THE RESTORATION OF THE EARLY ITALIAN “PRIMITIVES” DURING THE 20TH CENTURY: VALUING ART AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
6 A SUGGESTIVE COMPARISON
Evidently, the restorations of many early Italian paintings performed during this century reflect a general consensus that the effects of damage should not be fully disguised. Although restorers have differed in the degree to which they believe distracting losses should be reduced, deceptive inpainting techniques are rarely used. Whereas, to this day, damaged paintings by important High Renaissance artists, such as Raphael and Andrea del Sarto, are treated as aesthetic entities and their losses disguised to preserve artistic coherence, early Italian works have been consciously left in their damaged condition.
A comparison of two panels restored recently at the Louvre illustrates this discrepancy. Raphael's Angel, a fragment from the large St. Nicholas of Tolentino Altarpiece painted by the young artist in 1500–1501, was meticulously inpainted in 1983 to conceal a large triangular system of losses down the center of the angel's face. The Louvre restorers felt that the central losses, which they described as cutting the angel's face in two, destroyed the visual appreciation of the painting. After considering various options, they decided to adopt a pointillist inpainting technique, harmonious with the oil technique of Raphael's original, to integrate the losses in a manner discernible on close scrutiny. In practice, however, the angel's face appears fully integrated, with the exception of the lack of craquelure, even in the detailed color reproductions that accompany the publication of the restoration (Bergeon 1990). The approach at the Louvre to an early Italian painting is in stark contrast. The extensive losses around the edges of Fra Angelico's Angel of the Annunciation, originally part of a ciborium designed in the 1420s for San Domenico in Fiesole, were left fully exposed, right down to the wood support. Because the largest and most evident areas of loss, in this case, were peripheral, the Louvre restorers argued that it seemed advisable to resist reintegration and to leave the bare wood exposed and the gold leaf full of lacunae. Even in this fragmentary condition, they contended, one could still fully appreciate the vivid colors and precise technique of Fra Angelico. Furthermore, the well-used condition, they suggested, was compatible with the age of the work (Bergeon 1990).
The Louvre restorers further contended that the damage to the Raphael was more disfiguring, because of its central location, than the peripheral losses in the Fra Angelico. Many might find this explanation extremely reasonable. However, when set in the context of more widespread trends in the treatment of the early masters as compared with High Renaissance works, the Louvre restorers' rationalization gives pause for thought. Restorers do not simply work on a case-by-case basis, making objective judgments respectful of each individual painting. In the spirit of suggestion rather than proof, therefore, I would like to place in association with the Louvre Raphael, an earlier panel with a large central loss but from a quite different museum context. The Madonna and Child no. 593 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena, attributed to the Master of Badia a Isola, an artist close to the young Duccio, sustained a disturbing loss through the face of the Christ Child. The loss remained hidden up until 1978, having been repainted in oils prior to the acquisition of the work in 1906, and then again following the cleaning of 1932 (Stubblebine 1979). However, in 1978, the integrating additions were removed and the distressing lacuna has remained exposed to this day (figs. 13, 14). This evidence from another gallery suggests that similar central losses, when they occur on early panels, are sometimes left exposed. Early panels are often allowed to reveal their imperfect condition, a condition deemed appropriate to their age. High Renaissance paintings (some-times even those in the same institutions) are treated quite differently.