• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Restoration or Ruination?

Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal

by James Beck, with Michael Daley
John Murray, 210 pp., £17.99

Like anything else, works of art inevitably change over time. Some of the pigments in Renaissance paintings are unstable, and the varnishes often used to protect the surface gradually become discoloured. Alterations in temperature and humidity, which happen anyway but are more acute when pictures are moved, cause panels to crack, canvases to sag, and paint to flake. Frescoes suffer from other problems. The Italian technique of buon fresco, involving the use of water-based mineral pigments on wet plaster, is remarkably durable, since the paint itself forms a chemical bond with the lime of the plaster, but the lime can react with various types of atmospheric pollution, often with unfortunate consequences. Further problems can be caused by damp, and still others by the intrinsically more fragile techniques of painting a secco, on top of dry plaster. Marble sculpture, which is chemically similar to the plaster used for frescoes, can also suffer from pollution and, as is inevitable, gradually acquires a darker surface, while bronzes too develop a natural patina (although, as with marble, this can be added artificially too).

Even if the physical changes were reversible, which most of them are not, it still would not follow that we could remove centuries of accumulated dirt to reveal the pristine work of art beneath. Many major works have been cleaned before, sometimes in destructive ways, or repainted, or both; and the process of cleaning can itself involve chemicals which may react with the materials below, sometimes with consequences that only gradually become apparent. Despite these dangers, restoration is seldom undertaken solely to counter physical threats to works of art, such as cracking or flaking; rather it aims to improve their appearance. Just what constitutes an improvement is of course conditioned by current taste. Few restorers would now contemplate covering Renaissance pictures with yellow varnish, but DĂźrer wrote in 1509 that all varnishes except the kind he made himself were yellow. We do not know whether this was true, but it seems likely that yellow varnish was common at that period and, presumably, that painters took account of it in their pictures.

The modern practice of covering old paintings with clear varnish therefore does not necessarily give a fair idea of how they originally looked, any more than does the habit of displaying them under strong artificial light. But the brilliant colors that we so often see today certainly meet the expectations of a public accustomed to slides and color reproductions. These are almost always brighter than the originals, even when the effect of colorplates is not artificially enhanced by thick black borders, as in the magazine FMR.

Most restoration used to be done by practicing painters, but now it has turned into a highly specialized activity, with a large and growing body of scientific literature. The process of professionalization and the introduction of new techniques for the physical examination of the works themselves often give an impression of objectivity and rigor to an activity that still calls for subjective judgments, not just about the intended final result, but even about the means employed. In the 1950s it was common to replace damaged areas in frescoes with bare patches of plaster. But this practice, which has seriously compromised the appearance of masterpieces by Giotto and Piero della Francesca, has now been generally abandoned. A little later there was a fashion for peeling frescoes from the wall, but this too is now avoided whenever possible. Again and again new techniques or new chemicals have been introduced as marvelous panaceas, only to be discredited a few years later.

Even today, there are profound differences in approach and attitude among restorers, as James Beck emphasizes in Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal. Indeed, it is hard to think of a group of people readier to criticize their professional colleagues, at least in private. Many of them are lax about keeping detailed records, and some of the museums that employ them are equally secretive, while dealers are no better. This is in many ways understandable, given the exceptional responsibility that restorers and curators have and the fact that, whatever they do, they are almost bound to lay themselves open to criticism from those who had come to love the paintings in their former state. A consequence of this is that scholarly monographs on artists and even museum catalogs are often strikingly uninformative about the physical condition of the works themselves, let alone their restoration history.

It might be supposed that the most obvious dangers of overenthusiastic restoration could be avoided by close collaboration between restorers and art historians. But while this is entirely welcome, it does not always prevent mistakes from being made. James Beck’s co-author, Michael Daley, describes some unhappy episodes at the National Gallery in London, most of which, it should be said, occurred some years ago. Thus the removal of modeling from Uccello’s much-damaged Rout of San Romano made the picture look far flatter than the companion pieces in Florence and Paris, while Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was given a white ground of a kind he never used, with the result that the colors were heightened in a way which is clearly misleading. Although there are a number of distinguished exceptions, restorers are not always particularly well informed about the history of art, nor especially interested in it. Likewise, art historians seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implications of the courses of action proposed to them. At the same time professional curiosity can encourage them to uncover as much as possible of the original paint surface. Thus we find restorations justified as much on the grounds of the historical knowledge that has been produced as of the aesthetic results. These two goals do not always require the same kind of intervention.

