Volume 19, Number 1 .... January 1997

Book Review: Readings in Conservation: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage

Edited by Nicholas Stanley Price, M. Kirby Talley, Jr., and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro

Reviewed by Joyce Hill Stoner

I was pleased to be asked to review most of the contents of this book in an earlier incarnation; reading it gave me the sense that I had taken a useful course in the history and philosophy of our profession. It is now even better, and I would recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys lively discussions on approaches to treating or just looking at works of art. It is perhaps of most interest to historians and conservators of paintings, monuments, and sculpture. There are also inclusions relevant to archaeological conservation and conservation science. Readers will find intriguing ways to apply architectural restoration theory to debates in the conservation of paintings; many of the discourses are more broadly applicable than might first appear. However, thinking of my colleagues in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, I suspect only the most ecumenical and theory-prone conservators of paper, photographs, textiles, and furniture could be convinced to seek analogues for their debates and decisions in this volume.

The Preface states that "the guiding principle of these readings is the search for the roots of contemporary problems and the rereading of texts that have become classics but that are still rich in suggestions and useful for putting our everyday problems into perspective." The readings are especially helpful for English-speaking conservators who have heard references to published work by Cesare Brandi, Paul Philippot, or Roger Marijnissen, but had not been able to digest their theories from French or Italian publications.

The book has forty-six readings divided into eight sections. Each of the sections has an introduction by either M. Kirby Talley, an American art historian who lives in The Netherlands, or Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro, an Italian archaeologist who is a professor of conservation at the University of Venice. These two editors have strong opinions which are expressed as they provide the reader with an overview of their sections. One of the most helpful features of the book is the provision of short biographies of all authors and editors in a section in the back; it is extremely useful to know the date, country, and specialty of this spectrum of writers in order to contextualize their comments. There are also many excellent illustrations and extensive annotated bibliographies for each section to extend the discussions with readings that were not selected for actual inclusion.

Part I: The Eye's Caress: Looking, Appreciation, and Connoisseurship
Edited by M. Kirby Talley.

This section has sixteen readings which trace the well-known Western art canon of connoisseurship by Ruskin, Berenson, Bell, Clark, Wöfflin, and Friedländer. Many readers will already be quite familiar with these readings; most were already available in English, but it is useful to have the lineage reproduced as a packet. To me, the outstanding inclusions of this section are:

"The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Its Development," by Alois Riegl, 1928, translated from the German. This landmark article defines the values of "age," "art," "history," "use," "newness," and "commemoration." These principles and terminology can be applied to works of art of all materials although it is written about monuments.

"The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline," by Erwin Panofsky, 1940. Panofsky defines a work of art as a "man-made object demanding to be experienced aesthetically" but establishes the dynamic tension between aesthetics and content or between form and ideas. This is important because many of our collaborating art historians of today are especially interested in social history and content.

I was disappointed in the lack of diversity in this section, that little effort was made to discuss connoisseurship of works other than Western European paintings or methodologies of understanding other than formal aesthetics. Connoisseurship is based on "to know" and there are many things to know about a work of art or cultural history before plunging into the intimate "moment" of restoration discussed here. A whole generation of curators has been raised on Jules David Prown's "Style as Evidence," which could be related to Clive Bell's "Art" or on publications by Meyer Schapiro, Robert Herbert, and Linda Nochlin.

However, Talley is in his element in the Introduction extolling Berenson's "aesthetic reveries," "life-enhancing" values, and "personal response." If one is not familiar with this connoisseurship canon, it should by all means be absorbed because it does enhance our daily life as conservators. (Just don't stop there.) The selection from Ernst Gombrich is an important underpinning for all looking and for Gerry Hedley's useful comparison of cleaning approaches which is not republished in this collection but is available in the recent anthology of Hedley's publications, Measured Opinions (listed in the bibliography).

Part II: The Original Intent of the Artist
Edited by M. Kirby Talley.

