This is another project, which has remained in the shadow of that of the cathedral: the simultaneous restoration of these works, which were not damaged by the fire and must return to the building for its reopening in 2024, is an operation unique in its magnitude.
Everything takes place in a secret place.
Arrived six weeks after the 2019 fire, these canvases – 25 in total, 22 of which have been renovated – are distributed in three huge hermetic rooms, far from the Epinal image of the artist's studio.
"It's a bit of a race against time," restaurateur Laurence Mugniot told AFP.
- "Medical history" -
"Two years may seem like a long time, but it's usually the time it takes to restore a canvas like The Triumph of Job, which is behind us", she underlines, pointing out the immense work of several meters height of the Italian Guido Reni, hung on his back.
So, to meet the deadlines, we had to organize ourselves differently. The paintings pass from expert hands to expert hands, without time to rest: as soon as a stage is finished, you have to continue with another canvas.
But, before getting there, they were carefully analyzed to establish a conservation diagnosis: "You don't touch a canvas without knowing its medical history", underlines to AFP Oriane Lavit, curator of heritage within the Center for research and restoration of the Museums of France.
Once this history is known, the canvases move on to cleaning. With a cotton swab soaked in an approved cleaning product, many restorers remove the layers of grime but also the varnishes that interfere with the paint.
The gesture is lively but precise: wrist in the air, circular movement, they focus first on the most urgent areas. "What we want is to give it back its true nature", explains Laurence Mugniot, who oversees the cleaning of the "Triumph of Job".
In another room, from which emerges a slight whiff of paint, the conservator-restorer Cinzia Pasquali is working on retouching a canvas. A brush in one hand, palette of colors in the other, she tries to fill in the wear and tear to make the work fully visible.
- €2.7 million -
Again, it's a work of goldsmith. "We use specific colors because they are reversible colors. We do not work with period colors", she explains, while emphasizing that it is a team effort, where the discussions between restorers and curators abound.
In front of her: Jean-François Hulot, specialist in "support" renovation. His job is to ensure that the canvases - which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries - do not break.
Here, no smell of paint but a vague smell of glue.
That day, the object of his attention was "Le Martyre de Saint-Barthélémy" by Frenchman Lubin Baugin. The canvas is stretched lengthwise on a table. Here, there is no risk of breakage because it is the edges that are damaged, making it difficult to handle.
Meanwhile, another team takes care of the frames. Because they too need restoration. "The heat of the fire dried and weakened the wood", comments Jean-Pierre Galopin to AFP.
Once all these steps have been completed, the paintings are stored in a dedicated room. But before that, it takes between 8 and 10 people to move them safely. They will remain there until the reopening of the cathedral.
Led by the Regional Department of Cultural Affairs of Ile-de-France, this project represents a cost of 2.7 million euros. This is the largest simultaneous restoration of large format paintings in France.