Madonna in Distress

The controversy generated by the recent cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel has brought the technical methods and aesthetic judgments of painting conservators under unprecedented scrutiny. It has also made art historians acutely aware of how different the works they study today look from when they were made; the decisions involved in restoration entail not only a “scientific” undertaking but also a rather subjective form of editing.

Curiously, however, most of the recent battles surrounding restoration have concentrated on works that have remained on their site, while surprisingly little attention has been given to works that have been removed from their sites in order to protect them. The decision to remove a work from the space for which it was made seems to me one of the most radical of aesthetic judgments. In some cases, as with outdoor sculptures, the impossibility of controlling the work’s polluted environment makes its move to a safer indoor location difficult to argue with; in others, however, the removal of works from the places for which they were made is less readily justified, even inexcusable.

One of the most egregious examples of a great picture that has suffered in this way is Piero della Francesca’s recently restored Madonna del Parto (“the Madonna of Birth”), which was formerly located in a cemetery chapel near the village of Monterchi, not far from Piero’s home town of Borgo San Sepolcro. Piero was a reticent, often inscrutable painter, and this austere image of the Virgin standing in a tent held open by two angels while she herself opens the front of her dress to reveal her pregnant belly, is one of his most mysterious and powerful paintings.

The first time I saw this painting, exactly thirty years ago, the chapel was kept locked and had no official “open” hours. After you made your way up to it along an unpaved road, you rang a bell to summon the guardian, who arrived on foot, usually surrounded by clucking chickens. She then unlocked the door and waited impatiently while you stood entranced by the awesome beauty and mystery of the image before you.

Over the past thirty years, as Piero’s works became increasingly popular and Monterchi was established as a stop on the “Piero trail,” regular viewing hours were established, an entry fee replaced the customary tip, and slides and postcards were put discreetly on sale. But one’s essential experience of the painting, as an image to be contemplated in an atmosphere of luminous silence, remained the same.

When I went to see the restored painting this past July, I was surprised to find that it had been removed from the chapel and installed in a small museum built for it on the edge of the town. And though the cleaning and restoration of the painting itself seem to have been done with scrupulous care, I found that the decisions made about its presentation sadly changed one’s experience of it. What was …

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