This is a short section with three selections on modern art: Albert Albano on the acceptance of change, 1988; John Richardson's famous "Crimes Against the Cubists" article, 1983; and a paper by Ernst van de Wetering, "The Autonomy of Restoration: Ethical Considerations in Relation to Artistic Concepts," 1989. E. van de Wetering quotes Vincent van Gogh suggesting that his high-impasto surfaces could be scraped with a razor blade after a year; a memorable example of why the artist's intent might not always be the best and final word.

Part III: The Emergence of Modern Conservation Theory
Edited by A. Melucco Vaccaro.

I found this to be an outstanding section with six highly worthwhile articles, all translated from French, German, or Italian publications. Ms. Melucco Vaccaro has provided a sympathetic and thoughtful introduction noting, "The more famous a work of art, the more tortuous its history."

The French writer Marguerite Yourcenar has written a short lyrical piece entitled "That Mighty Sculptor Time," 1983, about the process of deterioration of stone. It opens: "On the day when a statue is finished, its life, in a certain sense, begins," and describes the whiteness and porosity caused by sea wind, the pathos of works toppled by human violence, or the striking aspects of underwater decomposition.

Paul Philippot indicates in "Restoration from the Perspective of the Humanities," 1983, that it may be possible "to recognize the museum, or at least the country, from which a painting in an exhibition originated by the manner in which the painting was treated." [Yet we claim to be an invisible profession.] Philippot also discusses ethnographic and non-Western conservation. He states what he considers to be "the heart of the problem of restoration": "An authentic relationship with the past must not only recognize the unbridgeable gap that has formed, after historicism, between us and the past; it must also integrate this distance into the actualization of the work produced by the intervention." He also discusses space and lighting factors.

Cesare Brandi's "Theory of Restoration," 1963, is excerpted, noting his plea to "restablish the potential unity of the work of art, as long as this is possible without producing an artistic or historical forgery and without erasing every trace of the passage of time left on the work of art." This statement contextualizes the popularity of the visible inpainting methods of tratteggio or aesthetic re-integration practiced in Italy.

Giovanni Carbonara's "The Integration of the Image: Problems in the Restoration of Monuments," 1976, contrasts the approach to restoration at the National Gallery ("British empiricism") with the historical values of Brandi ("Italian idealism") calling them "unshakable aesthetic positions" and then moves on to interventions in architectural restoration. [Carbonara and others refer to the "British" attitudes of the National Gallery, London; however, most of the National Gallery conservators were trained by a German, Helmut Ruhemann.]

Albert France-Lanord's "Knowing How to 'Question' the Object before Restoring It," 1964, discusses archaeological ethics and documentary value in broadly applicable terms.

Marie Berdecou's, "Introduction to Archaeological Conservation," 1990, provides a thoughtful, up-to-date, geographically diverse discussion of issues including multiple meanings, consequence, integrity, authenticity, terminology, and multidisciplinary viewpoints. Conservators in all specialties should read this.

Parts IV and V: Historical Perspective and Restoration and Anti-Restoration
Edited by A. Melucco Vaccaro.

I am unclear why these two sections are separated. Both are concerned with historical attitudes toward the treatment of paintings, architecture, and sculpture and have intriguing and broadly applicable points. In her Part IV introduction, Ms. Melucco Vaccaro quotes a lecture by Camillo Boito, the first theoretician of architectural restoration, "With rare exceptions, only one wise course of action remains: to leave works of art alone, or, where, necessary, to free them of restorations, whether old or recent, bad or not too bad."

Short excerpts from R. Marijnissen's important chapter on the history of restoration, 1967, note that the history of the restoration of art objects will mirror "mankind's great intellectual and spiritual quest," and that "many masterpieces escaped destruction only because they had been forgotten." [Readily available articles in English--especially Part I--might have been given less space, and hard-to-find materials or important translations, such as this one, might have been given more space.]

Sheldon Keck's "Further Materials for a History of Conservation," AIC 1976, provides a survey of conservation attitudes from antiquity through the seventeenth century.

By tracing the sequence of restorations on the Lacoön, Orietta Rossi Pinelli narrates a journey through the shoals of restoration history of ancient sculpture in "The Surgery of Memory: Ancient Sulpture and Historical Restoration," 1986.

