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Sistine Ceiling 2.0: Restoration of the Carracci Gallery Frescoes.

Ruth Osborne
2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Palazzo Farnese Rome

Carracci Gallery, 2014.

This past February, announcements were made concerning the restoration project planned for the frescoes adorning the Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

This is no new thing for Annibale Carracci’s monumental cycle The Love of the Gods (1597-1606), which had already undergone “consolidation” only a few decades after completion under Baroque painter Carlo Maratta later in the seventeenth-century. [1] Since the beginning of the twentieth-century, the frescoes have undergone patched cleaning in 1923, 1936, and 1994 (though it is not clear just how much was accomplished during this latest effort beyond a general assessment of the issues).

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery WMF Europe French Deputy Ambassador

Erkki Maillard, French Deputy Ambassador (right), and Bertrand du Vignaud, President of WMF Europe (right), in the Carracci Gallery. Courtesy: ANSAmed, 2014.

The French government, which has inhabited the historic building since 1874, first opened the gallery and palazzo to the public in 1936. Today it houses both the French Embassy and the Ecole Française de Rome, with reportedly small groups of visitors coming to see the Carracci frescoes only by appointment. According to the project’s Press Release from the New York-based non-profit World Monuments Fund:

“Today conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling. The campaign of 1994, realized under the direction of the French Service des Monuments historiques, assembled information on the condition of the vault that led to some proposed solutions to conservation issues, but it was not possible at the time to secure sufficient funding to carry out the proposed treatments. The previous analysis will be helpful in developing the conservation program for the painted decorations, stucco, and gilding that adorn the room. Work is scheduled to begin this year and will be coordinated by WMF in collaboration with local heritage authorities and international experts.”

Besides WMF, the other groups that have joined together to help get the project off the ground are the French Embassy in Italy, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and the Foundation de l’Orangerie (connected with French banking giant BNP Paribas). [2]

 

 

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Queen Cassiopeia King Cepheus

Cracking of Carracci’s depiction of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Restorers will first go about cleaning off layers of dirt and old overpainting from areas that had been restored in previous years. They will then work to fill any extensive cracks and repair water damage. [3]  According to WMF, this is the first time in the gallery’s history that the side walls, in addition to the ceiling in its entirety, will be treated. No doubt there is much restorers hope to glean from this work, more so than a simple stabilization of Carracci’s 400 year-old masterpiece. It is also understood that this year-long project will likely uncover some secrets about the frescoes’ condition. As Italian culture ministry official Rossella Vodret said to the New York Times in 2012, the work of the restorers will hopefully aid in “determining which hands painted which section” – Annibale’s, Agostino’s, or others from their workshop. She added emphasis on the “scientific endeavor” of this project. Meanwhile, scholars who have shown concern towards this massive overhaul are deemed “purists.” [4]

Objections arise not because of any “purist” impulses but because of (well-founded) concerns about the complex nature and (intended or un-intended) aesthetic consequences of comprehensive, long term, high cost, high-profile, heavily sponsored programs that aim at a single definitive comprehension to a cluster of real, feared or assumed problems. And why should the matter be decided by scientists alone? In the Times’ coverage of this project two years ago, an interesting statement was made by Vodret: “We are certain that if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out.” [5]  But precisely which experts? What kind of one-sided expertise? Ancient works of art are primarily artistic and historical artifacts. Any proposed treatment must take those factors into consideration – and, certainly, scientists alone are not competent in those vital areas. For example, removing all previous (historic) repairs will likely expose injuries that gave rise to the repainting in the first place. If it does, will those injuries be repainted again to the standards and tastes of the twenty-first century or left as wrecked passages? There is talk of a threat from water infiltration. Is that a substantive threat? Does the roof leak? Do gutters need to be replaced? Is the building affected by rising damp?

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery corner frescoes

More damage over illusionistic corner frescoes. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Is it just a scare? Alleged conservation threats that were cited in the past on other major projects can prove unfounded when challenged – as was the case with the claimed “glue pox” that was said (on no evidence) to be devouring the Sistine Chapel ceiling at a dramatically escalating rate.

The project, which is underway as of the beginning of March, was set in motion by a new committee of 30 scientific restoration specialists formed in 2009 to consider the ceiling’s treatments and make recommendations for future work. [5] The conglomerate of international non-profits mentioned above have chosen the reputable Italian restoration group ATI Farnese as the  to carry out the project. $200,000 of the 1 million euros this project will entail has been allocated to preliminary studies of the ceiling (a portion provided for specifically by the Italian government). [6] A sense of immediacy to protect pervades discussion of the work to be done: “The value placed on the gallery meant that it has been restored at times in the past, including an urgent fix ordered in 1994 when the ceiling threatened to collapse. Now, new cracks and leaks that threatened the masterpieces inside have demanded an immediate response to protect what many call a significant piece of cultural heritage. ” [7] French Deputy Ambassador Erkki Maillard lists issues of cracking along the side panels and the vault, concern for infiltration of water damage and lifting of paint, and “paintings obscured by time that also need to be cleaned.” [8]  These delicately and poignantly illusionistic frescoes run the risk of experiencing a traumatic face-lift. Restorers will likely uncover unfortunate remnants from the partial cleanings of the 1920s and 30s. This could, in turn, either lead them back to page one, or set them off on a path from which there is no return.

