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Venetian family donates historic watercolors of church mosaics

Three paintings that were preliminary studies for the Memorial Church mosaics have been donated to the university by descendants of the man Jane Stanford commissioned to carry out the project.

For years, the watercolors have been on display in a back room at the Venice, Italy, headquarters of Salviati & Co. Early this century, the firm suspended all other work for three years to make the Stanford mosaics. Including the museum mosaics, the commission was said to be the largest in the United States.

The watercolors, measuring approximately 3 feet by 6 feet, were executed by Antonio Paoletti, chief artist at Salviati, who also made numerous smaller watercolor sketches that have been in the university archives for many years. Paoletti's renderings were approved by Mrs. Stanford before work proceeded.

The paintings, which arrived in early February, are a gift from Renzo Camerino and Renzo Tedeschi in honor of their father and grandfather, Maurizio Camerino. The gift also acknowledges the longstanding relationship between the family and the university, Tedeschi said in a letter to Valerie Veronin, acting director of facilities project management, who worked out arrangements for the university. The Camerino family sold its interest in the famed Salviati & Co. on the Grand Canal two years ago.

Peeling tape off glass protecting the paintings she worked nearly two years to secure, Veronin said that "one of the real pleasures of working at Stanford is making something like this happen."

University Archivist Maggie Kimball said the paintings "represent important pieces of university history." Through Kimball's efforts, the Stanford Historical Society contributed $2,000 toward the paintings' $4,800 shipping cost.

Perhaps most interesting of the three works is Paoletti's design for the church's massive exterior facade, Christ Welcoming the Righteous into the Kingdom of God, based on Matthew 25:34. Veronin said the exterior rendering will be hung in the President's Office conference room, and she hopes the others can be put on public exhibit soon.

The painting reveals an early concept of filling the quadrangle arcade with mosaics. However, no evidence exists to suggest that Mrs. Stanford endorsed the idea, according to scholars Carol Osborne, associate director and curator at the Stanford Museum, and Lesley Bone, conservator on the current Memorial Church reconstruction project. Both have studied correspondence between Mrs. Stanford and Maurizio Camerino in the university archives.

The two interior views show proposed mosaics on each side of the church nave.

The story of Stanford's mosaics is set forth by Osborne in Museum Builders in the West: The Stanfords as Collectors and Patrons of Art 1870-1906 and in Gail Stockholm's book, Stanford Memorial Church: An Appreciative Guide for the Not-so-casual Visitor.

Mrs. Stanford developed an interest in mosaics during an 1883 grand tour of Europe, which included visits to St. Mark's in Venice and Byzantine churches in Constantinople. While in Venice, she began a friendship with Maurizio Camerino, then manager of Salviati & Co. Under the direction of its founder, Antonio Salviati, the firm had restored the centuries-old mosaics in St. Mark's.

In March 1884, Camerino, who spoke fluent English, rushed to Florence to help Leland and Jane Stanford as an interpreter when their son died of typhoid.

In 1899, after settlement of financial problems following her husband's death, Mrs. Stanford returned to the Venetian firm, now owned by Camerino. She asked Camerino to develop plans for the mosaic embellishment on the museum she earlier built to honor her son and for the church she was planning to honor her husband.

Camerino and Mrs. Stanford looked at mosaics in Paris and Venice and studied photographs she had collected. Camerino translated Mrs. Stanford's ideas to Paoletti, who developed watercolor sketches for her approval. Mrs. Stanford instructed the Venetians to include women in their biblical depictions.

The church facade, which is frequently mistaken as a rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, was Paoletti's conception. At 84 feet across and 30 feet high, it was the largest mosaic in the United States when it was completed in 1901, according to Stockholm's book.

Most of the interior mosaics are based on Raphael, Michelangelo, Guido Reni and the Pre-Raphaelites, Osborne's book says. For the altar area, Camerino obtained special permission from Pope Leo XIII to reproduce Cosimo Roselli's Last Supper fresco from the Sistine Chapel.

Mosaics are made of molten glass. Crystalline minerals, such as felspar or fluorite, are added to make the glass opaque. Small amounts of powdered metallic oxides are added to produce color. Gold tiles are produced by encasing a thin film of gold leaf between two layers of clear glass. When the glass is cooled, it is cut into small cubes.

Salviati & Co. devised a modern method for fabricating mosaics in their studios rather than at the construction site. Instead of drawing scenes on a mortared surface and then individually applying the cubes, Camerino's artists made full-scale drawings, called cartoons, based on renderings approved by Mrs. Stanford.

These images were traced in reverse on strong mounting paper and distributed to artisans, who then pasted face down on the paper mosaic pieces selected from bins containing more than 20,000 shadings of color. The still-mounted scenes were divided into carefully numbered two-foot sections, crated and shipped to New York. They then traveled by rail to campus.

According to Stockholm, mosaic artists sent from Venice prepared the church walls with several layers of permanent adhesive. The craftsmen then transferred the mosaics to the walls, peeling off the mounting paper and adjusting each cube before the mixture hardened.

It took two years for 12 men to complete the church facade.

The church was dedicated in January 1903, two years before the mosaic installation was complete. Some of the work was destroyed when the huge church spire fell through the roof in the 1906 earthquake, and the resulting concussion blew out the building's front wall.

In 1913, Camerino came to campus to evaluate the damage and begin planning reconstruction of his work. Using original drawings by Paoletti preserved in Venice, the firm recreated the chancel and facade mosaics, finishing the job in 1917.

Most of the mosaics withstood the 1989 earthquake, but the archangels at the intersection of the nave and apse sustained some damage. Lesley Bone is overseeing their restoration as part of Memorial Church's current renovation and seismic bracing project. Memorial Church is scheduled to reopen in September.

In addition to the recent acquisitions, the university archives has a collection of nine smaller color renderings of the church by Paoletti and 11 watercolor sketches he made for the museum facade. Some of the sketches are signed and dated on the back by Mrs. Stanford.


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