THE RESTORATION OF THE EARLY ITALIAN “PRIMITIVES” DURING THE 20TH CENTURY: VALUING ART AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
Restoration is sometimes described as revealing an artist's true colors or original intentions, although this is virtually impossible in practice. As David Lowenthal has presented through numerous evocative examples of attempts to preserve—nay, revive—the past, every human intervention on a cultural artifact, no matter how historically motivated, inevitably brings the object into a new state tied to the values of the present (Lowenthal  1988; Hoeniger 1995; Dykstra 1996). Focusing on the restoration of Italian Renaissance paintings, this article will explore the relationship between treatment approaches and contemporaneous values. I will discuss how the treatments performed on paintings often reflect the conservation ideology of the day. This discussion will be expressed in terms of the level of cleaning and the amount of compensation for loss that is considered desirable. I will also address, however, the ways in which interventions betray how the artwork is valued by collectors, the museum world, and academic art historians. To illustrate this hypothesis, I will describe several instances in which early Italian panel paintings were radically cleaned during this century to demonstrate the relatively low status of the early Italian masters in art history.