to cheek of experts: Restoration work on masterpieces left unfinished when church is reopened after five years

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The Independent Online
AFTER a five-year closure to restore its Goya frescoes, the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida, an 18th century church overlooking the Rio Manzanares, reopened this week. Reviews, however, were mixed and the master artist himself, whose tomb lies beneath the frescoes, may be tossing and fuming.

As court artist to King Carlos IV, Francisco de Goya overcame dizzy spells and a fear of heights in 1798 to start painting the frescoes, including the cupola that has been compared with the Sistine Chapel, at the age of 52. For the past five years, however, tourists who flocked to the site in the expectation of straining their necks in awe were disappointed to find the church closed.

Single Spanish women contin ued to visit the site, keeping up the tradition of throwing knitting needles into the San Antonio fountain beside the church in the hope that the 'Saint of Spinsters' would smile on them and provide them with a husband.

Following criticism of the decaying state of the frescoes, notably in a campaign by Severo Ochoa, Spain's Nobel Prize winner for medicine, the city of Madrid called in experts from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1988 to touch them up. But when the 160m peseta ( pounds 800,000) job was revealed this week, critics attacked the conservative-run city government of skimping on the project.

The fact is, though, that while the restoration was under way the academy came into possession of a letter from Goya in which he explicitly opposed restoration of art works. 'What time shows us about retouched works is that it (time) is less destructive than the restorers.

'Every passing day reveals where they have put their hands,' the painter wrote in a letter to a friend, written in Madrid and dated 29 June 1801.

'I am not saying that some binding should not be done, but only to broken areas, without adding brush strokes and only by those who know and respect them (the works),' he wrote.

In the light of the letter the blushing experts, who found some of the artist's hair among the paintwork, considered it wise to curtail their efforts, leaving the cupola untouched and perhaps easing the master's wrath.

(Photograph omitted)