A pro-architectural reconstruction publication by Viollet-le-Duc is presented in contrast to writings by William Morris and John Ruskin. Morris takes the view that preventive care is more important since the clock cannot be turned back. Ruskin writes "we have no right whatever to touch the buildings of past times."

Part VI: Reintegration of Losses
Edited by A. Melucco Vaccaro.

This section contains the Max Friedländer passage calling restoration the "necessary evil," three articles by Italian proponents of inpainting that can be distinguished from the original, one article by Belgian proponents of more invisible inpainting, and one article on integration of losses in buildings and archaeological objects. This is a valuable compilation to explain the extensive theories and various details connected with these contrasting approaches, especially the excerpts from the Moras and Philippot. The section would have been stronger with more representation from the theorists who believe retouching should be precise, immaculate, and exactly matching, such as pupils of Helmut Ruhemann, and some discussion of the value of making copies of Old Master paintings. (Bettina Jessell's 1977 article on Ruhemann's technique is at least cited in the annotated bibliography.) However, the most extensive theories about approaches to inpainting do seem to have been published originally in Italy.

Part VII: The Idea of Patina
Edited by A. Melucco Vaccaro.

I found this the most valuable section of these Readings because I feel that the most irreversible and still actively arguable issues in our profession are connected to the cleaning of surfaces of works of all materials. Ms. Melucco Vaccaro notes in her introduction: "Thus the traces of time, and human interventions designed to counteract the more disfiguring effects of time, are concentrated in the material of the work of art, especially on its surface. . . . Scientific analysis and critical interpretation are often in conflict over the few microns of a layer under discussion." She is actually referring to marble, but the statement is also true for oil paintings.

The translation of Paul Philippot's "The Idea of Patina and the Cleaning of Paintings," from the IRPA Bulletin, 1966, introduces some key concepts into the English-language discourse of cleaning from the Burlington Magazine controversy through the Gerry Hedley discussions. He notes that "the drying of the binding medium tends to increase the transparency of the pictorial layers, especially in areas where it was used in abundance. . . . Finally, a normal consequence of drying is the exudation of the binding medium toward the surface. Such migration determines to a great extent the particular luster of the 'stabilized' pictorial surface, affecting not only the surface condition but the transparency and depth of the tones." He discusses retrieving the aesthetic unity of the original images on a case-by-case basis.

Two more translations of Brandi articles continue the discussion of patina on paintings; Phoebe Dent Weil provides an extensive consideration of patina on metals, and another valuable article by Ernst van de Wetering, from a 1981 conference in Hungary, eloquently discusses surfaces.

Part VIII: The Role of Science and Technology
Edited by A. Melucco Vaccaro.

Ms. Melucco Vaccaro calls this topic "the most controversial" of the book in her introduction, and is concerned about the intervention of the scientist and the scientific method in conservation. I find that odd; but perhaps the collaboration of scientists with conservators seen by an American paintings conservator/educator is different from what is witnessed by an Italian archaeologist. This is a short section with only three readings: an optimistic discussion of the history and current state of scientific research in conservation as of 1961 by Dr. Paul Coremans, the respected Belgian conservation scientist; a somewhat acerbic discussion of disasters to art objects caused by chemists written in 1982 by Dr. Giorgio Torraca, an Italian conservation scientist; and musings from 1982 on the collaboration among scientists, art historians, and conservators by Giovanni Urbani, an Italian art historian and conservator. Melucco Vaccaro, Torraca, and Urbani do not value archaeometric studies; Urbani notes that these techniques "brought advantages to their inventors," but have not been particularly useful for applied conservation. A more positive outlook is demonstrated by eight additional references in the annotated bibliography for this section.

This is not a book to be absorbed quickly; each section could be fodder for extensive seminar discussions and I hope will be in many locations. I suspect colleagues who read this book will find themselves quoting these authors in future talks and publications, especially for launching any philosophical or historical overview. I believe all conservators of paintings, monuments, sculpture, or objects should own this book and keep it next to their Gettens and Stout Dictionary. Please recommend it to anyone you know who teaches art history or archaeology.

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