2016-10-20 Sistine Ceiling Secret of Michelangelo Alexander Eliot

Sistine Ceiling, Before and After Restoration: Looking Back In Order To Look Forward.

Ruth Osborne

Several years ago, ArtWatch helped produce a film on the changes that occurred when the Sistine Chapel ceiling underwent restoration in 1980-1994.

It considers the frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarroti before and after the massive restoration treatment. We would like to share with you some outtakes of the film that we believe may enlighten viewers to the importance of considering how a work is treated when restored, as well as paying attention to its care post-restoration. ArtWatch UK has recently provided studies on these new developments here and here. For the full film, click here: “ArtWatch: The Scandal Behind Art Restoration” (2005)

What is most compelling are the interviews of those who had seen the frescoes up-close and personal before 1980 – artist Frank Mason and writers Alexander and Jane Eliot. Have a look at the clip posted above, as well as the Eliots’ 1967/68 documentary The Secret of Michelangelo below, which provides unique coverage of the ceiling before treatment. Artists may not have been consulted before the 1980s-90s restoration, and no condition reports were done to address the particular needs and options for treatment. But now, though it’s taken 20 years, the artistic and broader public are now more aware of how significantly restoration can alter and damage a work of art irreversibly. Perhaps, with the current concerns over increasing atmospheric pollution, overcrowding, and visibility amidst deterioration, those responsible for this expansive work will reconsider such reckless techniques. For the book that takes an extensive look at this and other restoration damages, Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and The Scandal (1996), copies are available via our New York office or here.


2015-05-20 - Alexander Eliot Frank Mason

A Powerful Advocate for Art: Celebrating the Life’s Work of Alexander Eliot.

Ruth Osborne
2015-05-20 - Alexander Eliot Frank Mason

Frank Herbert Mason, Alexander Eliot (1997). Courtesy: The Salmagundi Club.

This week we are saddened to announce the recent passing of writer and painter Alexander Eliot, whose effort in the battle against the controversial Sistine ceiling cleaning had a major impact on the founding of ArtWatch and our continuing efforts to provide a voice for artistic heritage where it is all too often overshadowed by greed and prideful motivations.

Former Director of ArtWatch International, Einav Zamir, was able to interview Mr. Eliot just two years ago on his experience covering the Sistine Chapel for the landmark the 1967/68 documentary “The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream.” This film, at the time both groundbreaking and immensely popular when it broadcast, was created thanks to a tower that moved the researchers along the entirety of the ceiling over a six-week period. Just a few decades later, another scaffold tower would set about erasing the work of Michelangelo as it moved slowly along the immense canvas of ceiling like an eraser across a chalkboard. What Eliot and his colleagues were able to capture for the public eye via film now serves as a rare testimony to the original work of the artist before it was scrubbed by cleaners in the 1980s and 1990s.

“almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”

Eliot’s view of the frescos before the cleaning demonstrated they were in “fabulous condition…the painting itself was all there…extremely subtle, rich, fresh, and pure.” As one given a rare opportunity to record them up close less than two decades before the cleaning commenced, his eyes, and those of his wife Jane and others working on the documentary, served as the best proof there could be that the cleaning had white-washed Michelangelo’s a secco detailing atop the under-painting.

It was Eliot’s involvement in this documentary, and his care and concern for better stewardship of our artistic heritage, that connected him with Beck at the beginnings of ArtWatch.  Eliot’s efforts with great New York classical painter Frank Mason, and later ArtWatch, against the destructive cleaning of the Sistine ceiling by Colalucci and his chemists was something only to be taken on by those who viewed art as something above their own sense of pride and name. Instead of sacrificing what was handed down from Michelangelo over centuries, at the risk of coming up against the Vatican authorities, Eliot with Mason and Beck pursued a tireless campaign for the voice of art in the face of great opposition.

Anne Mason speaks of Eliot’s efforts with her husband:

“those years when Alex, Jane, Frank and so many others were desperately trying to prevent the destruction of the Sistine Chapel…those devastating years.  That’s the only word that comes to mind — devastating.”

And yet, though their efforts did not change the unwilling minds of those involved with the cleaning, stubbornly standing behind their spun stories of a “new Michelangelo,” Anne still spoke with hope in the greater purpose behind their campaigning. She saw what this effort was evidence of – that people like Eliot were passionate enough to rally for the art itself, for something greater than themselves that need not be wiped out for the sake of a PR campaign.

Eliot wrote of the value of art that:
“…every genuine work of art exists in more than the material sense…To maim or destroy a work of art is reprehensible in the same degree that its creation was admirable. A masterpiece by Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo, say, deserves a natural life of centuries, not years, because it has so much to give. By the same token, it deserves to be kept free of alien encroachments if at all possible.”

His testimony is also recorded in the full-length biography A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason (2011), which documents his efforts with Frank on the Sistine. His daughter, author Winslow Eliot, will continue to maintain the website devoted to her father’s writing.


