Happy Birthday?

As we examine the fate of our greatest art treasures, we cannot help but think that birthdays are not always a very good thing. As human beings, we know that as well, for as we mature, along with our wisdom, come changes that not all of us appreciate. Our hair thins and grays. Our skin wrinkles and sags. Our youthful physique softens and slackens. Some of us fight the natural aging process: hair can be dyed, skin injected with collagen and now botox. We can subject ourselves to implants, liposuction and tummytucks.

Now picture such surgical interventions being customary, or even mandatory, for each of us as we reach a “monumental” birthday. At age fifty, for instance, we could each undergo a major facelift. It would be a celebration in honor of your half-century mark.

Then, of course, comes the question: What if not everyone needed it? After all, it’s a blanket decision that does not take into account each individual circumstance. What if some of us decided that we looked fine the way we were? Or even that we didn’t want to attempt to look twenty-five when we were twice that age? There is, after all, the grim realization that even the best plastic surgeon cannot make what is old look new. The more Zen realization is that it isn’t a good goal anyway.

This brings me to mention the unfortunate birthday that is fast approaching. Michelangelo’s David, which made its appearance in the piazza of the Palazzo della Signoria in 1504, turns 500 next year. Whether or not the work needs any intervention is a matter of heated debate, but certainly the timing is fortuitous, or rather, suspicious. If you believe the Accademia, the work is in mortal danger. I can’t help but think how fortunate it is that this imminent threat didn’t coincide with the much less glamorous 497th birthday of the gigante. I cannot imagine that the posters and advertisements for the restoration would have been nearly as catchy.

The phenomenon is actually disturbing. What does it say about us? That as a culture our abject fear of aging is so all-encompassing that it affects our custodianship of these objects? That the older a work of art gets, the more we need to prove that we can use science to overcome nature? Perhaps it is less psychologically driven than that. Maybe it is akin to a promotional tenth anniversary sale at a department store.

The reality is that restorations are now regularly undertaken to coincide with public relations events. The “birthdays” of the object are the favored points on the timetable. And as many of the Renaissance works hit the half-millenium mark, more will be subjected to timely interventions, accompanied by other events, such as symposia and exhibitions.

Does that mean that objects crafted in the fifteenth century that have managed to fly under the radar are exempt from treatment, at least for the next century? Hardly. Where birthdays cannot be used as an impetus for a radical cleaning, anniversaries will suffice. In this case, the anniversaries of the birth and death of the artist present themselves as additional opportunities.

Masaccio was honored magnificently in 2001, the 600th anniversary of his birth, when the event was celebrated by multiple shows in Florence and his hometown of San Giovanni Valdarno, conferences and commemorative volumes, the creation of a website, and the complimentary restoration of the San Giovenale Altarpiece to boot, all organized by the National Committee for the Celebrations of the Six Hundredth Anniversary of the birth of Masaccio. Coincidentally, the results of the restoration of Masaccio’s Trinity were unveiled that same spring. London National Gallery celebrated as well in 2001 by having pieces of Masaccio’s dismantled Pisa Polyptych shipped from around the world for a blockbuster exhibition.

And Masaccio is not alone in this honor. Holbein’s Ambassadors was cleaned 500 years after the artist’s birth. An intervention was also performed on Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna just prior to an exhibition in 1983 for the 500th anniversary of his birth. Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto was restored in 1492 for the 500th anniversary of the artist’s demise. In other words, if they don’t restore the David now, for his birthday, the Accademia won’t have another comparable chance until 2064, when they would be able to unveil the cleaned work in honor of the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. The 600th anniversary of his birth is even farther off, in 2075. But not to worry, they will be able to clean it again by then. And when all else fails, half-century anniversaries will suffice as well. If the Uffizi had succeeded in cleaning the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo, it would have been finished in time for the 550th anniversary of his birth. Instead, this year there is an exhibition of Leonardo’s maps on view in Arezzo, in celebration of the 500th year of the creation of his cartographic views of the Valdarno and the Valdichiana.