The grandiose treatment is projected to last at least until spring 2015, when the gallery will finally reopen to the public. One must also not fail to take into consideration the impact of the growing tourist industry on the newly-cleaned frescoes, once revealed. According to Maillard, the current policy for outside visitors is previously-reserved small weekly tours. [9]  While these will be put on hold during restoration over the next year, what might be the result of the frescoes unveiling next spring? Will it bring in a greater demand for viewings? How will the French Embassy respond to an increased interest in this monumental piece of Italian artistic heritage? The sharp rise in visitors to the Sistine Chapel in recent years has undoubtedly placed a new fear in the Vatican for the well-being of their own crowning masterpiece (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). The final statement from WMF as to the Carracci project’s importance: “Once completed, the current conservation project will allow the Palazzo Farnese and the Carracci gallery to be accessible to the public more regularly, following years of restricted access to this cultural treasure.” [10]

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery tour

Guided tour through Carracci Gallery in February 2014. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

——–

 

[1] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF Program: Field Project. World Monuments Fund. http://www.wmf.org/project/carracci-gallery-palazzo-farnese (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[2] Press Release: “World Monuments Fund & its Partners Announce Project to Restore The Famous Carracci Gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese,” http://www.wmf.org/sites/default/files/press_releases/Palazzo%20Farnese%20Release.pdf (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[3] Frances D’Emilio, AP, “French Embassy’s glorious ceiling in Renaissance palazzo to be rescued by modern day ‘Medicis’,” 26 February 2014. Newser. http://www.newser.com/article/5a9be14133f74636886aa0f1dde7e4e6/french-embassys-glorious-ceiling-in-renaissance-palazzo-to-be-rescued-by-modern-day-medicis.html (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[4] Elisabetta Povoledo, “Restoration Planned for Carracci Gallery in Rome,” New York Times. 10 October 2012. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/restoration-planned-for-carracci-gallery-in-rome/?

_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sandra Cordon, ANSA, “Palazzo Farnese’s Carracci gallery to shine anew: Restoration begins on Baroque masterpieces in French embassy,” 27 February 2014. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. http://www.lagazzettadelmezzogiorno.it/english/palazzo-farnese-s-carracci-gallery-to-shine-anew-no698007 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[7] Guillemette de la Borie  “À Rome, les Carrache sous bâche,” 27 February 2014. La Croix.

http://www.la-croix.com/Culture/Actualite/A-Rome-les-Carrache-sous-bache-2014-02-27-1113125 (last accessed 14 March 2014).

[8] Cordon.

[9] Borie.

[10] D’Emilio.

[11] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF.

2013-08-13 - Lisa Gherardini skull Mona Lisa Florence Italy

Speculation and Sensationalizing: Art and History through the Lens of CSI Archeology

Ruth Osborne
2013-08-13 - Lisa Gherardini grave Mona Lisa Florence Italy

NBC coverage of Gherardini grave excavations in Florence, Italy. Courtesy: NBC Today show.

Over the weekend there occurred a surge in news reports about excavations at the graves of the husband and sons of Lisa Gherardini, the supposed subject of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (1503-6, 1517).

NBC reported on Friday that a centuries-old crypt in Florence was opened to extract DNA from these skeletal remains in order to compare it with samples from an earlier excavation.[1] The purpose of this extensive project is to confirm that one of eight different tombs, unearthed in 2011, contains the body of the famed Mona Lisa; the same woman that has become the subject of public domain and many a pop culture parody.

 

What startles ArtWatch about this recent effort to unearth Mona Lisa is its chiefly speculative nature and invasive disregard for the individuals’ tombs in question (see also ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley’s interview in NBC news segment). They are treated not as cultural property to be cared for, but instead to be ransacked in a quest to put “scientific” theories to test. In an NBC News segment, one reporter refers to this project as “masterpiece CSI.”

 

Two direct descendants of Lisa Gherardini, the Princesses Natalia and Irina Strozzi, perform for the newscasters as authenticators of this project: “At first the excavations bothered them. But now they too have caught the fascination.”  The work is posed as a way to satiate public curiosity for “how she really looked” and why her smile “seems off.”[2] The emphasis here on an eye-opening and audience captivating discovery is symptomatic of the modern appetite for an authentic, film-like version of history.

 

2013-08-13 - Lisa Gherardini skull Mona Lisa Florence Italy

Skull presumed to be that of Lisa Gherardini. Courtesy: EPA.

Kristina Killgrove, a bioarcheologist at the University of West Florida, reveals to NBC the largely unscientific nature of the search for the “real” Mona Lisa: “This will probably bring in some tourist dollars, but other than confirming that this is the Mona Lisa, I don’t see any scholarly relevance to it…And these bones, as far as I can tell from the pictures, are in fairly poor condition.”[3] If the 500 year-old skeletons are so fragile, what authority decided it was worth the tourist revenue to open up a church floor and take apart these tombs?

 

The search for excavated remains of the Mona Lisa began in 2011 at the determination of Silvano Vinceti, neither an archeologist nor a scientist, but rather a television host and producer who also claimed to have opened the tombs of Caravaggio, Dante, and Petrarch. He follows “instincts” and “hunches” that lead him to seeking after these discoveries. Other pseudo-discoveries include uncovering symbols in Mona Lisa’s eyes and asserting the sitter was in fact a male model.[4]  What does this say about Vinceti’s motivations? He contends to uncover the “truth,” but on what grounds and for what end? For the sake of revealing the spectacular to a public waiting with baited breath.