By Ruth Osborne

Sistine Ceiling 2.0: Restoration of the Carracci Gallery Frescoes.

Ruth Osborne
2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Palazzo Farnese Rome

Carracci Gallery, 2014.

This past February, announcements were made concerning the restoration project planned for the frescoes adorning the Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

This is no new thing for Annibale Carracci’s monumental cycle The Love of the Gods (1597-1606), which had already undergone “consolidation” only a few decades after completion under Baroque painter Carlo Maratta later in the seventeenth-century. [1] Since the beginning of the twentieth-century, the frescoes have undergone patched cleaning in 1923, 1936, and 1994 (though it is not clear just how much was accomplished during this latest effort beyond a general assessment of the issues).

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery WMF Europe French Deputy Ambassador

Erkki Maillard, French Deputy Ambassador (right), and Bertrand du Vignaud, President of WMF Europe (right), in the Carracci Gallery. Courtesy: ANSAmed, 2014.

The French government, which has inhabited the historic building since 1874, first opened the gallery and palazzo to the public in 1936. Today it houses both the French Embassy and the Ecole Française de Rome, with reportedly small groups of visitors coming to see the Carracci frescoes only by appointment. According to the project’s Press Release from the New York-based non-profit World Monuments Fund:

“Today conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling. The campaign of 1994, realized under the direction of the French Service des Monuments historiques, assembled information on the condition of the vault that led to some proposed solutions to conservation issues, but it was not possible at the time to secure sufficient funding to carry out the proposed treatments. The previous analysis will be helpful in developing the conservation program for the painted decorations, stucco, and gilding that adorn the room. Work is scheduled to begin this year and will be coordinated by WMF in collaboration with local heritage authorities and international experts.”

Besides WMF, the other groups that have joined together to help get the project off the ground are the French Embassy in Italy, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and the Foundation de l’Orangerie (connected with French banking giant BNP Paribas). [2]



2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Queen Cassiopeia King Cepheus

Cracking of Carracci’s depiction of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Restorers will first go about cleaning off layers of dirt and old overpainting from areas that had been restored in previous years. They will then work to fill any extensive cracks and repair water damage. [3]  According to WMF, this is the first time in the gallery’s history that the side walls, in addition to the ceiling in its entirety, will be treated. No doubt there is much restorers hope to glean from this work, more so than a simple stabilization of Carracci’s 400 year-old masterpiece. It is also understood that this year-long project will likely uncover some secrets about the frescoes’ condition. As Italian culture ministry official Rossella Vodret said to the New York Times in 2012, the work of the restorers will hopefully aid in “determining which hands painted which section” – Annibale’s, Agostino’s, or others from their workshop. She added emphasis on the “scientific endeavor” of this project. Meanwhile, scholars who have shown concern towards this massive overhaul are deemed “purists.” [4]

Objections arise not because of any “purist” impulses but because of (well-founded) concerns about the complex nature and (intended or un-intended) aesthetic consequences of comprehensive, long term, high cost, high-profile, heavily sponsored programs that aim at a single definitive comprehension to a cluster of real, feared or assumed problems. And why should the matter be decided by scientists alone? In the Times’ coverage of this project two years ago, an interesting statement was made by Vodret: “We are certain that if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out.” [5]  But precisely which experts? What kind of one-sided expertise? Ancient works of art are primarily artistic and historical artifacts. Any proposed treatment must take those factors into consideration – and, certainly, scientists alone are not competent in those vital areas. For example, removing all previous (historic) repairs will likely expose injuries that gave rise to the repainting in the first place. If it does, will those injuries be repainted again to the standards and tastes of the twenty-first century or left as wrecked passages? There is talk of a threat from water infiltration. Is that a substantive threat? Does the roof leak? Do gutters need to be replaced? Is the building affected by rising damp?

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery corner frescoes

More damage over illusionistic corner frescoes. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Is it just a scare? Alleged conservation threats that were cited in the past on other major projects can prove unfounded when challenged – as was the case with the claimed “glue pox” that was said (on no evidence) to be devouring the Sistine Chapel ceiling at a dramatically escalating rate.

The project, which is underway as of the beginning of March, was set in motion by a new committee of 30 scientific restoration specialists formed in 2009 to consider the ceiling’s treatments and make recommendations for future work. [5] The conglomerate of international non-profits mentioned above have chosen the reputable Italian restoration group ATI Farnese as the  to carry out the project. $200,000 of the 1 million euros this project will entail has been allocated to preliminary studies of the ceiling (a portion provided for specifically by the Italian government). [6] A sense of immediacy to protect pervades discussion of the work to be done: “The value placed on the gallery meant that it has been restored at times in the past, including an urgent fix ordered in 1994 when the ceiling threatened to collapse. Now, new cracks and leaks that threatened the masterpieces inside have demanded an immediate response to protect what many call a significant piece of cultural heritage. ” [7] French Deputy Ambassador Erkki Maillard lists issues of cracking along the side panels and the vault, concern for infiltration of water damage and lifting of paint, and “paintings obscured by time that also need to be cleaned.” [8]  These delicately and poignantly illusionistic frescoes run the risk of experiencing a traumatic face-lift. Restorers will likely uncover unfortunate remnants from the partial cleanings of the 1920s and 30s. This could, in turn, either lead them back to page one, or set them off on a path from which there is no return.

