For decades, a giant 17th-century Italian masterpiece has been slowly losing its luster on an obscure library wall on the Villanova University campus.

Also fading - from memory - has been the artwork's fascinating backstory. It begins with an American-born Italian princess and a papal palace, twists through World War II, and ends up on the Main Line with the help of an ambitious priest.

But now the century-long, operatic tale of the princess, the priest, and the painting is getting a bright and uplifting new finale.

The school and a University of Delaware conservator are working to give new life to Triumph of David, the epic 12-by-20-foot piece by Pietro da Cortona, one of the most important painters in Rome in his time. They hope the two-year restoration will brighten an oil painting that has not only been degraded and discolored by the passage of time but suffered damage during the 1944 Battle of Nemi on the Italian front.

"If a da Vinci has a scratch in it, do you throw it away?" asked conservator Kristin deGhetaldi, a doctoral student at the University of Delaware who is leading the $100,000 project.

"There are not a lot of oil paintings associated with Pietro's circle in the U.S., and the sheer size of the painting makes it very unique," she said.

Bitter court battle

Also worthy of a revival is the Baroque tale of how a canvas depicting David presenting Goliath's head to King Saul - accompanied by 10 other Italian paintings from a castle outside Rome - made it in the 1950s to Villanova, where it has been hanging ever since in the Falvey Library.

The story begins in the ashes of the American Civil War. Jennie Berry was born in northern Georgia in 1861, the daughter of a former Confederate colonel. After traveling and studying in Europe, she married a successful Nashville businessman who died several years later, leaving her a very wealthy widow and what one account called "a 'jet-setter' before jets."

In 1901, when Berry was 40, she married Don Enrico Ruspoli, the 23-year-old son of an Italian prince. They purchased the historic Castle Nemi outside Rome that had belonged, at various times, to many of the great papal families.

Don Enrico Ruspoli died just eight years later, and he left most of his property, including the castle, to his brother. But Berry, now known as Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, maintained she had supplied the funds for the castle with the agreement that should her husband die, she would retain possession.

A bitter court battle led to a 1916 agreement in which the princess obtained the title and all the house's contents. Meanwhile, she had returned to the United States after Don Enrico Ruspoli's death and lived in New York but still traveled frequently to Italy.

At the outbreak of World War II, Ruspoli shipped antique furniture, paintings, and sculpture to her sister Martha Berry, who founded Berry College in Rome, Ga., which now owns most of Eugenia Ruspoli's collection. But Triumph of David was still inside the castle when it was heavily damaged by a bomb in 1944. The painting also suffered water damage.

One last plot twist brought 11 of those paintings to Villanova.

Ruspoli, a philanthropic socialite, knew many prominent clergy, and it was through a Vatican connection in Washington that she met the Rev. Daniel P. Falvey, Villanova's librarian who was in the process of building a new facility. Falvey, who started the Friends of Villanova Library to raise funds for the project, convinced Ruspoli that the rising building would be an ideal home for her family treasures, and she donated them just months before she died in 1951.

"I think she decided that Villanova was an appropriate place" for the painting, said a granddaughter, Elena Corso, who lives in New York.

Since 1956, Triumph of David has hung in a wing of the library now known on campus as "Old Falvey." But experts said three earlier restorations did more harm than good.

"It went through some tough times. That being said, it's survived very, very well," said deGhetaldi, who is being helped by interns and a Villanova chemistry professor and art historian.

It is still definitely worth saving, she said.

Dulled the colors

Cortona was known primarily as an architect, but his most important work is the ceiling fresco of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, said Carl Strehlke, adjunct curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cortona also did preparatory drawings for some of the tapestries depicting the story of the Emperor Constantine that hang in the Philadelphia museum.

Strehlke said it was difficult to know the value of the Villanova painting in its present state.

Over-paint and varnish have degraded and dulled the original vibrant colors and, in places, left big black blotches. DeGhetaldi pointed out a brilliant blue robe on a figure of a dancing woman, which she had restored to its original hue. In the middle was a small grayish patch that she had left untouched to show how the colors had faded.

Cortona was known for "vibrant blues, lovely colors, beautiful skies. That's not what we have here," deGhetaldi said.

After removing or reducing the over-paint and varnishes, restorers will retouch and apply a more stable finish.

While most restorations take place in the bowels of museums, the Cortona is being cleaned and repaired in its home in "Old Falvey," where anyone can watch and ask questions or follow the project via a webcam and blog.

When the painting is finished, the room will be remodeled into a student lounge with an atrium where the restored painting will hang.

With the rest of the princess' gifts fading away in storage, deGhetaldi said she would like to see what other treasures might be there.

"It's fun," she said. "Like going into an attic, and you don't know what you will find."