 

2013-08-13 - Silvano Vinceti Lisa Gherardini tomb Florence Italy

Silvano Vinceti above family tomb of Gherardinis. Courtesy: Maurizio Degl’Innocenti / EPA.

After much speculation, excavation, and detailed testing, we may be able to acquire a CGI image of the skeleton and see how it aligns with Leonardo’s painting. Meanwhile, a USA Today reporter admits, “there is the possibility that none of the skeletons are Lisa.”[5]  Killgrove asserts that it is impossible to use facial reconstruction to truly identify the face of the Mona Lisa on skeletal remains: “what we cannot do is throw around ideas willy-nilly and claim that we can solve Dan Brown-style mysteries with our capital-S science.”[6] Vinceti’s claim certainly is far-fetched, but it has captured much the public and media attention, and that gets the dollars to fund such purportedly significant archeological projects.  Yet another project in the works by another team of archeologists is set to exhume the skeletal remains of William Shakespeare.[7] Such speculation behind Vinceti’s and other projects tests out unscientific hypotheses at the expense of artistic and cultural heritage.

 


[1] “DNA Test to prove real identity of Mona Lisa,” TODAY. NBC News. 9 August 2013. http://www.today.com/video/today/52712209#52712209 (last visited 12 August 2013).

[2] “DNA Test to prove real identity of Mona Lisa,”; “Who is the real Mona Lisa?” USA Today. 9 August 2013

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/usanow/2013/08/09/mona-lisa-dna-test-florence-excavation/2635177/ (last visited 12 August 2013).

[3] Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News, “ ‘Mona Lisa’ skeleton and her kin’s remains are due for DNA testing,” NBC News. 9 August 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/science/mona-lisa-skeleton-her-kins-remains-are-due-dna-testing-6C10874613 (last visited 12 August 2013); Kristina Killgrove, “Return of the Mona Lisa (or at least her bones…)” Powered by Osteons. 19 July 2012. http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2012/07/return-of-mona-lisa-or-at-least-her.html (last visited 12 August 2013).

[4] “Next on CSI: Renaissance, Who Killed Caravaggio?” TV Host Silvano Vinceti Probes History’s Coldest Cases. WSJ.com. 10 March 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704486504575098031390061888.html (last visited 13 August 2013).

[5] “Who is the real Mona Lisa?”

[6] Killgrove, “Return of the Mona Lisa (or at least her bones…).”

[7] Killgrove, “To toke or not to toke…Will Shakespeare’s bones tell us? Uh, no…” Powered by Osteons. 26 June 2011.

http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2011/06/to-toke-or-not-to-toke-will.html (last visited 12 August 2013).

2013-05-26 - Delphic Sybil Sistine Chapel Michelangelo

Evidence of the Eyes: An Interview with Alexander Eliot

Einav Zamir

In the landmark 1967/8 documentary, The  Secret  of  Michelangelo,  Every  Man’s  Dream, Alexander Eliot, painter and former art critic and editor for Time magazine states that “almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”  The film, produced by Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation, directed by Milton Fruchtman, written by Alexander Eliot and narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell, provided a brief, one hour tour of the expansive Sistine ceiling. Through the use of close-ups, audiences were presented with details of the fresco never seen before, details that were impossible to grasp at great distance:

At the time, the film was both groundbreaking and immensely popular. Now however, it serves as a testimony to what has been stolen, through subsequent cleaning and restoration efforts, from the fresco’s  original  glory.  Barely  obtainable  (there’s just one copy at the Central Michigan University Library in Mount Pleasant), and no longer broadcast on national television, The Secret of Michelangelo has become quite secret indeed.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alexander Eliot about the film, the chapel, and his fight against the cleaning, which began in 1981.

How are you connected to ArtWatch?

I’m all for ArtWatch. I was there at the beginning of it with Frank  Mason  and Jim Beck, and I think you’re really onto something very important.

What sort of evidence made you believe that the restoration was damaging the ceiling? How did you come to that conclusion?

It’s really the evidence of the eyes. Jane and I were up there on a tower that  was built for us to research and write a one hour documentary on the ceiling years before the cleaning. The tower could be moved to bring us within touching distance of each section, over a six-week period.

That must have been an incredible experience. What kind of condition would you say the fresco was in while you were examining it?

Fabulous condition. There were some craquelures – it had cracks here and there, which happens naturally over the course of centuries, but the painting itself was all there. It was extremely subtle, rich, fresh, and pure – it was Michelangelo, and absolutely unbelievable. Jane [Jane  Winslow  Eliot,  Alexander’s  wife] first realized and pointed it out to me that the surface had mostly been done a secco (in the dry) because Roman fresco plaster goes porcelain hard within hours. So Michelangelo spent almost two years embellishing his quickly sketched under-painting.

And after the restoration?

They used a cleaning agent developed to wash stone exteriors. It took away all the a secco. What you see now is the under-painting. The conservators  said  “No, he just painted in the Florentine style, and on top is just a lot of glue-varnish, unknown hands, and dirt, and we need to remove it.”

How did you react? Was there an initial impulse to object?

Frank Mason said “We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning” to which I  responded “You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.” Then Frank said,  “Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,” and so he recruited  me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.

Upset? In what way, and why?