The grandiose treatment is projected to last at least until spring 2015, when the gallery will finally reopen to the public. One must also not fail to take into consideration the impact of the growing tourist industry on the newly-cleaned frescoes, once revealed. According to Maillard, the current policy for outside visitors is previously-reserved small weekly tours. [9]  While these will be put on hold during restoration over the next year, what might be the result of the frescoes unveiling next spring? Will it bring in a greater demand for viewings? How will the French Embassy respond to an increased interest in this monumental piece of Italian artistic heritage? The sharp rise in visitors to the Sistine Chapel in recent years has undoubtedly placed a new fear in the Vatican for the well-being of their own crowning masterpiece (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). The final statement from WMF as to the Carracci project’s importance: “Once completed, the current conservation project will allow the Palazzo Farnese and the Carracci gallery to be accessible to the public more regularly, following years of restricted access to this cultural treasure.” [10]

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery tour

Guided tour through Carracci Gallery in February 2014. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.



[1] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF Program: Field Project. World Monuments Fund. (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[2] Press Release: “World Monuments Fund & its Partners Announce Project to Restore The Famous Carracci Gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese,” (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[3] Frances D’Emilio, AP, “French Embassy’s glorious ceiling in Renaissance palazzo to be rescued by modern day ‘Medicis’,” 26 February 2014. Newser. (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[4] Elisabetta Povoledo, “Restoration Planned for Carracci Gallery in Rome,” New York Times. 10 October 2012.

_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sandra Cordon, ANSA, “Palazzo Farnese’s Carracci gallery to shine anew: Restoration begins on Baroque masterpieces in French embassy,” 27 February 2014. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[7] Guillemette de la Borie  “À Rome, les Carrache sous bâche,” 27 February 2014. La Croix. (last accessed 14 March 2014).

[8] Cordon.

[9] Borie.

[10] D’Emilio.

[11] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF.

2013-11-7 - Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum Pope Frances

American Patronage at the Vatican Museums

Ruth Osborne
2013-11-7 - Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum Pope Frances

Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum, posing with Pope Francis at Fundraiser. Photo: AP / L’Osservatore Romano.

“ ‘If you want to present’ the different pieces of art, ‘you have to present them in the best condition noted you can.’ ”[1]

This is a recent statement on the importance of restoration by an official of the Vatican Museum Arnold Nesselrath (Deputy to the Director of the Vatican Museums for the Scholarly and Conservational Departments, and one of the two restoration experts in charge of the Sistine Chapel treatment between 1980-1994). Awe-inspiring projects in the Museums’ conservation laboratory are among the many special behind-the-scenes attractions the Vatican uses to woo donors from the United States.


Last month, the Vatican Museums hosted the 30th anniversary of the special “Patrons of the Arts” program, without which much of the restoration projects on the Vatican’s “Wishbook” would not happen. These festivities involve a five-day VIP treatment at the Vatican Museums, including “lectures on museum restoration projects, catered dinners in museum galleries, a vespers service in the Sistine Chapel … and even a one-on-one with Pope Francis himself.”[2]  Catering to American patrons’ desire for exclusive access to the ancient City’s priceless famed works of art, the Vatican has successfully cultivated 2,500 American patrons this year.[3] The Patrons’ Facebook page has recently posted a photo of this year’s private vespers service at the Sistine, with the comment “This is how the chapel really should be experienced.” One couple from Hoboken in New Jersey first became involved through an advertisement in a travel magazine “about the benefits of being a patron.”[4]


This stands in stark contrast to the experience of the ever-pressing hoard of tourists coming to the Sistine Chapel every day. These less fortunate visitors are crammed into the space to crane their necks just enough to take in a glimpse of The Creation of Adam; these views, meanwhile, are interrupted by deceptive camera flashes from the more brazen visitors.  This is a larger issue often remarked upon by resentful Italian critics, though Director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, insists it is  impossible to improve in today’s massive tourist industry.


While it only costs $500/year to join the Patrons program, the price on attending the above-mentioned anniversary celebrations at the Vatican was $1,900 each. Members of the “Patrons of the Arts” group support programs of restoration throughout the Museums (both artistic and architectural elements of the complex), through the “adoption” of specific projects. Patrons can become involved in supporting a restoration project either as an individual donor, or as part of a regional “chapter”-wide effort.



