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Conservation Wars

James Beck '52 leads an ardent campaign against potentially damaging restorations. Professional conservators disagree.

by Kristin Ohlson/illustrations Bridgeman Art Library/photos by Al Fuchs

As you read this, the Mona Lisa's eyes grow a tiny bit dimmer, her smile recedes into deeper mystery, and the sky behind her glowers with increasing gloom. Flecks of color fall in a steady atomized shower from Giotto's frescoes–from Jesus, from Mary, and from Judas the Betrayer and Peter the Rock. Even contemporary art is beginning to sag, flake, crack, crumple, and discolor as the ravages of time take their toll.

"It's totally naive to think that art is static!" bellows Albert Albano, thumping his hand on his dining room table with such brio that a bottle nearly topples before he catches it and sets it on the floor. Albano is executive director of the Intermuseum Conser-vation Association (ICA), a regional art conservation center established at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum in 1952 which provides conservation treatment and education.

"People go into an art museum where they see cultural materials and think, 'these pieces looked like this five years ago and will look like this in another five years when I come back.' That's not the case. Deterioration is a function of age. That's a law of the globe, and art is no less subject to that law than you or I."

True enough. While the word "timeless"is often applied to great works of art, they are anything but. When museum visitors admire the old master paintings, they may assume these works always had an amber glow. More likely, however, the paintings are encased in layers of grime and discolored varnish–the latter often applied by long-dead owners, art dealers, and restorers as protection–and even color added by other painters or restorers to make up for original details lost to time.

Key elements of the original painting may even be hidden completely, as a disputed evaluation of Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi proved earlier this year. For 10 years, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, had been studying how to restore the painting and planned to begin the process in the spring of 2001. However, a group of art scholars, led by controversial art historian and Columbia University Professor of Art History James Beck '52, raised an international furor against the restoration, claiming it might damage the painting. The Uffizi agreed to abide by the opinion of art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini, who ultimately ruled that the painting wasn't actively deteriorating and didn't require restoration. However, his research revealed a tantalizing world of hidden figures. Using sophisticated techniques to probe beneath the Adoration's uppermost layers, Seracini discovered images of men rebuilding a ruined structure, a beautiful woman standing near one of the magi, and other obscured details that actually change the interpretation of the painting.

If time and grime aren't enough, disasters both natural and manmade wreak even greater havoc on works of art. The Parthenon tumbled into pieces after being struck by a bomb in the 17th century. In 1966, a flood damaged thousands of rare and old books in Florence; 10 years later, earthquakes in northern Italy ruined church frescoes and wooden sculptures. Fires frequently ravage museums, galleries, and private collections. The most famous fire-damaged painting is one from Monet's Water Lilies series, which was scorched during a blaze at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1958 and still languishes at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts–New York University's conservation training program.

For as long as people have anguished over damage to artworks, they've also argued over what to do about it. Throughout the centuries, the debate has focused mostly on the issue of intervention. One side insists that we try to reverse the effects of age and disaster by using the best techniques available to repair or restore works of art. The other side asserts that we should honor these works as artistic and historic artifacts by doing only what preserves their current state. There are many degrees of difference, both within and outside this spectrum of thought.

"The concern for the variety of values in a work of art is certainly not new," says Jerry Podany, president of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and head of antiquities conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He points to the Renaissance hubbub when Michelangelo was asked to restore an ancient, broken Hellenistic sculpture that had been recently excavated. Michelangelo refused, knowing that the technical limitations of the age meant that he would inflict greater damage on the surface of the sculpture.

In the early 19th century, sculptor Antonio Canova offered similar resistance when asked to restore the Phidias sculptures from the fallen Parthenon. Many professional conservators like Podany share this sense of caution, despite believing that intervention is not only wise – but also necessary – in many circumstances.

"As long as people have created material works of any value, other people have been repairing and restoring them," Podany says. "And there are certainly restorers who have done a great deal of damage to cultural properties–to buildings, to paintings, to sculptures. At every point in history, there have been techniques and materials that were intended to help and simply didn't. Sometimes, they only made things worse."

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