The aura of the anniversary is so strong that sometimes the work which it purports to commemorate need not even exist. In 1999, the 500th anniversary of the French invasion of Milan during which Leonardo’s model of a horse for an equestrian monument was damaged (and later lost), a full scale “version” of the work begun by Charles Dent was presented to the Italian government.

So what works are in danger? We have some major anniversary worries coming up by the end of the decade. As we speak, it is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Parmagianino. Fra Filippo Lippi was born in 1406 or 1407. Andrea Mantegna died in 1506. Giorgione died in 1510, as did Botticelli. I’m sure the paint is already peeling in anticipation. If anything was left of the Sistine Ceiling or Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, they would undoubtedly be cleaned again as they reach their 500th birthdays. Even as I write, I fear that they will find a way.

It came out in the press at the end of July that one of four original casts of Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais had been removed from its normal place of residence Victoria Tower Gardens in London for a restoration that will be completed later this year. Now wait a minute. Rodin was born in 1840, and he died in 1917. This final version of the work itself is from 1910. But it seems that the anniversary rule is pretty flexible. Rodin’s Burghers are actually being cleaned for a centennial celebration, not of the artist or his artwork, but for the organization, National Art Collections Fund (Art Fund), that donated the work in 1914. Later this year, the work will travel to Hayward Gallery, where it will be part of an exhibition, sponsored by JP Morgan, called Saved! 100 years of the National Art Collections Fund. Art Fund is not alone in this sort of sponsorship, though it escapes me how an unrelated anniversary should be a factor in the monumental decision to permanently and irreparable alter a work of art.

I wonder what I should restore for MY fiftieth birthday?
By Denise Budd


English 24 July

Open Letter to the Hon. Minister of Culture Giuliano Urbani
Signed: James Beck, President of Artwatch International and ArtWatch Italia. Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana.

Heartfelt thanks, Signor Minister. You have personally given Soprintendente Antonio Paolucci of Florence permission to proceed with the restoration of the David. However, you have also given the world hope that Paolucci and his team will limit their intervention, which is due to start on 18 September, to the specifics of your statement: “poultices of cellulos impregnated with twice distilled water, where the contact with the surface of the statue will be of a highly reduced time period, and differentiated from zone to zone.”

Under any circumstances, permission to move ahead does not mean that they must move ahead. Still the most hopeful aspect of your permission is that you have not provided for the employment of solvents which represent the aggressive aspect of the method advocated by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure and of great worry to many.

Although“solvents” have been largely hidden from the recent exchanges in the media, they were occasionally mentioned by the Florentine officials as a fundamental aspect of the desired procedure. In fact, the method according to Franca Falleti, Director of the Galleria dell’ Accademia “consisted in applying compresses soaked in a chemical cleaning fluid,” as reported by Alasdair Palmer in an article symptomatically entitled “Chemical David,” which appeared on June 15th in the London Sunday Telegraph. In the same interview she also calls for ”using the compress and solvent method.” The application of solvents is also referred to by Sovrintendente Paolucci himself in similar terms in an interview in the Corriere della Sera of July 5: ”the utilization of poultices with distilled water and solvents.” [”UTILIZZARE GLI IMPACCHI CON ACQUA”] DISTILLATA E SOLVENTI.”]

Hence those of us concerned with the future health and appearance of the David are consoled that the Florentine team will kept to your clear limitation to bi-distilled water, and no solvents. Actually however, I fear that they might be tempted to expand the parameters of the permission because the bi-distilled water treatment is bland indeed, perhaps too bland for their intentions.

In effect, we are back to the starting point of the controversy, between a “wet, ” a “dry” dusting (advocated by Agnese Parronchi) or “no” treatment possibilities, and with this fact in mind, and in the sense of compromise and in a spirit of intellectual transparency as well as to assure the world that Italian restoration is truly the avant guard, I implore you in consultation with my friend Paolucci to create a small commission to review the entire matter of Michelangelo’s David. In a letter signed now signed by 50 specialists of Italian art, many of who are world experts on Michelangelo and about half Italians, we urged such a commission. All are art historians, like Paolucci, Acidini, head of the Opificio, and Falleti.