2013-11-7 - Vatican Wishbook Patrons of the Arts

Vatican Wishbook 2014

In this manner, American patrons are being cultivated for specific high-profile projects to enhance their reputation as arts ambassadors. The Vatican Patrons’ website has a page dedicated to specific restoration needs: Clicking on the title and image of a work of art in need of restoration, one finds detailed information regarding the historic and aesthetic significance of this work and the total cost for restoration. One might not always see, however, precisely why a piece like the fourth-century marble Constantinian Monogram is in need of treatment.  Heavy use of laboratory language, on the other hand, is available in detailed examinations of early Christian Sarcophagi and what are termed “Rare Etruscan Treasures.”  If individual members or chapters pledge to contribute to a project, it is proudly announced under the image of the object(s) in question.  The spectacle of laboratory discovery does a great deal to reel in patrons to supporting major projects. It would seem, from efforts such as these, that the collection was in danger of being left for dead without (1) a restoration lab and (2) patrons to keep funding big restoration projects.


According to the program’s director, Father Mark Haydu, “each year the Vatican can count on about $5 million from them — averaging $2,000 a head — with gifts added to revenue from the annual membership fee.” Fr. Haydu also belongs to a religious order known as the Legion of Christ, with a history of “fundraising prowess,” if questionable in character.[5]



To get a better sense of just how the Vatican seeks out patrons, one can also listen to the propaganda provided by Fr. Haydu, LC, in           “Patrons of the Arts in the Sistine Chapel” :

For some of Pope Francis’ grateful words to the Patrons at the 2013 anniversary event:

“Over the past three decades the Patrons have made an outstanding contribution to the restoration of numerous treasures of art preserved in the Vatican collections and to the broader religious, artistic and cultural mission of the Museums…inspired not only by a praiseworthy sense of stewardship for the Church’s heritage of sacred art, but also by the desire to advance the spiritual and religious ideals which led to the foundation of the papal collections…may your patronage of the arts in the Vatican Museums always be a sign of your interior participation in the spiritual life and mission of the Church.”[6]

[1] CNA Daily News, “Vatican Restorers: Art preservation a great responsibility,” Patheos, 28 October 2013. (last accessed 3 November 2013)

[2] Nicole Winfield, AP, “Vatican’s art-loving donors get access to museums, Sistine, even the pope,” 26 October 2013, Providence Journal. (last accessed 3 November 2013).

[3] These benefits include the following: priority seating at the Pope’s weekly audience, the ability to shoot to the front of the line at Museums, access to midnight Mass tickets and the Sistine Chapel in morning hours before regular visitors, private tours of closed-off galleries and conservation labs, and similarly special access to the Vatican gardens and St. Peter’s.

[4] Winfield.

[5] Winfield; Jason Berry, “How Fr. Marciel built his empire,” National Catholic Reporter, 12 April 2010. (last accessed 6 November 2013).

[6] “Pope Francis: Arts express beauty of Church’s Faith,” Vatican Radio. News.VA: Official Vatican Network. 19 October 2013. (last accessed 5 November 2013).

2013-05-26 - Delphic Sybil Sistine Chapel Michelangelo

Evidence of the Eyes: An Interview with Alexander Eliot

Einav Zamir

In the landmark 1967/8 documentary, The  Secret  of  Michelangelo,  Every  Man’s  Dream, Alexander Eliot, painter and former art critic and editor for Time magazine states that “almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”  The film, produced by Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation, directed by Milton Fruchtman, written by Alexander Eliot and narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell, provided a brief, one hour tour of the expansive Sistine ceiling. Through the use of close-ups, audiences were presented with details of the fresco never seen before, details that were impossible to grasp at great distance:

At the time, the film was both groundbreaking and immensely popular. Now however, it serves as a testimony to what has been stolen, through subsequent cleaning and restoration efforts, from the fresco’s  original  glory.  Barely  obtainable  (there’s just one copy at the Central Michigan University Library in Mount Pleasant), and no longer broadcast on national television, The Secret of Michelangelo has become quite secret indeed.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alexander Eliot about the film, the chapel, and his fight against the cleaning, which began in 1981.

How are you connected to ArtWatch?

I’m all for ArtWatch. I was there at the beginning of it with Frank  Mason  and Jim Beck, and I think you’re really onto something very important.

What sort of evidence made you believe that the restoration was damaging the ceiling? How did you come to that conclusion?

It’s really the evidence of the eyes. Jane and I were up there on a tower that  was built for us to research and write a one hour documentary on the ceiling years before the cleaning. The tower could be moved to bring us within touching distance of each section, over a six-week period.

That must have been an incredible experience. What kind of condition would you say the fresco was in while you were examining it?

