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Modern Restoration & the Renovated Crucifix in the Duomo of Crema

At the risk of appearing obvious, it occurs to me that there are three categories of modern restoration which are effectively operative for paintings and sculptures:

(1) those for the art trade and private collectors

(2) those for museums and public collections

(3) those produced for a specific religious purpose, in churches and chapels.

In the first, the treatment of works destined for the art market, whether to be sold privately or at public auction, the art trade has certain demands and realities. Once an object finds its way into the hands of dealers, the tendency is to take considerable liberties in order to make it saleable. The dealers seem to know what their clients want, and they tend to give them exactly that. Very frequently, especially in the past, dealers actually did their own restorations, or at least had a restorer in-house who did them according to instructions. In such antiquarian restorations, the governing notion is to make the object as attractive as possible and, to be sure, authentic-looking.

The second category pertains to works in museums and public collections. Whether the institution is public in that it is controlled by a city, state or nation, or it belongs to a foundation, certain controls can be expected, at least in Europe where most nations have Art Ministries and Art Superintendencies with a certain level of jurisdiction. The operative goal in this category is the notion of “legibility.”

Third category, the one that concerns me in this essay, includes works which belong to religious entities and which continue to function as originally conceived, such as wall cycles with strong didactic overtones, or altarpieces with a current ceremonial and theological role.

As a parenthesis, another category can be constructed somewhere between the second and the third, as the church/museum is, in fact, reflective of the newest trend in Italy. Churches like Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, for example, have a dual role, both to fulfil the needs of the faithful and to act as custodian for the Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio, Masolino, and Filippino Lippi. A decade ago, the chapel was transformed into a communal museum at the Carmine with a special entrance, and a prescribed path for viewing the various highlights including a quick visit to the Brancacci Chapel. I suspect those church members especially devoted to Saint Peter will have to do without the Brancacci.

Similar actions have occurred more recently across the Arno at Santa Maria Novella which is more generically a communal church/museum, with an entrance fee and those abominable electronic guides. Accommodations have been made for the faithful, but I suspect they should avoid looking at Masaccio’s recently restored Trinity, or risk the cost of the entrance fee. San Lorenzo in Florence has not one fee, but several: there is one to enter the main body of the church along with Brunelleschi’s unequalled Old Sacristy, another for the New Sacristy (which has long been a museum), and yet another for the Laurentian Library. One should not pick on Florence, however, since many churches in Venice operate under the same principle of the church/museum. In terms of restoration, the question of what is the appropriate mode for such an hybrid institution is particularly perplexing.

I seek here to consider only the third category in connection with an issue which was brought to my attention and which encapsulates a number of vital questions connected with modern art restoration theory and practice, especially in Italy. The object in question is a miraculous, over life-size, painted wood Crucifix which was created for and remains in the Duomo of Crema, a Lombard city not far from Milan. The work, of unknown authorship, probably dates to the 1340s and is neither of exceptional beauty nor is it significant by usual art-historical criteria. Nonetheless, a nexus of challenging issues can be related to it. They include two remarkable, not to say out-of-the-ordinary, characteristics: (1) a historical tradition which connects the Cross with the liberty of the city of Crema, giving it a civic quality; and (2) the tradition of the Cross as the subject of miracles. Especially relevant is the miraculous event which occurred during civic strife in 1448, when an evil man ran into the Duomo, grabbed the Cross and placed it on a fire on the main square. In order to avoid being scorched, the sculpted figure of Christ lifted his feet from the flames, an action which explains the fact that His feet are a few centimetres away from the wood plank to which He is attached.

