Frescoes From Herod’s Time at Masada Restored and Returned to National Park

Italian conservators return the artworks that were sitting in a warehouse for 20 years.

Ilan Assayag

For 20 years, the frescoes that decorated the “Commandant’s Residence” (Beit Hamefaked) on top of Masada were stored away in a warehouse at the national park. This week, after a month’s work, a team headed by Italian expert renovator Prof. Maurizio Tagliapietra of the University of Verona and including employees of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority completed the restoration of another room on the top of the historic mountain.

The frescoes, which were discovered during the extensive archaeological digs conducted by Yigal Yadin in the 1960s, were glued to new backings and put back in their original locations on the walls at the time. But as time passed the effects of the weather, the high salt content of the air and vandalism by visitors eventually led to the decision to remove them and put them into storage. The frescoes were in a structure on Masada without a roof, and it was decided that only after a proper roof was built would they be returned.

The restoration of the frescoes and the completion of the renovations were made possible by a donation from a Jewish family in the United States.

“The frescoes are from the period of Herod,” said Tagliapietra. They are of geometric figures, with no human beings, and show no perspective, he said. The frescoes prove the room was the living quarters of commanders who were close to Herod and responsible for his personal security, as indicated by their proximity to the Northern Palace.

During the past month Tagliapietra, 70, exchanged his usual suit for shorts and sandals, more appropriate attire for the fortress near the Dead Sea. In 2003 he headed the restoration of another room at Masada, and says he felt the need to return to Israel and work on the frescoes, notwithstanding his family’s concerns about his poor health and the difficult conditions on the site.

This time his difficult work did not end with just reinstalling the frescoes. It also included teaching the Israeli staff various methods necessary to maintain the artwork. Each picture, which can be up to 1.5 meters by 0.5 meters, took over eight hours of work: emphasizing the pigments using paintbrushes and plaster made by mixing lime with sand, in order to get as close as possible to the original materials.

The four-person team posts daily updates on a Facebook page they created for the project. Followers from all over the world monitor their progress, which they document with photographs and explanations of the various processes.

Many young Israelis, most of them archaeology students, came to see the work on site, receiving impromptu lesson, after initially following the team on Facebook.

This is not the time to be so heavy and closed, Tagliapietra said. The knowledge must be spread and that is part of my work here, he said. “Not just to preserve, but to teach.”

The guiding principle was to return the room the state it was in when uncovered in the 1960s. They used the photographs taken during the dig and were then able to replace the frescoes in exactly the right positions. They did not add anything that was missing in the original just to make things look more complete.

The most essential thing is to understand the importance of the maintenance and there is no value in bringing in a restoration team once a decade if you don’t know how to maintain the art, Tagliapietra said.