Fabulous condition. There were some craquelures – it had cracks here and there, which happens naturally over the course of centuries, but the painting itself was all there. It was extremely subtle, rich, fresh, and pure – it was Michelangelo, and absolutely unbelievable. Jane [Jane  Winslow  Eliot,  Alexander’s  wife] first realized and pointed it out to me that the surface had mostly been done a secco (in the dry) because Roman fresco plaster goes porcelain hard within hours. So Michelangelo spent almost two years embellishing his quickly sketched under-painting.

And after the restoration?

They used a cleaning agent developed to wash stone exteriors. It took away all the a secco. What you see now is the under-painting. The conservators  said  “No, he just painted in the Florentine style, and on top is just a lot of glue-varnish, unknown hands, and dirt, and we need to remove it.”

How did you react? Was there an initial impulse to object?

Frank Mason said “We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning” to which I  responded “You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.” Then Frank said,  “Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,” and so he recruited  me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.

Upset? In what way, and why?

Beck was such a prestigious figure, being a professor of Italian Renaissance art at Columbia University, so they hired a PR firm, a Madison Avenue outfit, to promote their ceiling scrub and make the three of us appear like childish, publicity seeking nut-cases. And they succeeded in that mission by inviting a number of VIPs – art critics, art historians, and museum directors – to come free of charge and take a look for themselves. They took them up on their comfortable scaffold with all their so-called “scientific equipment,” and even gave some a cloth to personally wipe off the accumulated “filth,” as they called it, from the painting. Instant experts were made that way, and simultaneously hooked.

So there was support from the academic community for the cleaning – who were some of its advocates?

Thomas Hoving was one; A previous director of the Metropolitan Museum and then editor of Connoisseur Magazine. Robert Hughes, Art Editor of Time Magazine, as I had been for fifteen years, was another. He wrote in his last book before he died that seeing Michelangelo’s cleaned work ‘the way he painted it’ from the restorers scaffold was the most vivid experiences of his whole 50 years as an art critic. It’s really too bad. The cleaning went on for years and years and they destroyed the thing.

And what about the film you produced? Is it still available to those who wish to view the ceiling as it was before the cleaning?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the rights to the film, so in that sense, it’s not  available. For years it was rebroadcast on holidays by ABC. It was a TV success at the time.

And now, after so much time, with the evidence supporting your position so abundant, are there influential people out there that still applaud the cleaning?

People don’t  like to admit that they were mistaken, but by now everybody in the art community knows that we, Jane and I, Jim Beck, Frank Mason, and Michael Daley, were right.

Do you think the  Vatican  should  restrict  tourism  in  order  to  preserve  what’s  left  of  the  fresco?

They would never restrict visitation – they make too much money from it. It was all about money to begin with. They wanted to make a big publicity stunt in the first place, make it more “accessible to the public,” and beef up  tourism. As long as they’re making money off of it, they’re never going to restrict  access.

What do you think can or should be done to prevent further degradation?

It doesn’t matter what I think or believe. They’ve lost the picture already.  The under-painting, the concept, is still there, but the painting is gone. It’s  been scrubbed away with chemicals. They can’t do anything significant to  save what’s left, either. Maybe they’ll apply some pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus, but they won’t reduce the influx of tourists.

At the conclusion of our conversation, while coming to grips with the grim reality of the circumstances, I asked Eliot if he believed the Vatican would ever admit its guilt in this crime against our cultural heritage, to which he responded with a memory. He spoke of a time when Fabrizio Mancinelli, Curator of Painting at the Vatican, spoke to him regarding the highly debated restoration:

“I respect your opinion Mr. Eliot, and I trust that you’ll respect mine.”

To which Alexander Eliot, the man who once stood mere feet below the magnificent fresco, responded:

“You and I don’t matter, but the Holy Father will go down in history as the  destroyer of the world’s greatest painting.”


For more on Alexander Eliot and his writings, please visit:

Eliot, Alexander. “Save Sistine From the ‘Restorers'” Los Angeles Times 20 Sept. 1987: 5.



Critique on Restoration Methods

Mona Lisa (on the left and hypothetical restoration on the right)

Mona Lisa (left and hypothetical restoration on the right)

A word on the practice of removing old restorations on paintings.

One of the least defensible and intellectually questionable concepts raised in the often vitriolic debates surrounding art restoration practice over the past few decades is that of “readability.” A a vague and shifting goal, it continues to be advocated, especially by the museums and state officials around the world. Apparently readability rests at the foundation of French restoration policy. For example, M. Jean-Pierre Mohen conservateur général du patrimoine, directeur du Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France is an unequivocal advocate of readability. (cf. Le Monde des Debats, Septembre, 2000). He states in no uncertain terms: ” La lisibilité devient donc une notion extrêmement important: elle est garante de la part d’authenticité de l’oeuvre, de son état de conservation et de sa capacité a transmettre son message esthetique el culturel.”