The sculpture has accrued a black surface over the centuries whose origins are not known. The coloring does coincide with the tradition that it was in a fire, and that may explain this “iconographic” detail. Alternatively, the painted surface might reflect an effort to give the sculpture the look of being of bronze, which turns dark. In any case, the black surface has been a feature of the Cross known and revered by the faithful for centuries. How to deal with it has become the central issue for the current restoration (2000-2001). Should the old, traditional and revered – but not original – black be retained or should it be removed? If the object were housed in the Metropolitan Museum in Art in New York, or the Bargello in Florence, the answer would be much easier to achieve: it would have been removed without much thought. But the Cross is housed in the Duomo.

The situation surrounding the restoration of the Crema Cross has unexpected aspects. The restorer in charge, the Cremese Paolo Mariani has taken a position favoring a minimal intervention, supporting the retention of the black coating. The same view was originally expressed by the Bishop of Crema. The Soprintendente per i beni artistici e storici per le province di Brescia, Cremona e Mantova, with headquarters in Mantova and the authority over Crema, is ideologically on other side.

To complicate this case, the commission to carry out the restoration did not originate from the superintendency, but from the Bishop with the financial support of a local bank. In 1999 the Bishop sought a conservational restoration (“restauro conservativo”) of the Crucifix in conjunction the with Jubilee Year of 2000. Work on this object, most sacred in the hearts of the people of Crema, was handed over to the respected restorer, who is also a professor of restoration. He wanted to make the restoration open to the public at fixed times and was determined to undertake all possible tests to determine the physical condition of the work, including a TAC examination which was actually done at the local hospital. Basically Mariani sought to create a conservational intervention, without altering the traditional appearance of the Cross, thus to maintain what the people were used to seeing. His point of view was consistent with that of the Ufficio Beni Culturali of the Diocesi of Crema.

In contrast, the Soprintendente Dott. Giuliana Algeri intervened with a letter of 19 August 2000, insisting upon the removal of the black surface in order to “recover” the verist aspect of the original. The Soprintendente went on to describe her methodology, which included the “intuition [sic] that beneath there was antique painting which was confirmed by micro-stratagraphic study” (“intuizione che al di sotto ci fosse una dipintura antica che veniva confermata da indagini microstratigrafiche”). Besides she believed that the original painted surface – the one placed immediately on top of the priming layer of gesso and glue – could be found. And further it was expected to liberate further the surfaces in order to recover a chromatic aspect more compatible with the “epochal credibility of the polychromed sculpture” (“veridicta epocale della scultura policroma”). In these remarks we find the authoritarian rhetoric of official modern restoration.

The restorer was clearly in complete disagreement, asserting that “if one were to bring back to their original states all the artistic and architectural works of the past, eliminating all of the events which had occurred in the interim, Italy would be a country in which the works of art would be reduced to embryonic idols” (“se si dovessero riportare allo stato primitivo tutte le opere artistiche ed architettoniche del passato, eliminando tutti gli eventi che si sono materialmente sedimentati nel tempo, l’Ialia diverrebbe un paese nel quale le opere d’arte sarebbero ridotte a larvali feticci”). On a technical level, Mariani claims that what is regarded as original application of flesh tones is in actuality a coat that was applied after the fire of 1448, and not the fourteenth-century surface. But even this – let us call it the second surface – is highly incomplete. The original painting, which can occasionally be seen beneath this one, is present only in a minuscule percentage of the surface.

Notwithstanding his personal opinion, the restorer believed he was obliged, despite his philosophy and his intimate knowledge of the object, to follow the instructions of the Superintendency. He apparently felt that his knowledge and experience was such that it was better to continue to do the restoration rather than to be replaced, presumably by someone with less experience, and therefore salvage the salvageable.

Several conclusions can be reached in this case: (1) the Soprintendente has the final word on the treatment of art in her territory, which generally speaking is an important safeguard against whimsical, parochial interventions; (2) the Soprintendente was neither sympathetic nor aware of the distinctions between the different “kinds” of restorations listed at the beginning of this item and, perhaps unaware, she applied a museum standard; (3) the Soprintendente was much taken with the modern rhetoric of restorations regarding the recovery of ancient splendour, even when very little of it exists; and (4) the restorer, like many of his confreres, is caught in a unenviable situation to either follow the “orders” of the authorities or lose the job; Mariani seems to have chosen the course of inflicting the least possible damage to the work. Should he have refused to follow the instructions of the Soprintendente? My intuition is, probably.

