2005-02-10 - Michelangelo David head


James Beck

A recent trip to Florence’s Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David  brought back the memory of a quote by Franca Falletti, Director of the Museum: “But we couldn’t bear to commercialize David.

2005-02-10 - Michelangelo David head
Well, turns out the Accademia can bear to commercialize the David, and do it to excess.  In an ongoing and prolonged celebration of the 500th anniversary of its installation (2004), the museum’s gift shop has been re-vamped and re-stocked with a new collection of objects.  From two large kiosks, one at the entrance and another at the exit, t-shirts, books, postcards, calendars and coffee mugs proclaimed the celebration of “David Mania.”

With more than one million tourists visiting the David each year, the Accademia certainly has the mania it wants.  So much so, that after the much contested and unnecessary cleaning of 2003-2004, the museum is now planning to install what is described as a “wall of air” around the statue to protect the statue from its fans.

2005-01-26 - Scrovegni Chapel Padua

Removal of Trees at the Scrovegni

James Beck

“Two trees positioned near the north side of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua — home to Giotto’s extensive fresco cycle — have recently been removed by officials who feared that they could potentially fall and damage the structure.

The Central Institute for Restoration was given the task of finding out the causes of the decay and coming up with possible remedies.”

2005-01-26 - Scrovegni Chapel PaduaThe Institute, in collaboration with various research bodies (CNR laboratories, Fisbat in Bologna, CNR Institute of Chemistry and Technology of Radio-elements in Padua, CNR Centre for the study of art works in Rome, the Institute of General Chemistry at Venice University) therefore carried out a number of surveys between 1977 and 1979, aimed at discovering the causes and the mechanism behind the deterioration, in the light of research into the overall conservation history.

Appropriate remedies for making the building suitable for conserving the wall paintings – put forward at the same time as the publication of the survey results, in a volume of the special series of the Bollettino d’Arte (Bulletin of Art) “Giotto in Padua” (1982), by the then-director of the Institute, Urbani – were made deliberately simple, according to his declared intention, in order to ensure that they were as widely applicable as possible, based on the criterion of gradualness.

The following suggestions were made:

1) to screen and increase the insulation of the windows, and

2) to plant tall trees, wherever possible, near the right wall to prevent the direct rays of the sun from having too much effect on the internal conditions.

Radical Treatment of 14th &15th Century Fresco Cycle in the Camposanto, Pisa.

The Camposanto in Pisa has one of the largest fresco cycles ever painted.

Produced in the 14th and the 15th centuries, these frescoes were in a vast open courtyard and consequently they did not do well in withstanding the centuries. To make matters worse, in 1944 a bomb struck the building causing further havoc to the frescoes, which were then treated by teams of restorers. The actual paintings, many sections of which were fragmented, were then removed from their original surface and attached to canvas backings.


By no means are these frescoes in uniformly good condition, reflecting for the most part their own historical journey. However, in some cases, as in that of the most famous fresco of the group, the Triumph of Death by Buffalmacco, the works are in reasonably good condition and can be studied and enjoyed. The directorship of the Cathedral had the idea to restore the entire group of frescoes once again, cleaning and replacing them on new canvasses using plastic glue, so that they could be placed back in their original (outdoor) location. During the course of the ongoing campaign, local experts have complained about the harsh cleaning, to the extent that after the intervention there is practically nothing left to be seen.

ArtWatch International seeks a halt to the work until an independent commission can be called, in order to evaluate the work done so far and the feasibility of its continuation. As it now stands the results seem to be a muddle of fragments which essentially has little of the original paint left.


Giotto and Business as Usual

The tragic events which unfolded on the 11th of September in New York and Washington are so far reaching and so momentous that it might seem superfluous to bring up issues concerning the world’s artistic heritage at this time.

James Beck, Professor and President of ArtWatch.
October 10, 2001

Upon reflection, it is precisely those values and traditions which also lie at the core of what is at stake. All one needs do is think back to the bombing of Uffizi Gallery in Florence just a few years ago or the devastation of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan even more recently. The world’s artistic and spiritual heritage appears at risk along with other aspects of our civilization.

Whatever ones views may be concerning the nuances of culpability and retribution, we can all agree that the icons of earlier art — from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes to the dome of Florence’s cathedral — are statements that must be preserved if we value mankind’s genius. Since, along with equivalent monuments all over the world, they constitute symbols of past attainments, we must guard, preserve and maintain them with all our energy. And given what might be regarded as a state of emergency which now exists, it seems to me ironic that the danger to the very integrity of such objects and institutions can come from within the system as well as outside of it.

The mania to spruce up the masterpieces sees no signs of slackening on the part of the restoration establishment and on the part of the officials in charge, and no pause for reflection seems in the offing. What is occurring in Italy is “business as usual” with regard to its treasures.