Beck was such a prestigious figure, being a professor of Italian Renaissance art at Columbia University, so they hired a PR firm, a Madison Avenue outfit, to promote their ceiling scrub and make the three of us appear like childish, publicity seeking nut-cases. And they succeeded in that mission by inviting a number of VIPs – art critics, art historians, and museum directors – to come free of charge and take a look for themselves. They took them up on their comfortable scaffold with all their so-called “scientific equipment,” and even gave some a cloth to personally wipe off the accumulated “filth,” as they called it, from the painting. Instant experts were made that way, and simultaneously hooked.

So there was support from the academic community for the cleaning – who were some of its advocates?

Thomas Hoving was one; A previous director of the Metropolitan Museum and then editor of Connoisseur Magazine. Robert Hughes, Art Editor of Time Magazine, as I had been for fifteen years, was another. He wrote in his last book before he died that seeing Michelangelo’s cleaned work ‘the way he painted it’ from the restorers scaffold was the most vivid experiences of his whole 50 years as an art critic. It’s really too bad. The cleaning went on for years and years and they destroyed the thing.

And what about the film you produced? Is it still available to those who wish to view the ceiling as it was before the cleaning?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the rights to the film, so in that sense, it’s not  available. For years it was rebroadcast on holidays by ABC. It was a TV success at the time.

And now, after so much time, with the evidence supporting your position so abundant, are there influential people out there that still applaud the cleaning?

People don’t  like to admit that they were mistaken, but by now everybody in the art community knows that we, Jane and I, Jim Beck, Frank Mason, and Michael Daley, were right.

Do you think the  Vatican  should  restrict  tourism  in  order  to  preserve  what’s  left  of  the  fresco?

They would never restrict visitation – they make too much money from it. It was all about money to begin with. They wanted to make a big publicity stunt in the first place, make it more “accessible to the public,” and beef up  tourism. As long as they’re making money off of it, they’re never going to restrict  access.

What do you think can or should be done to prevent further degradation?

It doesn’t matter what I think or believe. They’ve lost the picture already.  The under-painting, the concept, is still there, but the painting is gone. It’s  been scrubbed away with chemicals. They can’t do anything significant to  save what’s left, either. Maybe they’ll apply some pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus, but they won’t reduce the influx of tourists.

At the conclusion of our conversation, while coming to grips with the grim reality of the circumstances, I asked Eliot if he believed the Vatican would ever admit its guilt in this crime against our cultural heritage, to which he responded with a memory. He spoke of a time when Fabrizio Mancinelli, Curator of Painting at the Vatican, spoke to him regarding the highly debated restoration:

“I respect your opinion Mr. Eliot, and I trust that you’ll respect mine.”

To which Alexander Eliot, the man who once stood mere feet below the magnificent fresco, responded:

“You and I don’t matter, but the Holy Father will go down in history as the  destroyer of the world’s greatest painting.”

 

For more on Alexander Eliot and his writings, please visit:

http://alexandereliot.com/about/

Eliot, Alexander. “Save Sistine From the ‘Restorers'” Los Angeles Times 20 Sept. 1987: 5.

 

 

2013-04-27 - Mystical Nativity Sandro Botticelli National Gallery London
,

Recap: ArtWatch International’s Fourth Annual James Beck Memorial Lecture

Ruth Osborne
2013-04-27 - Mystical Nativity Sandro Botticelli National Gallery London

The focus of Professor Freedberg’s lecture was The Mystical Nativity (ca 1500–1501) by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, in the National Gallery in London.

This past Wednesday, April 24th, ArtWatch was proud to present the fourth annual James Beck Memorial Lecture.

Each year ArtWatch holds this event to commemorate the scholarly career and the principled stand of its founder, Professor James Beck. The lectures, organized by Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch UK, provide a platform for distinguished art world speakers in our New York and London campaigning centers.

Those who were able to attend heard both the lecture by David Freedberg, entitled “Morality and Movement in Renaissance Art” and the speech by Don Reynolds, delivered upon receipt of the 2012 Frank Mason Prize.

Michael Daley of ArtWatch UK, writes of the connection between Beck and the teatro at the Italian Academy: “It was in this hall on Sept 19th 2007 that Columbia University Art History Department conducted a memorial service in honour of Professor James Beck, who had died on May 26th that year,” and goes on to say that, “We in ArtWatch International decided that there were two ways of best honouring his memory and his campaigning. The first was quite simply by continuing to campaign as an organisation against those who (for whatever motives) injure art. . . The second step that we took to honor James Beck was the inauguration of these annual lectures by scholars of distinction on topics of their choice in recognition of his own contributions.”

Within this tradition, David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, and Director of The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, delivered a compelling lecture on the topic of movement in Renaissance art – its implications for both art and cultural historians cannot be overstated. His talk was extremely rich in analytical and contextual insights. As one audience member put it: “Freedberg didn’t play it down for anyone. Everyone was treated as though they were his scholarly equals.” In this way, we were provided with a rare experience, one that left us with much to process and consider in the days to come.

The Frank Mason Prize, awarded at the beginning of the evening, was also a momentous occasion. Of Frank Mason, Jim Beck’s esteemed colleague, Michael Daley states that he had “led marches of protesting students and artists from the New York Art Students League to the Metropolitan Museum of Art against the picture restorations therein. Frank had helped found a small international organisation to fight on behalf of the world’s artistic patrimony and was one the first campaigners against the Sistine Chapel restorations which began in 1980. When Frank died on June 16, 2009, ArtWatch International decided to honour his formative role in our campaigns with a modest annual prize to others who were making a contribution to protecting art.”