The lesson, if there is one in this case, is that the system does not provide for any significant appeals over the authority of the Soprintendente. Should a system be created in which committees of disinterested individuals can, like a judge, weigh the evidence? Undoubtedly. Such a system would probably have prevented what is unfolding in Crema where the removal of the sacred, traditional aura is perpetrated in favor of a pseudo-ancient one.

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City of Florence to Charge Admission at Santa Maria Novella

Should churches charge admission fees to see art?

The recent decision by the city of Florence, with the approval of the Superintendent of Fine Arts (Soprintendente ai beni artistici) of Florence Dr. Antonio Paolucci together with church authorities to charge admission to visit Santa Maria Novella has raised a host of questions pertinent to the culture as a whole. One should keep in mind that this is by no means the first time churches in Italy (and elsewhere) charge entrance fees. At the top of a growing list is, after all, the Vatican which for decades has been requiring a fee or really a ticket to visit the Sistine Chapel. Of course the Vatican is not Italy. And strictly speaking and with considerable finesse, the Sistine Chapel has been defined as part of the Vatican Museums and by so doing any ethical ambiguities have been effectively sidestepped. Museums customarily, though not universally, have been selling admissions for centuries.

The same ‘solution’ has been applied to the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, more recently, following an extensive not to say brutal restoration of the frescoes by Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. In this instance the comune of Florence, museum-ized the chapel, lumping it together with the little museum that was always there. Furthermore they eliminated an entry to the Brancacci Chapel from the church itself, effectively eliminating its religious connection. As with the Sistina, the fiction was reinforced that one was not actually paying to enter a church, but rather a museum.

The situation surrounding entrance to the Baptistery, Dante’s bel S. Giovanni, with encrusted marble decoration outside and glistening late Medieval mosaics inside, is slightly different. The tourists must now pay to visit the unforgettable building which stands in the piazza of the Duomo, across from its façade and Giotto’s bell tower. The same has been true for decades at Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli where Cathedral authorities have been collecting entrance fees for their marvelous buildings: the Camposanto, the Duomo, the Baptistery. The holy buildings are grouped with the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral and the Museum of the Sinopia on a “cumulative ticket,” for which there is a discount off individual admissions.

Now the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, located a stone’s throw from the train station from which its name derives, will have an admission fee amounting to 5,000 Lire (about 2.50 in Euros). The art in the church and in the cloister is of the highest quality and rivals that in most public museums. Chief works of Cimabue, Giotto, Orcagna, Masaccio, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, and Paulo Uccello are here. The decision to reclassify the building, in modern jargon, into a “chiesa-museo,” results from two events: the clean up which was conducted for the Jubilee and the restoration and repainting of Masaccio’s unequaled Trinity, painted in late 1425 or 1426.

Once the total cleaning of the Brancacci frescoes across the river in Santa Maria del Carmine had been completed in 1988, and probably not for the first time, the fame-hungry sponsor (who has since disappeared from the restoration scene) was anxious to become associated with the restoration project of the Trinity, so as to monopolize the Masaccio market. The intervention was postponed until 1999, when officials, taking advantage of the fact that the church was closed in preparation for the Jubilee, moved ahead. Now the fresco will be ready for tourists again. In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that the same fate would await the Trinity and the church itself as the Brancacci Chapel.

Masaccio’s Trinity fresco is, in terms of the history of art and the history of culture, extremely influential. Here for the first time we find a thorough explication of the new perspective, along with the rendering of monumental human figures of decided gravity. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continues to amaze and baffle even the most sophisticated critics. In the Trinity, for the first time, profile portraits of the donors are rendered on a large scale. For good reason, then, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art as a seminal painting, surely worth the price of admissions: half the cost of a movie or a sit down coffee at Rivoire.

