JAIC 1999, Volume 38, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 144 to 161)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1999, Volume 38, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 144 to 161)

THE RESTORATION OF THE EARLY ITALIAN “PRIMITIVES” DURING THE 20TH CENTURY: VALUING ART AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

CATHLEEN HOENIGER



2 THE ART-HISTORICAL VIEW OF EARLY ITALIAN PAINTING

Most of the art-historical literature from the 20th century that addresses Italian Renaissance painting follows a much earlier tradition according little respect to the early schools. Many writers still perpetuate the hierarchical construction of artistic development during the Renaissance that Giorgio Vasari expounded in his Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1568), which was the most influential discussion of the history of Italian Renaissance art (Vasari [1550, 1568] 1878–85). In the three prefaces that frame the chronological sequence of the lives of the great Italian artists, Vasari presented a view of the progressive development of art that appears remarkably biased in hindsight. As Erwin Panofsky explained in an essay of 1930, Vasari reestablished the supremacy of the classical style during the High Renaissance by tracing its emergence from a constructed antithesis: the primitive Gothic past (Panofsky 1930). Vasari outlines a model of artistic progress through quasi-biological cycles of development and renewal. He draws on the idea often expressed by classical historigraphers that the evolution of a state or culture corresponds to the ages of man. There was the cycle of ancient times that reached its peak in the Golden Age of classical Rome, after which art declined and then virtually disappeared during the darkness of the early Middle Ages. But then, as the Renaissance gradually dawned, a second cycle began. According to Vasari, the cycle of the Renaissance developed toward its zenith in three stages or ages, compared metaphorically with infancy and childhood, adolescence, and adulthood or maturity.

The first age, or childhood, began with the appearance in the late 13th century in Tuscany of talented artists including Cimabue and, most significantly, Giotto. Vasari describes these childlike artists as eventually “weaned” and brought up beyond the stage of infancy (Vasari [1550, 1568] 1878–85, 2:103). Through increased study of nature, the arts then climbed to a second age, or adolescence, in the 15th century, exemplified by Masaccio and Donatello. Finally, by turning not only to nature but also to the ancients, and by striving not just to equal but to surpass them both, the arts arrived at a second Golden Age during the early 16th century in Florence and Rome. Vasari believed that absolute perfection was embodied in the art of the divine Michelangelo, and to a lesser degree in Leonardo and Raphael (Vasari [1550, 1568] 1878–85, 2:96).

This construction of the development of Italian Renaissance art continues to hold sway. It reached us with the help of Heinrich Wölfflin's often-reprinted Die Klassische Kunst or Classic Art of 1899 and 1903, in which Vasari's concept of artistic progress is given fuller stylistic description and also associated with notions of class. For example, Wölfflin ([1899, 1903] 1964, 213) conceives of the transition from 15th-century to High Renaissance painting as a movement from “a bourgeois art” to “an aristocratic one.” Domenico Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist of 1485, in Sta. Maria Novella in Florence, presents fussily detailed settings with many overtly gesturing figures in a manner suited to “middle-class” tastes (Wölfflin [1899, 1903] 1964, 214). By contrast, Andrea del Sarto's Birth of the Virgin of 1514, in the forecourt of SS. Annunziata in Florence, is noble, elevated, dignified, and “aristocratic” (Wölfflin [1899, 1903] 1964, 158). Like Vasari, Wölfflin glorifies the High Renaissance by denigrating that which came before.