Professor James Beck, founder of ArtWatch.

Professor James Beck, founder of ArtWatch.

Donald Martin Reynolds, PhD, to whom we awarded the 2012 prize for his groundbreaking 1984 book “The architecture of New York City” and for his symposium series in honor of the renowned art historian Rudolf Wittkower, now in its 23rd year, delivered what was certainly one of the most eloquent, heartfelt speeches in honor of James Beck. It is hard to imagine a more kind and sincere tribute to the memory of our late founder.

We also wanted to pass along our appreciation for the wonderful staff of the Italian Academy for their guidance and assistance in the weeks prior to the event and on the night of. We hope to have future opportunities to collaborate with this highly professional and dedicated institution.

If you were unable to attend, or if you desire to have a record of the evening, we will be publishing transcripts of the talks in our next journal publication, and we hope to also have a recording of the lecture available for our website.

Lastly, ArtWatch International extends its sincere gratitude to our speakers and guests for making this one of our most successful events in recent years. We hope to see you again soon.

2013-04-02 - James Beck

ArtWatch International Presents the 2013 James Beck Memorial Lecture and Reception

Einav Zamir

2013-04-02 - James Beck

ArtWatch International Inc. is pleased to announce our fourth annual James Beck Memorial Lecture.

Each year ArtWatch holds an annual James Beck Memorial Lecture and reception to commemorate the scholarly career and the principled stand of its founder, Professor James Beck. The lectures, organized by Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch UK, provide a platform for distinguished art world speakers in our New York and London campaigning centers.

The 2013 James Beck Memorial Lecture and Reception, N.Y.

Speaker:

David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art,Columbia University, and Director, The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University

Title:

“Morality and Movement in Renaissance Art”

Date:  

6pm-8pm (with reception), April 24th

Venue:

The Italian Academy, 1161 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027

RSVP: ArtWatchNYC@gmail.com

2012-11-01 - Carracci Gallery

Carracci Gallery Restoration, ‘Discovery’ vs. Preservation

Einav Zamir

2012-11-01 - Carracci Gallery

Italian officials announced in early October plans to undergo a $1.5 million restoration effort of the world-renowned Carracci Gallery, whose elaborate decoration, commissioned in 1597 by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, has been a topic of scholarly dialogue for hundreds of years.

This project results from an earlier campaign undertaken by the French Service des Monuments historiques to stabilize the vaulted ceiling. While it is unclear precisely what restorative measures will take place when work begins in early January, the World Monuments Fund asserts that this is primarily a scientific endeavor which seeks to remedy “conservation issues” identified during the 1994 restoration. The WMF further claims that “conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling.”

Whereas such efforts would appear essential to the survival of the numerous frescoes and stucco decoration that adorn the walls of the Carracci Gallery, a very different sentiment seems to be emanating from the Italian Culture Ministry, which is responsible for the promotion and stewardship of museums and historical monuments throughout Rome. As quoted in the New York Times, the presumed result of “determining which hands painted which section” is hailed as a significant perk of the project, as opposed to the conservation efforts extolled by the WMF. This would suggest that the entire endeavor functions more to satisfy curiosity than to ensure permanent survival, and further suggests that exploratory cleanings, which do not directly address deterioration or “structural problems,” will be employed primarily for attribution purposes.

Furthermore, a proposed plan to assemble a committee to determine the “scope of the restoration,” implies a more extensive undertaking than what was deemed necessary by the 1994 restorers. Rossella Vodret of the Italian Culture Ministry assures us that “if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out,” and while one is inclined to appreciate this absolute faith in professional restorers, we also must ask ourselves whether the risk to lasting preservation is worth the possible gain of discovery.

Fortunately, the international community will be watching closely to see what develops as the project takes shape in early 2013.

 

2007-02-05 - Lorenzo Ghiberti Gates of Paradise Baptistry

Paradise Lost?

In October, the stunning announcement was made that three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the East side of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, will make an unprecedented journey to the United States in 2007.

The planned three-city tour will begin at the High Museum in Atlanta, where an exhibition is scheduled from 28 April to 15 July, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece.

The exhibition, which has been in the works for a number of years, was organized by the High Museum in partnership with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which conducted the restoration of the doors. After the High Museum, they will travel to The Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The panels selected for shipment are all from the left door, illustrating the Biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. They will be accompanied by four other figures from the left door frame, two standing figures and two busts.

The 3-ton doors, of which replicas have been placed in their original location since 1990, have undergone an extensive restoration campaign, one panel at a time, that has lasted for more than a quarter of a century. The last of these panels, depicting scenes of Noah, has only recently been completed, and was unveiled on November 3rd in Florence, one day before the 60th anniversary of the flood that was blamed for much of the damage to the doors. Even though the restoration project was not the result of the planned exhibitions, the issue of restoration will be a primary one for the 2007 show. In preparation for this, the High Museum instituted a workshop in Florence to study the creation and treatment of the doors. In addition, of the two standing figures and two busts to be shipped with the panels, one of each will be shown in its pre-restored state as a means of demonstrating the effects of the modern cleaning campaign.

