THE RESTORATION OF THE EARLY ITALIAN “PRIMITIVES” DURING THE 20TH CENTURY: VALUING ART AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
7 UNDERLYING IDEOLOGIES
I would like to go further and suggest that such overt presentations of aged and damaged panel paintings may reflect biases similar to those of the treatment and display of non-Western art and artifacts in the context of the Western art museum. The pervasive conception of early Italian art as “primitive” betrays an unsympathetic, indeed pejorative, classification as “different.” It is often said that the paintings are being treated “honestly” as “fragments,” but the reason may lie, instead, in the way they are valued. It may be that paintings by the often marginalized and denigrated early Italian masters are considered as historical and cultural indicators, rather than as artistic accomplishments, within a system of evaluation that eschews utility while appreciating pure aestheticism. An archaeological approach to their restoration in which original remains are exposed but not reconstructed would, therefore, seem appropriate for objects that are considered far from perfect from the start.
Against this reading, some might counter that the archaeological approach was held in high esteem during the 1950s through the 1970s because of its association with the preservation of cultural heritage in its rich diversity. Nevertheless, when the archaeologically pure restorations of the “primitives” are set in conjunction with the much more aesthetic treatments of works by Raphael and Titian, it becomes apparent that the artistic qualities of the early masters have not been valued highly. The early panels are allowed to show their age and wear, whereas a supposedly more refined High Renaissance painting is made to appear timeless.
Indeed, it could be argued that early Italian paintings share two characteristics with the bulk of non-Western images that link these otherwise diverse cultural products unconsciously in the minds of traditional art historians and the conservators who work alongside them. Both types of images are held to be largely outside the Western canonical notion of art making, which is based on humanist concepts of that which constitutes fine art. This notion proposes that the abstract systems of illusionism (e.g., linear perspective) and narrative evince rational thought (Gombrich  1971; Belting 1994; Elkins 1995). Moreover, early Italian paintings, largely created to fulfill religious functions, are often treated as cultural artifacts because of present-day feelings of distance from, and lack of understanding for, medieval Christianity, particularly popular cult practices. This situation, in turn, lends the images an anthropological status allied to non-Western ritual objects, instead of the kind of aesthetic values associated with fine art specimens of “gallery quality.” With all their repaints removed and their losses revealed, the early paintings can be seen as situated, effectively, at a distant historical moment in the past, as evidence of an earlier form of visual expression, long since surpassed. Rather than enhancing their ability to speak to contemporary audiences, thus pulling them forward into the present, the fragmentary remains seem left to communicate on their own disabled terms.
Yet, in the last 15 years, historical conscience together with the rise of postcolonial theory and the institutionalization of cultural sensitivity have helped create an intellectual environment in museums in which sacred and social objects are understood in the spirit in which they were created, and sometimes preserved accordingly. Therefore, we can witness the development of a more sensitive approach toward early Italian sacred painting. The change seems to be occurring, significantly, in association with corresponding developments in art history. The earlier, extreme attitudes toward cleaning and inpainting can be linked, as I have suggested, to the low valuation of the early masters within the canonical hierarchy of Italian Renaissance painting. By the 1970s and 1980s, scholars were beginning to explore early Italian painting on its own terms. A small number of Renaissance art historians, Henk van Os among others, started explaining the features of early Tuscan painting in relation to specific social and religious contexts. They were inspired by Michael Baxandall's 1972 landmark study of 15th-century painting in Italy and the “period eye” (Baxandall 1972; Fabbri and Rutenburg 1981; van Os 1984; Corrie 1990; Wood 1991).
Increasing awareness of the contextual dimensions of early sacred art appears to be having an impact, in turn, on conservation practices. The change is well illustrated by the restoration in 1983 at London's National Gallery of the predella scene, Jesus Opens the Eyes of a Man Born Blind, from Duccio's Maestą altarpiece of 1308–11 (fig. 15). There was unfortunate paint loss to the cured man's face in the focus of narrative interest: the man's open eyes are the evidence of Christ's miracle. The painting was sensitively reconstructed by the London restorers, who deliberately resisted imitating the craquelure of the original paint layers to enable a careful observer to identify the inpainting (Bomford et al. 1990). As David Bomford explained, in this instance a virtually deceptive inpainting technique was “essential” to preserve the narrative message (Bomford et al. 1990, 51). One does have to recognize that Duccio's Maestą is one of the most seriously studied and fully appreciated early Italian works (White 1979, 80) and that it may take more time and imagination for the messages and aesthetics of less famous early images to be similarly respected. Nevertheless, there is substantive evidence that approaches are beginning to shift. In certain instances, as David Bomford explained with Duccio's miracle scene in mind, the conscientious desire to present a fragmentary painting “honestly” has been suppressed, and preserving the message of the religious narrative is prioritized instead.