We now suggest a specific composition of the commission, which would act as an advisory body to you. Four or five members, composed of Italian winners of Nobel prize and judges from Italy’s supreme court (Cassazione) would seem to us sufficient. None are experts in art history or restoration but being of unquestioned intelligence, all the elements can be readily presented to them in layman’s terms so they can form an opinion, and if necessary they can call upon their own experts. We emphasize the all-Italian character of the proposed commission, to avoid chauvinistic objections which have already been raised.

Considering its place in history and as a icon of the Renaissance, of Florence, of Italy, of the power of the human figure, and of the genius of Michelangelo, the David merits such high level consideration. Besides, the world at large and art lovers everywhere will be convinced of the seriousness of Italian restoration methods and the nation’s desire to conserve its artistic treasures for its own citizens and for the entire world.

(Signed James Beck)


Tour of Verrocchio’s David to be Extended

“Washington National Gallery has announced in a press release dated 18 July 2003 that Andrea del Verrocchio’s David will be on the road even longer than originally expected.

“”Discoveries”” made during the current restoration of the David, mostly related to the hypothesis about the original location of Goliath’s head and the technique of the gilding, appeared in the press in February of this year, coinciding with an announcement of plans to ship the work for the first time. The High Museum in Atlanta contributed to the funding of the restoration, in return for the opportunity to exhibit the work in its inaugural US visit beginning in November 2003.

Notwithstanding the already risky premise of shipping the statue, the decision has recently been made to add yet another venue to its upcoming tour before returning to its home, the Bargello in Florence. In return for helping to “”defray”” the expenditures of the High Museum, not only for the restoration, but also for the catalogue, Washington’s National Gallery will host its own exhibition of the bronze in February and March of 2004.”

Pollaiuolo’s Charity Restored

It is an all too common experience in Florence’s Uffizi museum to pass through the galleries and find blank passages of wall where one expected to see a familiar painting, replaced by the ominous sign,  in restauro .

Only this time, Piero Pollaiuolo’s Charity WAS on view in the Uffizi, though not with the other six virtues that make up the series. The panel had instead been restored separately, and was in May of 2003 put on exhibition in a small room — smelling of freshly applied varnish — towards the exit of the museum.

Charity (after restoration, June 2003)

The restoration itself raises two pertinent issues. The first is the ongoing matter of corporate sponsorship, and whether any incentives, apart from the wellbeing of the object itself, should be considered when undertaking an intervention. As announced by the signage, the cleaning had been funded by Fratelli Piccini, a Florentine jewelry store, in celebration of its 100th anniversary, her magnificent broach and tiara presumably providing the motivation for their sponsorship.

The second issue strikes at the logic of the restoration. The painting is one in a series of seven commissioned from Piero Pollaiuolo for the ground floor meeting hall of the Mercanzia in 1469, although one figure, that of Fortitude, was executed by Sandro Botticelli the following year. The decision to restore them individually, and not to examine at least Piero’s panels together, is problematic. Amongst the panels, Charity was not in the poorest condition, and a unique feature of the work, a drawing on the verso, may have been a factor in the decision.

Charity — the Exhibition


Charity [BEFORE]

Charity - Piero Pollaiuolo 1469 (tempera on wood)

Letter to Florentine Soprintendente Paolucci

Copy sent to:

Il Ministro On.le Giuliano Urbani
Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Via del Collegio Romano, 27
00186 Roma

29 June 2003

Professor Antonio Paolucci
Soprintendente al polo museale fiorentina
Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici
per le Provincie di Firenze, Pistoia e Prato
via Ninna, 5
50122 Firenze

Dear Professor Paolucci,

We the undersigned, art historians and art scholars of Italian Art, are especially concerned over the fate of Michelangelo’s David housed in Florence’s Accademia.