Increasingly, art restoration has been tightly linked with these blockbuster exhibitions, and hence with tourism. The High Museum in the past has used the incentive of restoring a work of art as a means of bargaining for more and more high-profile loans. In 2003, the High funded the restoration of Andrea del Verrocchio’s bronze David, with its same interest in the scientific and technical aspects of the cleaning, in return for its loan to the Atlanta museum for a nearly three-month period in late 2003 to 2004. In fact, the exhibition, which was the first time in its over 500-year history that the statue left Italy, was entitled Verrocchio’s David Restored, emphasizing the notion of discovery via new technology over the object itself. This idea that something must be made “new” in order to entice visitors to the blockbuster show is something that underlies the Ghiberti exhibition as well.

It is true that the High Museum did not assist in the financing of the Gates of Paradise restoration, which was funded by the Italian government with assistance of the American group Friends of Florence (who pay for the restoration of high-profile objects, including the recent controversial cleaning of Michelangelo’s David). Nonetheless, financial support of a future restoration project was promised in return for the loan: the High Museum has agreed to fund the cleaning of the Silver Altar of the Baptistery, now housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

There seems to be an awareness of the risk of sending these irreplaceable objects on a three-city trans-Atlantic tour, as well as of the fragility of their state. Even after restoration, the doors will never be returned to their original outdoor setting on the eastern face of the Florentine Baptistery. Nor will they ever travel again, according to Italian officials. Instead, they will be placed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in hermetically sealed, oxygen-free cases, in order to protect them as fully as possible from environmental threats. Special cases are being designed for their transport, and the panels will travel separately.

Regardless of any attempts to ensure the safety of those pieces of Ghiberti’s doors, there are risks involved in the shipment of any art object, ranging from damage caused by transportation, the threat of catastrophic events such as airplane crashes, to theft. The question is, does the financial benefit of the partnership between the High Museum and the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence warrant the assumption of those risks, especially in the case of an object so precious that the decision has been made never to take those chances before, or again in the future? The Director of the High Museum referred to Ghiberti’s doors as a “major pilgrimage,” which is undoubtedly true. But it is up to the pilgrim to make the journey.

2007-02-05 - Andrea Mantegna San Zeno altarpiece
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Another Anniversary

James Beck

Timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the death of Andrea Mantegna (born c. 1431) in 1506, three Italian cities in which the artist executed some of his major works are hosting exhibitions in the artist’s honor: Mantua, Padua and Verona, each set to run from 16 September 2006 until 14 January 2007.

Mantua’s exhibition, Mantegna a Mantova: 1460/1506, will be held at Palazzo Te, Padua’s Mantegna e Padova: 1445/1460 will be held at the Eremitani Museum, while Verona’s Mantegna e le arti a Verona will be at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia.

As is often the case with large blockbusters, the organizers have emphasized several opportunities for the visitor that make the show a must-see. It has already been announced that when the exhibitions end in January, the San Zeno Altarpiece in Verona, one of Mantegna’s most important works, will undergo an extensive two-year restoration campaign, making this the viewer’s last chance to see the work for the near future. The exhibition also offers the opportunity to see the Ovetari Chapel frescoes in the Eremitani in Padua, which were shattered into 80,000 small fragments following an airstrike in 1944. With the help of new computer software, they have been recomposed and will be on view as part of the anniversary celebrations.

In order to orchestrate the events, the Ministry for the Cultural Heritage and Activities created an 82-member National Committee (Comitato Nazionale per le Celebrazioni del quinto centenario della morte di Andrea Mantegna) composed of scholars and government officials. In a nearly unprecedented example of the mass-shipment of works of art, 140 museums and collections agreed to lend works of art by the artist and related masters, 352 of them in total. The website for the project calls the undertaking “a completely new type of exhibition” in terms of its scope, with each of the cities hosting not only their share of the primary exhibition, but numerous other related shows at secondary sites. On behalf of the exhibition, Alpitour is offering 2- and 3-day travel packages to all of the shows, for E135 and E245, respectively.

As in the case of most large exhibitions, the works are undoubtedly put at risk by their shipment. Some daunting statistics are offered on the exhibition’s website: The collective insured value of the works is E647,000,000, and fifty-five works were restored for the shows, with a total cost of E271,000. The exhibition also touts the obligatory “new discoveries,” such as the Madonna della Tenerezza, a formerly unknown painting in a private collection, which is annexed to the Padua show (on view at Palazzo Zuckermann).

Not all of the loans were easily acquired. Vittorio Sgarbi, President of the Mantegna Committee and curator of the Mantua exhibition, requested that the city of Bergamo loan Mantegna’s Madonna and Child, currently housed in the Accademia Carrara. Bergamo, which refused the loan citing the painting’s fragile condition, subsequently distributed 20,000 free passes for entrance to the Accademia to see the work.

Other loan requests by the organizers of the Mantuan exhibition were met with similar reluctance on the part of the institutions. The Brera Gallery in Milan refused to send Mantegna’s Dead Christ, also citing its delicate condition. Sgarbi claimed that the museum was “telling lies,” since the work had been shipped to Mantua in 2002 for another exhibition: “It is not possible for a work to have been in good condition four years ago, when it was loaned to Mantua, and ‘sick’ now. Someone is not telling the truth. We send troops to Lebanon, but not paintings to each other”. Despite pressure applied by Sgarbi, who claimed that the absence of the Dead Christ and the St. Sebastian from the Ca’ d’Oro would cost E1.6m in entrance fees, approximating that 200,000 fewer people would attend, the Italian Culture Minister and Vice Prime Minister Francesco Rutelli initially supported the Brera’s decision.