But the ethical question remains to be confronted: should churches charge admission at all? This apparently simple question encapsulates diverse elements. First of all ownership needs to be established. Who owns the artistic treasures of the past? Actually in the fifteenth century, the Florentine government provided quarters for several popes at Santa Maria Novella, and there too Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci prepared their cartoons for the battle murals for the Palazzo Vecchio at the beginning of the following century. Does Santa Maria Novella belong to the Holy Roman church in the larger sense, or to the particular order, in this case the Dominicans, or, perhaps, to the Florentine commune which provided funding? What about the Italian state; or better yet, the entire world?

The city of Florence has assumed the right to create a not-for-profit company (“un’associazione senza fine di lucro called Opera Santa Maria Novella”). As for the state, de facto authority has been assumed by the Superintendent of Fine Arts who reluctantly signed onto the new system. The rarity represented by Santa Maria Novella begins with the facade which was designed by Leon Battista Alberti, sufficient on its own to make it qualify as a world treasure. So far, looking at it is free. Surely, Masaccio’s Trinity stands out even in the most august company but so does Brunelleschi’s rare wooden Crucifix and Orcagna’s unrivaled Strozzi Altarpiece. Thus the inclination persists to advocate world ownership. As things now stand, the Italian government has a good deal of authority, because after all, at least the responsibility for the treatment of the building and its contents, and in the case of the restoration of the Trinity, lies with the government. The issue of ownership requires serious debate.

But if the ownership of Santa Maria Novella represents a thorny issue, the need for an injection of funds is obvious and represents another path for inquiry. The building is visited by thousands each day during the “season,” although Santa Croce in Florence probably has more. [Will this church soon follow?] Such traffic requires every category of maintenance, supervision, guards, cleanup, restorations. Then we can imagine a modern, fully stocked shop which is a sine qua non in every museum worthy of the name these days. Unquestionably the tiny group of Dominican Friars has an overwhelming burden. In other words, they need the financial relief, and if possible generate some income from their treasures. I realize that an infusion of funds would be highly welcomed and necessary. So, gentle reader, you may quite properly ask what is all the fuss about; why am I raising the issue at all?

For an answer, let us return momentarily to the Brancacci Chapel. The frescoes there have been an informal academy for artists since they were painted, and were studied by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Cellini who regarded them as a kind of touchstone for art. Even after World War II, artists and art students continue to slip into the Carmine virtually as a ritual to pay their respects to Masaccio, who in his short life had altered the course of art. All that has ended partly because no one wants to get in line, get a ticket, pay, and be admitted for a short and finite visit, en masse.

What is the proper conduct for such institutions as Santa Maria Novella? How should the culture approach the question? It seems to me that one approach is that related to education. Very few would deny that the provision of an education, up to the age of sixteen or eighteen or even through university, is the responsibility of the commonwealth, the state, the constituted society. Such a responsibility rests at the very heart of state, like health care, road building, providing for defense and protection of its people. Perhaps art should be placed into this same equation. In Italy, where art is ever present, one could make a persuasive case. To be sure, the central government already does take on many responsibilities over art, especially in terms of its care, which includes restoration. Should we expect that government accept the responsibility of keeping a church-museum like Santa Maria Novella open, functional and free?

If the state is unable to do so, for whatever the reasons, one might expect that the European Union might be called upon to step in. A perfectly good case can be made to preserve the “free” status of the rare objects housed in the church.

And if all the avenues of various levels of government fail, payment in the form of a voluntary contribution might be instituted which removes the onus of a mandatory fee. After all among the visitors are relatively penniless artists, art students, younger travelers, tourists with families, and those who might wish to come back again and again, as the Trinity of Masaccio demands.

A true cultural debate seems to be in order.