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Restoration Drama

In response to:

The Master Builder of Venice from the September 24, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Hugh Honour’s account of the criminal suit brought against me by the restorer of the Ilaria del Carretto monument in Lucca [“The Master Builder of Venice,” NYR, September 24] requires correction. I was sued originally in Florence, Livorno, Alessandria and Turin, and in each case, Italian magistrates ordered the plaintiff to pay the court costs. Not only was the freedom to criticize a restoration upheld for the first time in Italy, and perhaps anywhere, but a precedent was established. Already in the brief span since the verdict (November 1991), critics have felt increasingly free to speak out, and even Mr. Honour can, if he has a mind to do so.

Honour’s representation of my views and statements seemed oddly irrelevant in a review of a book on Jacopo Sansovino by Bruce Boucher: my monograph treats Jacopo della Quercia. To be sure, they are both Italians and both have the same first name, but they are, after all, separated by a century. The criticism of the restoration in my book appeared to him as less harsh than my statements to the press, the implication being that I was backing off. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the book was in proof, the case had not yet been adjudicated, and I was advised by my lawyers to calibrate my language. After all, I was facing, however unlikely, a three-year maximum prison term. But the most important aspect of Mr. Honour’s presentation with regard to Ilaria del Carretto, for me, is that he found the restoration quite acceptable and, conversely, that he considered my criticism wrong. My opinion has been that after treatment the marble monument appeared as if it had been cleaned with “Spic and Span and polished with Johnson’s Wax,” and other equally unfriendly observations, for which I had been hauled into court.

Like Mr. Honour, who is one of the most gifted writers on art active these days, I too have looked many times at the Ilaria, often in the company of marble sculptors, both before and after the treatment, and I see what he fails to see: an overcleaned and overpolished fifteenth-century statue, one that did not need any treatment in the first place. Honour’s de facto approval of Ilaria‘s refurbishment is consistent with recent praise for the radical cleaning of Benedetto Antelami’s Months in Parma. That restoration has been severly belittled by several art historians, one of whom said: “Antelami’s Months are now ruined: unsightly puppets robbed of their Romanesque contours.”

Obviously Honour has not relied upon the restoration reports or upon close observation of the losses to the surface, or to the filing down to eliminate scratches, or the changes in Ilaria‘s profile, not to mention the new dark spots that have bloomed as a consequence of the intervention. Were all of the technical and visual data taken into account: (1) the use of a strong chemical solvent, (2) mechanical removal, (3) the application of the heavy and still experimental synthetic oil called Fomblin which sinks deep into the stone, Honour may well change his mind.

A trusting laissez faire attitude discourages the creation of a more restrained and reversible mode of treating the wondrous sculpture of Renaissance Italy. As is widely recognized, there is no clearcut methodological agreement among experts on how to proceed, so that caution should be the rule. The Fonte Gaia sculptures in Siena, also by Jacopo della Quercia, are currently being treated in much the same, radical way as the Ilaria. The superb Quattro Santi Coronati by Nanni di Banco in Florence and the sculpture from the Fountain in Perugia by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano are in imminent danger. What is so wrong with crying wolf?

James Beck
Director
Artwatch, International
New York City

Hugh Honour replies:

I am glad to hear that Professor Beck was allowed his costs by the Italian courts and regret that I was misinformed about this. I am also glad, as I said in my article, that the freedom to criticize restoration has been established in Italy. However, the outcome remains nearly always a matter of opinion, and usually rather subjective opinion. What is wrong with crying wolf is that such a howl can be set up that cases which deserve serious attention go unheard.

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