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