Sgarbi wrote an open letter to Rutelli:

“Dear Minister, Get them to tell you the truth. Brera will not loan us Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Ca’d’Oro refuses to give us the Saint Sebastian. The galleries are making it a health issue, saying that the paintings cannot be moved because they are unwell. Do not allow yourself to be bullied by deceitful officials: intervene so that we can have them”.

Sgarbi argued that the works were in a satisfactory condition, and therefore should be sent to the exhibition, but that if they were in fact that fragile, it was wrong to let them deteriorate further and his committee would fund their restoration.

Initially, Rutelli held his ground and did not overrule the technical judgment of Brera officials. The ministry defended the decision of the Brera, citing the unusual methods of the painting, which is tempera on canvas. Then, in August, Rutelli announced: “I approved that the Dead Christ of Brera be sent to the Mantegna exhibition in Mantua after an in-depth technical inspection. We have also made available some other works that were requested by the organizing committee and the city mayors, with the help of the Ministry. I feel that guidelines should be decided for loans and exhibitions, and that is why I have set up a Commission with a high scientific profile, in order to help requests be made with greater certainty.”  Rutelli has since announced the formation of a Committee to establish official state guidelines for the lending of works of art.

Like the Brera, the Ca d’Oro in Venice also had objections to the lending of one of its Mantegna works, a Saint Sebastian. Their refusal was multi-faceted. First, they argued, the work was currently undergoing restoration, which could take an additional few months. Secondly, they argued that the museum’s collection was substantially diminished by its absence.

With anniversary exhibitions on the rise and an ever greater interest in more complete shows with more impressive loans, the Mantegna exhibitions in Mantua, Padua and Verona have set a very dangerous precedent. No longer will the fragility of an object be a hindrance to the loan of any work deemed critical for an exhibition, even if — or especially if — the need is a financial one.

2005-10-11 - Fondazione CittàItalia Leonardo The Last Supper ad

Art Restoration and Advertising

2005-10-11 - Fondazione CittaItalia

A new advertising campaign was announced in August, aimed at raising money to fund upcoming restoration projects. The non-profit agency Fondazione CittàItalia (founded 2003) has scheduled its second such initiative, called “The Days of Art — Fundraising Campaign for the Restoration of Italian Cultural Heritage”, set to run from 24 September to 2 October 2005. It will feature “shock” ads, showing famous works of art in badly damaged states, to encourage public donations.

The website for the organization employs numerous questionable devices to solicit donations. With the slogan “Restoring Art is as Important as Making It,” donors are asked to vote for the object they’d most like to see restored — a somewhat dubious methodology if the goal is to restore the work most in need. There are also lottery tickets distributed when donations are made, so that donors can win prizes for giving. One Euro donations can even be made by text-messaging from a cell phone.

The serious matter of restoration is increasingly becoming a subject of media campaigns. We’ve long grown accustomed to posters and exhibitions exhorting art lovers to come see the “new” Masaccio, the “new” Giotto, or the “new” Michelangelo. The sad fact is now the commercialization of art restoration is expanding, and more and more we are becoming aware of restoration as a big business industry.

The advertising campaign itself is remarkably deceptive. According to CittàItalia, the purpose of their organization is to raise money to help those objects that are neglected and off-the-beaten-path. It has been reported that the Italian government will spend 26 million Euro on restoration and conservation in the coming year, and supposedly twice this amount is needed.

To encourage donations, ads will show Michelangelo’s David missing a leg, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus torn, and the Leaning tower of Pisa missing. Yet there are two major problems with such a campaign. The first is that it capitalizes on what is already a serious problem in the world of modern restoration, which is that private citizens and organizations primarily contribute to the restoration of only the most famous works of art. The second, related to the first, is that none of the objects used in the advertisements are in need of restoration.

For example, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was cleaned in 1987, and the hotly contested restoration of Michelangelo’s David was completed just last year, so neither work will likely benefit from any fund-raising. In addition, although it was discovered that David has a weak ankle, the project was merely cosmetic, and did nothing to ensure the longevity of the work.

Leonardo’s Last Supper is likewise not in need of any cleaning, having undergone a 20-year procedure ending in 1999. In an almost comical twist, a CittàItalia ad featuring Leonardo’s famous work shows Christ’s face obliterated, which was actually what occurred as a result of the last restoration, necessitating a modern repainting of the central figure’s visage. The Leaning Tower has also been restored repeatedly, and in the 1990s, although no ad will tell you that the previous restoration campaigns put the famous campanile in serious jeopardy in the first place.

So will David break a leg if you don’t donate? Will Leonardo’s Jesus lose his face? No. In fact, history has shown that damage will be more likely if you do so.

2005-10-11 - The Last Supper Christ before and after

2005-06-15 - Raphael Deposition Borghese Gallery detail

Jaguar Sponsors Promotional Restoration of Raphael’s “Deposition”

Raphael’s Deposition in the Borghese Gallery, a masterpiece from his pre-Roman phase, has recently undergone a vigorous cleaning at the hands of restorer Paola Tollo Dickmann (after the original chief restorer, Laura Ferretti, resigned citing personal reasons).