The early Italian artists of the late 13th and 14th centuries were, accordingly, often seen to be lower class. In fact, Vasari's metaphor of childhood was translated into a conception of these artists as simplistic and, therefore, primitive. As the enduring label i primitivi suggests (Neri Sciré and Valcanover 1985), they were associated with a complex mixture of other “primitive” artists from as yet infantile or uncivilized, typically non-Western cultures (Connelly 1995, 2). In turn, the childlike simplicity seen in their art could be interpreted negatively, as reflecting an ignorance of learned conventions and, therefore, as naïve and rude, although in some instances the freedom from learned conventions was viewed more positively as unaffectedly truthful and unconsciously expressive (Steegman [1950] 1987). Several decades before Wölfflin's discussion of High Renaissance style, Charles Eastlake ([1857–58, printed 1867] 1988, 121), then director of the National Gallery of London, explained, in this negatively charged way, the inclusion of some very early Tuscan panels as part of a larger purchase of paintings from the Lombardi-Baldi Collection:

The unsightly specimens of Margaritone and the earliest Tuscan painters were selected solely for their historical importance, and as showing the rude beginnings from which, through nearly two centuries and a half, Italian art slowly advanced to the period of Raphael and his contemporaries.

Even the members of mid-19th-century purist movements essentially followed Vasari's model, though they assessed the simplicity of the early Italian painters quite positively. Tommaso Minardi, the most active Italian advocate of purism, elevated Giotto's art—believing the Assisi frescoes to be by Giotto—because of the natural simplicity and intensity of expression. He was then compelled to heap even greater praise on the artists of “the period of highest rewards, the period of perfection” (Minardi [1864] 1987, 184).

Painters from various centers in Italy, working in the period ca. 1180–1400 or even later, were known collectively as the “primitives” as late as the 1970s; this fact reveals much about prevailing attitudes toward early Italian art. The label “primitive,” with its dual associations of “rude” and “unconsciously natural,” set the early schools apart as different and less polished than “classic” artists. But the implicit contrast was there: these distinctive, rare, and often exquisitely crafted paintings, instead of being appreciated on their own terms, were devalued through a historical comparison with the muscular superrealism of Michelangelo or the robust idealized figures and soft landscapes of Raphael. Vasari's notions of High Renaissance classicism, subsequently elaborated upon in the definition of “fine art” within the French academic tradition, formed the enduring touchstone of artistic perfection against which early Italian painting was measured and was consequently found lacking. Indeed, the post-World War II literature continues the currency of expressions such as “the dawn of Italian painting,” thus perpetuating the belief that these works represent the earliest stages in the artistic evolution that produced the high noon of the High Renaissance. Alistair Smart (1978, 1) chose that image of the dawn for the title of his early Italian survey, first published in 1978, and elaborated on the analogy in his poetic introduction:

The glow of dawn leads on to the blaze of noon, but its quality is quite distinct. And if the full light of Renaissance painting can be likened to a noonday amenable to the objective scrutiny of the natural world, the rise of the early Italian Schools suggests, rather, a slow dawn whose spreading light, while gradually revealing the forms of things, retains its mystery.

Although Smart celebrates what he sees as the distinctly mysterious or otherworldly quality of early Italian painting, the metaphor of the rising sun betrays his acceptance of Vasari's paradigm.

This article will propose that such persistent bias in the evaluation of early Italian painting on the part of the art-history and museum communities has, in turn, affected the way these works are preserved for future generations. As I will present in the following pages, the distinctive restoration problems encountered with early Italian paintings have elicited radical, and often unfortunately irreversible, responses. Whether the treatments can be associated with the lower status of the images and the marginalization of their artistic qualities should be considered.

The primary problem that faces the restorer of early Italian paintings is the viability of reconstructing badly damaged works. A conservative estimate would indicate that less than 5% of the paintings created during this period have survived (Garrison 1972), and many of those surviving exist in a fragmentary and heavily damaged state. The restorer must, therefore, decide to what extent the effects of the damage should be reduced and, if the losses are to be inpainted, what kind of integration should be attempted. During the 20th century, the most widespread approach has been, first of all, to remove all later fills and repaints in search of what is left of the original. Then, if large losses are discovered, the approach suggests to present the painting with the losses left exposed or with the losses partially integrated using a variety of neutral inpainting techniques (Stout 1941–42). The conservation philosophy that underlies this approach holds that the reconstruction of missing parts cannot be justified if it is hypothetical and also when the loss exceeds a certain size.


Copyright © 1999 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works