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Frescoes Bank Austria Salon, Photo: Oreste Schaller

16.11.2021

Hitting the Ceiling

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Have you ever taken a look at the ceiling in the Bank Austria Salon in the Altes Rathaus? Gazing up at the fantastic frescoes is really worthwhile. And the reason they look so bright is that they’ve recently been restored.

Klaus Wedenig is an expert for the conservation and restoration of historical monuments and murals. Here, he explains to you how he approached his work at the Bank Austria Salon. And he also talks about the qualities that you need if you want to be a restorer.

Ceiling Bank Austria Salon, Photo: Oreste Schaller

Klaus Wedenig, Photo: Denkmalpflege GmbH

How do you proceed when you’re commissioned to restore ceiling paintings or frescoes?

I always start with the analysis. What sort of painting do I have here? What is it painted onto? What about damage? We then build a platform and investigate and photograph everything. If we can’t identify the colour of the paint with the naked eye, we take small samples that are then examined in the laboratory. But there’s also a lot that one can see straight away. A fresco, for example, is a painting that was painted onto plaster before it was completely dry. It’s easier to restore because the paint has penetrated the plaster. Oil paints, on the other hand, can flake off and are less durable.

What had to be done to the frescoes in the Bank Austria Salon?

In truth, they only required a few precautionary measures. There were some cracks that could have led to bits of plaster falling from the ceiling. This would have been very awkward if it had happened during a concert. The Bank Austria Salon has a self-supporting wooden ceiling onto which reed mats were nailed during the baroque period. The paintings were added around 1700. We cleaned them and retouched a couple.

Bank Austria Salon, Photo: Oreste Schaller

Fresco Bank Austria Salon, Photo: Oreste Schaller

The task of the restorer: To change as little as possible

What do you mean by retouching?

There are places on many paintings where paint has flaked and you can see a white surface. These gaps are closed by creating very small lines using a technique from Italy. Hence, the surfaces aren’t fully painted. But one doesn’t see this from a distance, only from close up.

And why is it done like this?

Because otherwise one would change the artwork and no longer be able to see all that has been newly done. For experts, however, it’s important to identify the areas that have been restored. Earlier, there was a lot of repainting and artworks that were regularly restored changed enormously. Today, removing this repainting with the help of chemicals or solvents can be very laborious.

Fresco Bank Austria Salon, Photo: Oreste Schaller

Ceiling Bank Austria Salon, Photo: Oreste Schaller

Occupational risk: A stiff neck

What training does one require in order to carry out this work?

There are degree courses in restoration during which one gains a lot of historical artistic know-how and learns about earlier painting techniques. But if you want to work as a restorer it’s equally important to have a head for heights. If someone applies to me as an apprentice it’s the first question I ask. We work on high platforms, rarely on the ground. And I can’t hold on to anything up there because I need both hands for painting. At the same time, the work is physically demanding and the neck, the vertebral discs and the backbone take a lot of punishment. This is also important to know. We tend to split the work: The men generally do the rougher stuff while the women take care of the retouching. They’re usually more patient.