Even though the work had been restored and reintegrated between 1966 and 1972, according to Kristina Herrmann Fiore, Direttore Storico dell’Arte at the Borghese, the intervention was necessitated by the detachment of the paint from the panel at the seams. In addition to addressing the issue of the adhesion of the pigment, the recent intervention also examined the efficacy of supports added to the back of the panel during the 1966-72 cleaning. Varnish, said to have been applied at that time and blamed for obscuring the colors, was also removed with an alcohol mixture, although the restorersthen applied a new coat of “protective varnish” (which it is acknowledged will yellow and have to be removed and replaced in 50-60 years).

2005-06-15 - Raphael Deposition Borghese Gallery detail

Raphael, The Deposition, 1507 (detail) Courtesy: Borghese Gallery.

Despite the proud acclamations of those involved in the restoration, there have already been several voices of dissent, and from within the restoration establishment itself. The Roman restorer Antonio Forcellino wrote a long item in the daily paper Il Manifesto on 8 May 2005, questioning the very need for the intervention and asserting, “This reconfirms how crucial and dubious the situation surrounding the care and the conservation of masterpieces is.” Other critics of the cleaning have also emerged. One is Carlo Guarienti, who was trained at the Istituto del Restauro and contributes to ;Nuances, the journal of ArtWatch’s French associate ARIPA. Another is restorer Laura Mora of the Istituto del Restauro, who worked on the Deposition during its last intervention, and who therefore has intimate knowledge about the work and its condition. Both spoke out in interviews for Il Messaggero on 14 May. Guarienti, when asked about the results of the cleaning, said bluntly, “They have ruined it. It is a disaster.” He argues that the cleaning was too severe, and rather than just removing later applications of varnish, the restorers removed Raphael’s own velatura, the translucent layers of pigment used to harmonize the underlying colors. Mora, whose name has been invoked as the teacher of Paola Tollo Dickmann, argues that the work was in perfect health, and was in no need of restoration.

The recent restoration, which also involved the Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence, l’Enea and the Vatican Museums, was carried out with the sponsorship of Jaguar Italia S.p.A., who put forth 40,000E for the project. The considerations of deep-pocketed sponsors, as always, seem to affect the decisions regarding which objects require interventions. As Guariento notes, private sponsors are only interested in the works of major masters, like Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Titian, and in the end, they expect a noticeable change in the work. The result has been an epidemic of these “promotional restorations,” which for financial reasons the restoration establishment has been all too willing to carry out. Raphael’s broad appeal has made him a favored artist for this practice, presumably for his public relations value in the eyes of marketing experts who advise companies like Jaguar and Estee Lauder, the latter of which in recent years sponsored the restoration of Raphael’s ;La Fornarina and the diagnostics (i.e. pre-restoration) of his La Bella.

For Jaguar, the sponsorship fits into its thematic Year of Culture, during which they’ve sponsored various events, as well as an exhibition in Naples’ Museo di Capodimonte, Caravaggio, l’ultimo tempo 1606-1610. Jaguar has related its passion for masterworks to their interest in technology and the design of their automobiles. In sponsoring the restoration, the company has expressed its desire to leave permanent evidence of their involvement, which they term the “Jaguar Difference.”

The museum, too, appears to have had one exceptional motive — besides the well-being of the painting — for carrying out the restoration. Even at the time of the 15 March 2004 announcement, there was already a plan for a blockbuster exhibition at the Borghese Gallery, now set for the Spring of 2006 and entitled Raffaello a Roma. 1507. The newly restored work, which was executed in 1507 for Raphael’s Perugian patron Atalanta Baglioni, will be its star attraction. Undoubtedly there is an interest in capitalizing on the success of the recent Raphael show at the National Gallery in London, which rode on the coattails of the media buzz surrounding the purchase of the Madonna of the Pinks, and to which the Borghese lent their recently restored ;Lady with a Unicorn. And the show will be a blockbuster indeed, as it will be the first major exhibition on the artist in Rome, for which they fully expect international cooperation.

Despite the protests of several restorers, the press is largely celebrating the results of the cleaning, championing Raphael as a great master of color and writing of “Un’esplosione di colori freschi e cangianti”, recalling the spectre of the Sistina restoration. Yet with the underlying thought of a major exhibition looming, one cannot help but be skeptical that, as Forcellino stated, the urgent conservational need regarding this painting may have been overstated. Perhaps the desire to establish Raphael as a brilliant young colorist at the end of his Florentine period (in which case the work could be compared to the similarly over-restored Doni Tondo of Michelangelo) and right before his move to Rome — where Michelangelo would display his use of bright, unmodulated hues in the Sistina (as they now appear post-restoration) — was enough to whet the appetites of the powers involved. According to the eyewitness account of an ArtWatch member in Rome, the results are highly negative, despite the promises that the cleaning would be done with “absolute delicacy and maximum prudence”.

In this case and today, more the rule than the exception, interventions are done without first establishing a consensus — or at least engaging in a debate among experts in the various fields involved — regarding the need for and the goals of such an intervention, so that there are no controls whatsoever. In fact, it has been claimed that the Istituto Centrale del Restauro was not consulted or advised even as decisions were made regarding the cleaning, and that uninvolved experts did not see the restoration while in progress. ArtWatch believes that potentially opposing voices should, for the sake of the object itself, be solicited by the superintendents and the museums, so that the aesthetic judgments or underlying motives of a small and intimately involved group of individuals do not permanently affect the oeuvres of the great masters. And just as it is both right and necessary to question these motives, we should also make the public aware of the potentially hazardous influence of corporate sponsorship, and urge them to refuse to buy products of those companies who sponsor such illicit interventions.