If one were to suggest that a Bach Cantata should be transposed and reconstructed to make it “listenable” to a wide audience, many would find the proposition unacceptable. The same might be said of remaking T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland so that the poem would become “understandable” to neophytes and school children. The situation surrounding a painting from the past is rather different in one crucial aspect, however. Re-writing Bach’s musical score for a new redaction or Elliot’s poetic structure for another less complex one does not affect the original text. The correct, uncorrupted text is still there and can always be consulted. Such is not the case with a painting which has been made more readable. The restoration operation requires that making the object more readable be conducted on the original, unique and only text itself.

How does a restorer go about achieving M. Mohen’s much treasured readable image you might quite reasonably ask? Generally speaking any old varnish is removed along with “dirt” from the surface of the painting. In the nature of things, varnish often darkens in time and can turn warm in tone. Of course the removal of such varnishes with solvents can strip the picture of the often admired natural patina achieved over time. Besides, removing one layer on the surface does not guarantee that the layer beneath is not affected.

Restorers almost automatically remove old restorations from a painting. In their place, they tend, in differing degrees, to replace them with modern corrections, under the assumption that we moderns are better at guessing what the correct appearance should be. Usually, too, there is an effort to make the colors themselves more vivid. In consequence the painting becomes increasingly more accessible and attractive to the public. In the process of restoration, especially when readability is the key standard, outlines, edges, contours, which help define the imagery, are reinforced. Even if the original is relatively readable, it can be made more readable. And in areas where the original surface has been lost over the centuries, the restorer repaints them without compunction, in the name of readability. All this happened at the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes are today definitely more readable than they were before 1980. To be sure critics and artists have found that the imagery appears to be too much like highly readable Walt Disney illustrations.

Even if the culture could decide what might be acceptable standards of readability, arguably an impossible exercise anyway, will those standards remain the same in 5 years, 10 or 20? Tastes change, as art styles do, and sometimes very fast. One thing is certain in the history of art restoration: experts can quite confidently identify the restoration of one period from another. Thus the time and taste behind the treatment is left indelibly on the unique text.

The concept of readability appears to encompass another characteristic: an aura of democratization. The art object needs to be made assessable to the lowest common denominator. The notion is similar to the one behind Classic Comics, where Dante’s Inferno or the Holy Bible is cartoon-ized for school children. Or consider those nefarious summaries of Moby Dick, The Raven, or Hamlet condensed into several dozen easy-to-understand pages. The process is known today as “dumbing down.”

Readability harbors an hidden agenda: tourism. The tourist industry is one of the leading business of the grandest cities in Europe and America and in places like Paris, New York and Rome, it represents the single greatest income producer for the local economy. In order to make the art palpable to mass tourism, the assumption is that the art objects should be readable, so that the visitors are satisfied in their rushed visits to the Louvre, the Met, the Uffizi. That is interpreted to mean that the paintings must be bright and shinny, and the sculpture scrubbed and sandblasted. In this way, the thinking implies, visitors may wish to return and tell their friends about the marvels they saw.

One cannot forget that restoration is carried out by skillful artisans, steady hands, and the activity being in the final analysis is not science but craft, for want of a better word. Whether in the cleaning stage at the beginning or in the reintegration or repainting stage at the end, the crucial factor is the manual ability and good judgment of the operators. And if the superintendents and museums directors want readability, they can get it only from these individuals, who being human, interpret the pictorial surface, evaluate what clues there are, and make a product which is regarded by the officials as “readable.” This does not even imply that the result is, somehow, correct, original, accurate, or in harmony with the artistic statement of its creator, but merely that it is “readable.” An application of the “readability” approach is the recently completed Last Supper in Milan. Finally, you could say, after centuries of confusion the mural is readable; but the problem is that it is false. As little as 20 percent of what you see is by Leonardo da Vinci and the rest has been painted by the restorers, including the crucial head of Christ which is a highly readable image, datable to circa 1998.

Even bringing the theories of the sacred cow of modern restoration is not necessarily useful nor a legitimate claim to right reason when it comes to modern restorations. The notions of Cesare Brandi, who was neither a scientist nor a restorer but an art historian developed his ideas over 70 years ago. After all if you were to cling to a theory of aviation before the introduction of the jet, or of energy before the atomic revolution, or medicine before antibiotics, the subsequent discussion would prove to be irrelevant to a contemporary situation. When it comes to art restoration there is a far better, safer and more accurate solution to the “readability” requirement, so dear to the official French position. And it is one which preserves the integrity of the original art work at the same time that it employs modern technology.

In order to give the viewer, whether a sophisticated one, a beginner, or a school child, a tangible impression of the art of the past as well as the probable intention of creating artists, I propose that state-of-the-art computer technology be employed to generate to-scale facsimiles and that these be placed side-by-side with the “originals” when they are not very “readable.” This idea surfaced publicly a few years ago when French authorities were considering a thorough cleaning of the Mona Lisa. Complaints had come from museum experts and arts scholars alike over the appearance of the painting, with its darkened, discolored varnish. It was, in effect, difficult to read, and many opined how wonderful it would be to see it freshened up. Good sense prevailed, however, with the recognition that the surface was so delicate and that Leonardo’s process so fragile that losses could have occurred in the restoration. The suggestion was put forward in some quarters to produce a facsimile as one imagines the original appeared. In this way a viable imagine could be offered to the public and for educational purposes, at the same time that tampering with such a basic creation would effectively be avoided.

