THE RESTORATION OF THE EARLY ITALIAN “PRIMITIVES” DURING THE 20TH CENTURY: VALUING ART AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
This article has explored the relationship between the restoration treatments of several early Italian panel paintings during the 20th century and the status of this group of images in art-historical writings. Termed “primitive” until very recently, paintings from the early schools carry a history of negative evaluation even today. I have suggested that such values affect restoration approaches and, more specifically, underlie the purist radical cleanings of the 1950s and 1960s in Italy and at Yale. In turn, I have proposed that more recent restorations of the 1970s and 1980s, which attempt to preserve the aesthetic or narrative aspects of these early images, reveal the same kind of rethinking that is evident, concurrently, in the art-historical literature. Through case studies from early Italian painting, this article explores how restoration can be interpreted in relation to reception and taste and how treatment approaches can be intimately connected to the valuation of the object, revealed in the way the painting is written about and exhibited (Phillips 1997).
An earlier version of this paper was presented in February 1997 at the College Art Association in New York, in a session on conservation in cultural context co-organized by Stephen Mellor and Rebecca A. Rushfield. My research was generously funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. First and foremost, I would like to thank Norman Muller for his continuing encouragement and enthusiasm. For assistance during the research stages, I would like to thank Mark Aronson, head of conservation, Yale University Art Gallery. I have also benefited greatly from the helpful anonymous reviews. My colleague Barbara Keyser provided thoughtful and learned commentary.