Over the years and specifically since September of 2002, the David has been undergoing tests to evaluate its condition and to determine the appropriate course for a cleaning. Far from achieving a consensus, the examinations have produced two publicly expressed, divergent opinions. One position is that of Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure which is espoused by Franca Falletti, Director of the Accademia and coordinator of the restoration. The proposed cleaning would entail the use of wet poultices which suck out the dirt and other particles, producing a “”clean”” surface. On the other hand, Agnese Parronchi, the restorer who has been allocated the assignment, considers that method too severe and instead advocates
a spot-by-spot treatment using a “”dry method,”” essentially an elaborate dusting, employing soft hair brushes and an

On the other hand, Agnese Parronchi, the restorer who has been allocated the assignment, considers that method too severe and instead advocates a spot-by-spot treatment using a “”dry method,”” essentially an elaborate dusting, employing soft hair brushes and an eraser.

Parronchi, whose resume includes the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Medici Tombs in San Lorenzo and his Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle Relief in Casa Buonarroti, has steadfastly advocated her minimally invasive approach, based upon 260 separate studies she conducted on the surface of the David.

The two positions so far have proven to be irreconcilable, and Parronchi resigned rather than carry out the procedure according to the technique required by the Opificio.

Given the genuine conflict of methodologies and the fact recognized by all parties that there is no imminent danger to the statue, we the undersigned believe that any decision to proceed should be postponed until an independent commission, established either by the Office of the Soprintendenza of Florence or the Minister of Culture in Rome, can evaluate the proposals and other ones, the past history of results, and the goals of the intervention.

Despite the imminent 500th anniversary of the unveiling of the David in 1504 and despite the planned commencement of the project in September 2003, the issue is important enough to warrant further careful evaluation and in an atmosphere of total transparency.


James Ackerman, Harvard University
Laurie Adams, CUNY,
Francis Ames-Lewis, Birkbeck College, University of London
Wayne Andersen, MIT
Gail Aronow, New York
Marco Dezzi Bardeschi, Milan, Politecnic
Paula Barocchi, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
Paul Barolsky, University of Virginia
James H. Beck, Columbia University, New York
Daniele Benati, Univ. G. D’Annunzio, Chieti
Mary Bergstein, Rhode Island School of Design
Ben Binstock, NYU
David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Institute of Art
Giuseppe Centauro, University of Florence
Marco Cianchi, Accademia delle Belle Arti di Firenze
Lucilla Bardeschi Ciulich, Florence
Joseph Connors, Columbia University
Michael Daley, London
Mary Edwards, Pratt Institute
Yael Even, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Massimo Ferretti, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
Mina Gregori, University of Florence
Rab Hatfield, Syracuse University, Florence
Charles Hope, Warburg Institute, London
Kiyoshi Ishikawa, Aici Industrial University
Evelyn Karet, Assumption College
Gian Claudio Macchiarella, University of Venice
Joseph Manca, Rice University
Maria Teresa Matteucci, Univ. of Bologna
Anita Moskowitz, SUNY at Stony Brook
Giorgio Muratore, University of Rome
Masao Noguchi, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music
Carlo Pedretti, UCLA
Piero Pierotti, University of Pisa
Elinor Richter, CUNY
Jonathan Riess, University of Cincinnati
David Rosand, Columbia University
Piero Scarpellini, University of Perugia
Simon Schama, Columbia Universit
Gary Schwartz, CODART, Amsterdam
Enzo Settisoldi, Florence
Vittorio Sgarbi, Ferrara
Philippe Sorel, Carnavalet Museum, Paris
John Spike, Florence
Leo Steinberg, New York (University of Pennsylvania)
Richard C. Trexler, Univ of New York at Binghamton
Alessandro Vezzosi, Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci
William Wallace, Washington University in St. Louis
Flavia Zisa, Siracusa
Mark Zucker, Louisiana State University

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