A workshop remembering Michele Cordaro and discussing current Restoration Practices

On February 20-21, 2004, the Rome University “La Sapienza” held a two day workshop on current restoration practices, Il corpo dello stile. Cultura e lettura del restauro nelle esperienze contemporanee, dedicated to Michele Cordaro, student and follower of Cesare Brandi and later director of the famous Italian Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome.

The first day was devoted to restoration as the recovery of an image (in either painting, sculpture or architecture). The second day was devoted to the history of restoration and new technologies.

Some professors, like Maria Andaloro (University of Tuscia), Caterina Bon Valsassina (Istituto Centrale del Restauro) and especially Mette Moltesen (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek of Copenhagen), focused on restoration as a means of recovering of the exact original image. Prof. Andaloro discussed reversible reintegration as the best approach for art restoration. She said, quoting Michele Cordaro (who was influenced by Cesare Brandi’s theories), that a good restoration has to operate on the artwork’s materials, while maintaining as much of its meanings as possible (such as iconographical, historical and, actually, cultural values). I think that to separate significante (container) and significato (contents) is quite strange. In fact, an artwork is principally an object and not a mere image, and material is a fundamental aspect of its cultural relevance. Michelangelo, for example, carved his slaves from Carrara marble and not from wood or cheese; the artist visited the marble quarries to choose blocks and the material is absolutely necessary to understand and appreciate Buonarroti’s aesthetic ideas. If one were to subscribe to this point of view than one would have to see no cultural and aesthetic difference between a picture of the Duccio’s Maestà and the huge, heavy altarpiece, carved and painted in wood, glue, chalk, gold, egg tempera and subtle varnishes.

Many speakers proclaimed the goal of art restoration as the recovery of the original aesthetic impact of an artwork. As an example, Marco Ciatti of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence, spoke about the great Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco at the Uffizi. A baroque musician angel was painted on the centre, replacing the original one, that was lost. In 1880, when the painting was placed at the Uffizi, Ettore Franchi erased this 17th-century angel, putting a grey shadowy silhouette in its place. The Opificio delle Pietre Dure decided to attach a removable panel with a musician angel painted in Monaco’s style over the Franchi’s earlier restoration. In that way, it is possible to represent the original aesthetic appearance of the altarpiece, while maintaining the historical restoration as a document.

Another speaker presented the case of the counter façade of the upper church of Saint Francis in Assisi, which was ruined after the last earthquake. In fact, the re-painting, suggested by Cordaro’s ideas, of the vaulting-rib with red tempera to re-integrate areas of loss, produced a fake by trying to resuscitate the lost “original.”

The importance of the observer’s glance was also addressed by doctor Mette Moltesen. She spoke about the latest restorations of classical sculptures in the Carlsberg Glyptotek, and in particularly about the so-called Sciarra Amazon. She showed how the lost parts of this Roman sculpture were moved, replaced and changed during the years, changing the statue’s pose. This happened in order to follow mainly aesthetic – and not philological – demands. Prof. Moltesen plainly spoke about “faking fragments” to make an object more pleasing for the museum visitors, highlighting that people (and their money) influence both art history and restoration.

Only Prof. Giovanni Romano (University of Turin), talked about – and praised – Mrs. Brambilla’s work on Leonardo’s Cenacolo, underscoring the real danger of “accanimento terapeutico” (aggressive therapy) on artworks. An artwork – like a sick person – has rights that art historians and especially restorers have to consider. Prof. Romano also focused on the importance of considering documents and contemporary sources for a proper vision of the artwork, as a means of recovering the period glance. Actually, for Prof. Romano there are no immovable rules for restoration, but rather each artwork gives the rules for its own restoration.

The second day was devoted to introducing the huge ResI (REStauratori Italiani) project. This interesting project was born in March 1995, during a workshop about Giovanni Secco Suardo in Bergamo. Prof. Marisa Dalai Emiliani (University of Rome, “La Sapienza”) promoted an Italian restorers’ database and biographical dictionary from 1750 to 1950. Thanks to financial support from many banks and institutions, a specific data system was created and the ResI project started. Today, teams of young students (art historians, archivists and DP experts) from the universities of Rome, Siena, Turin, Pisa and Udine – under the direction of Prof. Giuseppe Basile (Istituto Centrale del Restauro) and the supervision of professors Orietta Rossi Pinelli, Bernardina Sani, Michela di Macco, Clara Baracchini and Donata Levi – are at work to record information about Italian restorers and their works for the ResI program. Finally, all the ResI information will be available on the internet beginning this year. This is an important cultural initiative to improve our knowledge of restoration in Italy and its methods… and also to further understand its many errors.

By Piergiacomo Petrioli