In fact, the possibility of showing carefully produced scale facsimiles should put an end to the readability alternative with all its built-in threats to the authenticity of the work and the wide margin of error in interpretation. In this way, the text is maintained, never repainted nor brightening up on the basis of one reading or another, even the most qualified. The original remains there and merely requires maintenance. The interpretations, which are inseparable ingredients of restoration, would be limited to the facsimile and could readily be changed from time to time, as our knowledge expands. Under any circumstance it would be more “correct” than any dangerous and essentially experimental treatment of the unique original and would better guarantee the aims of the Restoration Establishment. Let us once and for all eliminate from practice the pernicious and inherently dangerous notion of readability, as outmoded.

2001-01-01 Restoration Myth - Piero della Francesca

Debunking the “Have You Seen It?” Myth

By James Beck

2001-01-01 Restoration Myth - Piero della FrancescaIt took me too many years to arrive at a fundamental realization regarding the modern restoration industry, its various branches, subdivisions, and operatives.


Underlying much of the activity is, of course, money, a factor that I had understood from the very start of my own involvement in the issues fifteen years ago. People need to pay the rent and eat, and it is readily appreciated that everyone down the line — the restorers and their underpaid assistants, their technical backup, their suppliers, the publishers who grind out the expensive new books after every important intervention, the journalists who soak up the news of restorations like a sponge, the art scholars and critics who write the texts, the booksellers and advertisers, the sponsors and their affiliates — has to eat. For better or for worse, this can be apprehended as a fact of life, although not necessarily an admirable one.

An additional element or, better stated, a probable motivation is that of fame, publicity, being invited to the right parties, being on the cutting edge, being envied, being hailed in the mass media as uncoverer, being sought after as a person deeply involved in the rediscovery of Leonardo’s original miracle, of Piero della Francesca’s real color, of Hans Holbein’s true intentions. By an alchemical transference, those involved in highly visible restorations (alas, no one cares about unimportant or minor ones) seem to accrue some of the creating artist’s force and genius. Who does not desire to appropriate even a fragment of Michelangelo’s power, Masaccio’s monumentality, Rembrandt’s insights, or Cézanne’s structuring? I have reluctantly and sadly understood that all of this is a fact of life, too. The Preacher of long ago knew very well the dangers of Vanitas.

For some time, I have also recognized that great museums of the world are deeply conscious of their reputation, together with the realization that the restoration of their objects goes a long way in defining them. Everyone (except, seemingly, the individuals directly involved) recognizes that London’s National Gallery has had — and continues to have — a dreadful record, perhaps close to the top of the list of world-class institutions that have systematically ruined masterpieces under their guardianship. The Prado, which has justifiably come under severe attack by a Spanish weekly, El Tiempo, is earning for itself a similar reputation. Washington’s National Gallery is hardly better as it advocates the English method of scraping everything off and then doing it over. And God forbid if there is “yellowed varnish” — worse, even, than yellow teeth. Nor is the Metropolitan Museum in New York immune to similar characterization. To be sure, its old-master collections have been systematically over-cleaned for generations, as its director once admitted to me, so there is not much left to argue about. The Louvre’s record is spotty, with some restrained interventions while others have been zealous. Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione has become a dingy but heavily varnished gray and now looks more like a Manet than it should. And so it goes. Although the pride of the museums can be understood, with long and often distinguished traditions, their actions must be evaluated critically and not praised indiscriminately merely because we “love” the Louvre, the Met, and other grand institutions. On the other hand, I can say that the State Museums in Berlin, Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, and the Hermitage have avoided the worst scenario and have every reason to brag about having practiced healthy restraint. One can only hope that the temptations of vast sums of American foundation money will not induce them to drop their time-honored methodology.

The element I had fundamentally failed to evaluate properly until now is that even governments believe that they have a vested interest in conservation and restoration activities conducted within their borders or carried out by their citizens. A misplaced jingoism prevents dispassionate and disinterested international debate. And, worse still, it silences those within a country who, if they are inclined to speak critically about a particular restoration, become fearful of injurious repercussions or fail to enunciate their reservations out of misplaced solidarity or assumed patriotism. In Italy, the government has effectively blocked criticism of the endless, questionable Last Supper cleaning and repainting. To have spoken out meant surely being blacklisted from various perks that the minister of culture and the mechanism in general can provide, and very few have taken the risk.

