Travel: Tunisia with Mr. Mosaic

5 mins read

Richard Hodges looks at the life and work of renowned conservator Roberto Nardi, en route to the Bardo Museum.

The Bardo Museum in Tunisia, with wall-to-wall mosaics bearing pictorial scenes inspired by myths and legends, as well as everyday scenes of Roman life, the work of highly skilled artisans.


Speaking in Oslo’s City Hall after his election as winner of the EU and Europa Nostra prize for cultural heritage for 2015, Roberto Nardi explained that he was amazed to be paid for doing what he loved. This prize honoured nearly a decade’s painstaking work to reassemble 1,202 fragments of Nuragic sculptures from an excavated collection of 5,178 into five archers, four warriors, 16 boxers and 13 Nuraghe models. The result is simply breath-taking. These human-scale figures seem to be drawn from Picasso’s visual lexicon or the fictive imagination of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings rather than the zenith of Sardinia’s Bronze Age.

Significantly, news of the prize has triggered a flood of visitors to the previously unknown museums of Càbras near Oristano and Cagliari.

A year later, in a ceremony in Dubrovnik, Roberto added first prize in the global conference devoted to the ‘Best in Heritage’ to his burgeoning collection. As Italy grapples with its uneven treatment of its archaeological sites and monuments, its ambassadors badger this treasured son of Rome to speak around the world about these Nuragic statues, knowing that they possess one of the great masters in the history of conservation.

I have known Roberto since my days in Butrint. At a conference on the ancient city’s majestic baptistery pavement, he advocated the simplest conservation techniques, deploying trained local workmen and local materials. He stood out for his vision and humanity, given many participants wanted high-tech solutions that directly or indirectly would have lined their own pockets. Two years later, we renewed and cemented our friendship at Zeugma where, over four years and confronting Herculean challenges, Roberto conserved the opulent 3rd-century mosaics from this Euphrates shore-town. Now he has been asked to help restore the Roman mosaics in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and he invited me to join him on this two-day scoping visit. This gave me a chance to grasp something of his extraordinary career.

Natural winner

A dapper man with a melting smile, Roberto has travelled the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, working as a restorer and training conservators. He grew up close to the Pantheon in Rome, studied archaeology at La Sapienza, then attended the city’s Instituto di Restauro, perhaps the best such school in the world. Specialising in stone conservation, he chose the Arch of Septimius Severus on the slope of the Capitoline Hill for his thesis, aware that it was coated and maintained in ancient times with lime-based materials that needed to be conserved using natural materials. As fortune favours the bold, after three years the city’s Superintendent of Antiquities appreciated Roberto’s missionary zeal and decided the young graduate should put his plan into action. Initially troubled by ‘excavations’ using a pneumatic drill on the top of the arch, Roberto determinedly pressed on.

Roberto Nardi working on the spectacular Nuragic sculptures from Mont’e Prama in Sardinia, which earned him the EU and Europa Nostra prize for cultural heritage in 2015.

Over more than a decade, Roberto returned the arch to its natural state, challenging the world of conservation’s love affair with non-natural materials. Enlarging his portfolio, he led the conservation team participating in Daniele Manacorda’s Cripta Balbi excavations. Over a decade from 1982, a large part of a Roman city block with its roots in the ancient Republic and ranging up to the 19th century was excavated and restored, paving the way for Rome’s most innovative archaeological museum, which opened to great plaudits in 2000.

By the 1990s, Roberto’s crusade to promote simple, sustainable conservation techniques began to attract international recognition. This was when he had the idea of creating his own school, a place where he might teach conservators in an intimate collegial setting. To do this, he needed to make a place fit for the purpose. His search took him to the hilltop village of Belmonte, just south of Rieti, an hour east of Rome. Here a 13th-century Franciscan monastery offered exactly what he needed. Abandoned since the last German monks fled in 1915, it took Roberto and his conservator-wife, Andreina, nearly a decade to restore. Along with the monastery came ample terraced gardens to provide vegetables, as well as to nurture a contemporary Latium speciality: kiwis.

The monastic laboratory with its on-site cells became the hub of a series of full-immersion training camps for conservators. Backed by the Getty Foundation, Roberto brought here cohorts of Jordanians, Libyans, Syrians, and Tunisians, notwithstanding the strife in those countries. Then, along with the Israelis and Palestinians he trained at home, he introduced the polyglot conservators to his projects in other countries. From this improbable Latium fastness, Roberto has created mosaic- and fresco-conservation capacity all around the Mediterranean – and with it a deep affection for him as a master. Recently, for example, they were at Ephesus in western Turkey, conserving the celebrated later Roman Hanging Houses. On other occasions, they have been on projects in Sardinia, including the work on the Mont’e Prama sculptures.

The Belmonte communities also include American students from time to time. A cohort comes from Randolph College, Virginia, and Delaware University on a regular basis, and Masters students from the American University of Rome spend a week here, learning the elemental tricks of Roberto’s trade by day, then after hours turning to practise culinary techniques with food from the monastic garden. Fullimmersion training seldom treats all the senses so expansively.

The prayer hall of the Amiriya Madrasa at Radà in Yemen, restored by Roberto and his team.

Zeugma, however, took him away from Belmonte. Over a thousand square metres of mosaics were discovered in rescue excavations before the submersion of the Roman liminal town of Zeugma on the Euphrates. The mosaics – only paralleled by those from Antioch-on-the-Orontes – were rolled up like carpets as the dam waters rose, and the best pavements were lifted from opulent riverside villas and taken to the local museum at Gaziantep. When I arrived at Gaziantep in May 2000, these 3rd-century pavements lay stacked in rolled piles around one side of the museum, exposed to the suffocating heat and the occasional violent rains. A cultural calamity was averted by the Packard Humanities Institute, which funded Roberto to build a state-of-the art conservation laboratory and provide this forgotten corner of Turkey with a galaxy of mosaics that has made the new Gaziantep mosaic museum one of the most vaunted in the nation.

Zeugma’s taxing working conditions prepared Roberto and his team for the prayer hall of the Amiriya Madrasa at Radà, three hours’ drive south of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. An international consortium supported the painstaking restoration of the Madrasa’s glorious frescoes and stuccos. Working on 45-day rotas over three years, a team of a dozen or so lived in near-isolation in a mud-brick house in a back-street of Radà, making the five-minute walk to the ostentatious Amiriya Madrasa alongside a medieval castle to rival any great Crusader citadel. I remember the shock to my senses when I first set eyes on the completed work, dazzling for its luminescent paintings and rococo stuccos. Entering the Madrasa through an atrium, its mud-brick surface burnished and now painted a glistening white, a whirl of colours fell on me, the visual kaleidoscope breathtakingly tracing inch-precise images and ideas in masterful geometry. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could contrast more strikingly with the blighted decay of Radà’s surrounding streets.

Memory of the Madrasa has been eclipsed by the experience Roberto had at St Catharine’s Monastery in Sinai. Here, working with the Orthodox monks, he restored the apse mosaics of the Justinianic fortress monastic church. No project in placemaking affected him more profoundly, drawing him back many times along the umbilical desert road blighted by terrorist hijackers. On seeing his film describing the restoration of St Catherine’s, I regretted that I had not made this celestial pilgrimage. So, when he invited me to visit the Bardo Museum in Tunis with him, I readily accepted. The Bardo’s wall-to-ceiling mosaics, recovered from Tabarka, are indelibly imprinted on my mind – a visual feast I first encountered 30 years ago, presaging my affair with Zeugma.

This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 81.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.


Roberto worked with the monks at St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, founded under the Christian emperor Justinian I.


IMAGES: Richard Hodges

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