All these issues are discussed with clarity and passion by James Beck. In the past few years he has become well known, or notorious, for his criticism of two important examples of recent restoration, the cleaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and that of Jacopo della Quercia’s tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca. His comments about the latter led to a bizarre charge of defamation brought by the Italian restorer, and episode which earned Beck widespread sympathy even from those who do not share his views. With some reason, he sees the prosecution not just as the angry response of a man whose professional competence had been questioned, but as a manifestation of the strength of the vested interests involved in restoration, which in Italy has become a flourishing industry.

While it is not entirely clear that the cleaning of the tomb has caused irreversible damage, Beck is certainly entitled to the view that the removal of every scrap of patina from the marble has altered its appearance for the worse; and his comment that the impact of the work could have been greatly enhanced by the simple expedient of improving the natural light in the church is unanswerable. The issues involved with cleaning the Sistine ceiling, painted between 1508 and 1512, are more complex, and the implications more profound, not just because this is one of the half dozen most famous European paintings, but also because its appearance has been irrevocably and radically changed, and with it our image of Michelangelo as a painter.

The dramatic consequences of the cleaning were evident from the first, in the lunettes of the ancestors of Christ high on the side walls. These had previously been dim and almost monochromatic, with the figures immersed in deep shadows. The removal of a thick layer, or layers, of glue and dirt transformed them in an almost miraculous way. The brilliant colors of the buon fresco, laid on with great rapidity and precision, looked utterly unlike anything by Michelangelo that anyone had previously seen. Like many other art historians, I was able to view the first of the cleaned lunettes from the scaffold, and my initial reaction was entirely positive. At that time I accepted without question that Michelangelo had worked almost exclusively in buon fresco. Both Giorgio Vasari in 1550 and Giovan Battista Armenini in 1587 state that glue was used in secco painting, but the restorers were confident that all the glue on the lunettes had been added in earlier restorations, in order to brighten the colors beneath. On the strength of this visit and of photographs of further details published from time to time, I later defended the restoration in a review of a book about the cleaning of the lunettes.

By the time that I returned to the Sistine chapel last summer the whole ceiling had been cleaned, and I must now admit that my earlier enthusiasm was misplaced. Seen in their entirety from the ground—as they should be—the frescoes create a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colors are gaudy, so that the costumes tend to overwhelm the faces and limbs, the figures look crude and often flat, and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic. Most troubling of all, the earlier coherence of the decoration has been lost, so that the stylistic changes in Michelangelo’s approach as he moved down the Chapel, which were previously muted by a uniform tonality and a rich play of shadows, have now become all too apparent. Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion. Talking to friends, I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.

Although it is often said that the cleaning has greatly increased our understanding of Michelangelo’s achievements and priorities as a painter, what we see today is difficult to reconcile with the comments of his contemporaries. If this were true only of the lunettes it would not be particularly troubling, since these are the least prominent part of the decoration. But the discrepancy applies to the entire ceiling. What had always struck observers in the past, even in Michelangelo’s own lifetime, was that he was not much of a colorist, but excelled in creating an impression of relief. This view seemed to fit very well with a famous comment he made in a letter written for publication in 1547, when asked which was better, painting or sculpture:

I say that it’s my impression that painting is more esteemed the more it tends towards relief, and relief [sculpture] is considered worse the more it tends towards painting; and therefore I used to suppose [i.e., before I read your letter] that sculpture was the lantern of painting, and that the difference between the two was like that between the sun and the moon.1

For Michelangelo, then, painting was at best a pale reflection of sculpture. Commenting on this passage, probably in 1564, Vasari’s great friend Vincenzo Borghini remarked that the artist’s critics,

  1. 1

    Benedetto Varchi, Due lezzioni (Florence, 1549), pp. 154–155.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print