One of the standard techniques used to stifle criticism is the demand on the part of the restoration process that individuals inclined to express reservations must have closely inspected the cleaned and restored work before being considered credible. The Sistine Chapel restorers and their public-relations consultants were particularly skilled in refining this requirement. For example, if one actually saw the restored ceiling in person and still harbored suspicions, the question was raised about how much time was actually spent on the scaffolding. If it happened to have been a brief visit and an individual continued to be unconvinced, he would be belittled since he had been there only an hour or two. If resistance persisted, another ploy was used. The question was raised about how many times the unconverted individual actually saw the restoration in progress: if only a few, the naysayer was described as unserious or poorly prepared to comment.

And if one miraculously passed all these prerequisites and stood firm, the demands were expanded. For the really stiff-necked, the requirement became: one really should have followed the work step by step, day by day to understand fully what had been done. Of course, the only people left after all these conditions were met were the restorers themselves and a handful of supervisors connected with the cleaning and repainting. This systematic elimination of criticism turned out to be a brilliant tactic for stifling serious debate. And even if all the tests were passed with flying colors, one failed anyway, for “it is as difficult to judge a restoration as it is to judge a surgical operation” (E’ difficile come giudicare un intervento chirurgico], according to Dr. Giuseppe Basile, a top official of the Istituto Centrale di Restauro, in a talk presented to the Accademia dei Lincei. In other words, there can be no criticism; leave it to the operatives; do not rock the boat.

Argumentation along these lines has been so powerful that persons who might have an opinion about one or another restoration refrain from expressing themselves publicly on the subject. They have, in effect, been brainwashed into thinking that, after all, they cannot utter a word until having seen firsthand the finished product. Sometimes they never to because not doing so is an excellent way to avoid taking a stand on a controversial cultural issue, and I know of art historians who make it a point never to see recently restored works (and who can blame them?). Not having seen them, these scholars are effectively off the hook. I have sought for years, with no success, for a competent sculpture expert to comment on the restoration of the fragments from Jacopo della Quercia’s Fonte Gaia in Siena, which are systematically being cleaned. Either these experts have not seen the pieces or they pretend they have not seen them.

After moving around the edges, I am now prepared to deal with the issue straight on, seeking to impose a little logic on the “Have you seen it?” qualification imposed by restoration proponents. The requirement of up-close viewing is nonsense. In the first place, the presentations are often manipulated by theatrical lighting and, under any circumstances, not the lighting that the artist envisioned for his painting. Then one must suffer through the restoration rhetoric of official explanations. The purpose is to find out whether the person “likes” the result or not. Of course, liking or not liking the appearance of a recent restoration has nothing to do with its accuracy, historical correctness, the losses and gains, the changes, not to mention the quality of the intervention. Many people “like” the new Sistine Chapel frescoes as they might like a B movie or a popular musical comedy, but what does that signify about the quality of the cleaning? Liking or not liking the new appearance does not deal with the issue of authenticity or the need for restoration and has little to do with a critical evaluation of the intervention. On going to the refectory to see the restored Last Supper, one finds an isolated artifact out of contact with its history. The previous state (or states) is (are) gone forever so that serious comparisons are impossible.

The truth is — as serious scholars have recognized for decades — that, as in advertisements for weight-loss programs, seeing is believing. Only the combination of a “before” and “after” view can produce a sensible conclusion about a restoration; even expert memory has limitations. Who can now “revive” in his mind’s eye Masaccio’s Brancacci frescoes after fifteen years and with all the verbiage that has poured forth in the interim? Careful confrontations are necessary; ones that respect scale are a requirement. In other words, holding a book of color reproductions of the pre restored object and comparing it with the original on an entirely different scale is not illuminating. A more critical study can be carried out with quality photographs, which art scholars have used to advantage as aids for more than a century. Ideally, the photos should be in black and white, for variations in color merely add a further complication to a proper confrontation. But even a one-to-one comparison is not sufficient for a balanced evaluation in this day and age. Before repainting is begun, one needs vital “during” photographs as well in order to determine what has been taken off. Further evidence can also help, including raking light, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet and X rays, which can often provide evidence upon which to base a reasoned judgment. Merely to go before The Last Supper as it now appears and to utter an impressionistic evaluation is beside the point. The requirement should be not “Have you seen it?” but “Have you studied the evidence in a dispassionate, independent way, using the whole range of unavailable evidence, including ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after’ photographs?”

Seeing the restored original has a built-in disadvantage for evenhanded critical evaluation. The aura of a Leonardo or a Correggio, however much it has been belittled by restorers past and present, retains enough of the creating artist’s ingenuity to overwhelm. The restoration establishment and their sponsors collect the benefit of whatever is left of the original to help them carry the day, even if a great deal of the original has been lost or a great deal of new painting has been added. The same is true for the Sistine Ceiling, for whatever the losses (and in my view they are considerable): all the secco, the added layers or veils, the pentimenti. But behind it all is Michelangelo, and even a fragmented, crippled Michelangelo has residual power.