The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 8
Dec 1996


To the Editor:

Your news item regarding the interest of Sandro Pintus in people who went to Florence to help with the 1966 Flood [Nov. issue, front page] mentioned that there was no record of the names of American scientists in the archives of the city. For one important reason-there was no great need for scientists to arrive in the very earliest days-there were no laboratory facilities high and dry available for much of any technical investigations. Mops and shovels were the early priority.

William Young of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, spend many months in Florence doing everything to get the conservation effort to acquire the very best technical assistance. His name should not be forgotten in the history of the flood. If I remember correctly, he spent the best part of a year in the city with the approval of the Museum of Fine Arts. I remember that he briefly had to return to Boston in February 1967 to handle his personal affairs back home and to work out with the Museum authorities a major extension of his leave of absence.

In February 1967, CRIA (the Committee to Rescue Italian Art-a U.S. fund-raising effort) arranged with the National Gallery of Art to send me over from Pittsburgh's Mellon Institute to assist in investigations and advice, regarding the preservation of the frescos in the city. This was done at the specific request of Leonetto Tintori.

When I arrived in February, there was no place where I could immediately set up shop. They gave me an unheated room in the Pitti Palace where a portable space heater, a lamp and a table allowed me to assemble my notes and correspondence.

One of the first tasks was to try and find a microscope that would magnify at least 100X if not higher. Dr. Edward Sayre and I were taken by Eve Borsook, long a resident of the city, to meet the head of the mineralogy department at the university. He was very kind, but it appeared that to use the university's laboratory would be logistically difficult. Finally, a biological microscope that one of the restoration laboratories had never found much use for was obtained. It had no polarizers (which are important for the inspection of minerals). So I went to a local optician's shop-one of the limited number of shops that were open for business-and got a set of polarizing sunglasses, the "lens" of which allowed me to rig up"crossed polars" to facilitate examination of the minerals that were coming out of the walls and disrupting the frescos.

I airmailed mineral samples back to Mellon Institute for x-ray diffraction analysis and was able to determine that gypsum was largely at the root of the efflorescence problem that was disrupting the buon frescos throughout the city. A 79-page report of these activities should be in the records of CRIA, Mellon Institute and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

I also gave a series of lectures to the conservators working on the paintings in the city, explaining (through an interpreter and blackboard diagrams) the nature of poly(n-butyl methacrylate) and Paraloid B-72, materials with which local conservators were not then familiar. (Paraloid B-72 and Kleenex-type face tissues had been placed on hundreds of paintings as "facings" to keep the paint in place while the wood and canvas supports were drying out.)

It was from Germany that excellent photographic equipment was eventually brought to Florence in the spring of 1967. I also believe, on the day I was saying my "goodbyes" late in March, that I saw, while passing a half-opened door, a first-class Zeiss polarizing microscope that had just arrived from Germany! Before that date there was little in the way of laboratory facilities.

There was not much a scientist could do in the initial days, and a limit to how much time an American could afford to spend in Florence. I was only able to stay two months. If nothing else, Bill Young did much to impress upon local authorities the need to develop scientific support for the work of recovery. Among the people he interacted with at that time were Dr. and Mrs. Piachenti, I recall. Dr. Piachenti-if I have spelled his name correctly-did much to study the fresco problem in the months and years that followed. Eve Borsook did much to shepherd us all. She should know Bill Young's story better than I.

Are we surprised that few scientists stand out in a list of participants? Think back; how many scientists were involved with the field back then? Who had specific experience in the immediate problems at hand? (Ed Sayre, with Larry Majewski, had published studies on the treatment of frescos of Padua; I knew about the methacrylate polymers being used; Young was experienced in the analysis of materials.) At the time, Joyce Plesters offered most of her assistance to authorities in Venice. Do we know what sort of laboratories there were in Florence at that date that would have called upon scientists abroad to come and assist? Things are very much different in the field of conservation today from the international situation thirty years ago.

Robert L. Feller
Carnegie Mellon Research Institute

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