A highly risky (and expensive) restoration of Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova are just beginning to be carried on under what many, including the undersigned, regard as an ambiguous methodology. The usual sycophantic praise by certain art critics is a disappointingly blind reaction to a potentially damaging intervention. Obviously not all cleanings in the past were successful: sometimes they were downright bad and in other instances they were harmful. Despite warnings by nearly fifty Renaissance specialists from all over the world, half of which are Italians, we may soon witness a totally unnecessary and clearly dangerous cleaning of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi. Essentially it is little more than an under-painting anyway, making it quite impossible to bring back its “”original glory,”” as the usual rhetoric would have it. A “”cleaning”” of Michelangelo’s David (as has just been done to the Moses in a spectacular but useless endeavor) has also recently been proposed, although it has been indoors for a century and a half, and looks pretty good right now.

There has been an unwitting campaign over the past couple of decades which will, in my opinion, be regarded as highly questionable to our art treasures by future commentators. The real problem has been an inability on the part of art scholars, art restorers, art managers, and museum curators and directors to create a truly open and generalized debate about what has been accomplished in the recent past, what is going on currently, and what goals should be created for the future. Considering world conditions, is this not the appropriate historical moment to pause in the “business as usual” syndrome and formulate a wide-reaching debate on these issues, including that of shipping art objects around the world, before making irreversible alterations to the original texts?


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.

2001-03-01 Sant Orso Cathedral painting Ottonian Renaissance

Aosta. Presentazione dei Atti, Medioevo aostano: La Pittura intorno all’anno mille in Cattedrale e in Sant’Orso.

2001-03-01 Sant Orso Cathedral painting Ottonian RenaissanceL’esito finale di una iniziativa messa in opera più di una decina di anni fà, quando allora c’era il signor Rollandin, Presidente della Regione, René Faval, Assessore alla Cultura, il Dr. Domenico Prola e Flaminia Montanari alla Soprintendenza delle Belle Arti, si é concrettizzata oggi con questi volumi che contenono gli atti del Convegno.

Prima di tutto é doveroso per me offrire a voce alta i miei ringraziamenti, la mia ammirazione e la mia stima alla bravissima redattrice dottoressa Sandra Barbieri che a cominciare dal progetto del ” Medioevo Aostano: La pittura intorno all’anno mille in Cattedrale e in Sant’Orso” fino alla pubblicazione degli atti ne è stata la locomotrice assoluta. Ha eseguito tutto il suo compito con intelligenza, buon gusto e con accuratezza esemplare. Se il libro dovesse appartenere soltanto ad una persona, sarebbe sicuramente suo, complimenti Sandra! Desidero aggiungere che senza il minimo dubbio questa pubblicazione rimarrà nella storia un testo essenziale per tutto il mondo. Nel frattempo altri storici e ricercatori di diversi livelli sono intervenuti, mentre all’origine c’era anche l’architetto Renato Perinetti che, come abbiamo sentito, possiede un assoluto controllo sulla materia aostana medievale e sui problemi, come ha rivelato nel suo contributo degli atti, colmo di novità di dati e di concezioni. Ha inoltre offerto uno spunto rigoroso per farci comprendere l’archeologia,”se si puo’ dire” della cattedrale stessa, con le riconstruzioni e molti suggerimenti tutti convincenti. Naturalmente tutta l’operazione si è svolta in un’atmosfera di completa collaborazione interdisciplinare tra architetti, storici dell’arte, studiosi di storia, restauratori, e scienziati. Il risultato dei test dendrocronologici, per esempio, offre una conferma per gli anni della costruzione, tesi sostenuta da Perinetti. Questo fu reso possible con l’intervento del Laboratoire Romand de Dendrochronologie, Moudon-Suisse. D’altro canto Daniela Vicquery si è occupata degli affreschi di lunga data. E’ stata lei a dirigere i lavori delicatissimi del restauro del ciclo, partendo dal 1987. Il suo desiderio operativo fu di non indirizzarsi “verso una musealizzazione del ciclo pittorico; ma si è tentato invece di alterare il meno possibile l’ambiente, in modo da non smarrire il riferimento spaziale all’ interno del contesto architettonico”. E questo deve essere condiviso ed applaudito.

Il discorso di Joseph-Gabriel Rivolin che tratta d’ un esame profondo delle fonti locali delle due chiese principali in argomento: la Cattedrale e la chiesa Sant’Orso, affrontando problemi di antica data sulla istoriografia, sulla cronologia nonché su i presunti costruttori delle chiese, sulla fantomatica chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, e in generale ha realizzato un quadro storico che resterà essenziale nei tempi per comprendere la pittura dell’epoca.

Il contributo focale e altrettanto impegnativo è quello proposto di Hans Peter e Beate Autenrieth, che in un certo senso rappresenta la parte più rilevante del libro, dedicato a Domenico Prola il predecessore di Perinetti in qualità di Soprintendente che diede il via ai primi lavori per il ritrovamento degli affreschi. Questi due studiosi hanno lavorato senza sosta per quasi un quarto di secolo, per approfondire argomenti sulla pittura murale aostana. Questo rimarchevole saggio diventerà da oggi un sine qua non per gli studi della pittura aostana mediovale, e anche europea di quegli anni. Il loro testo arricchito da più di 300 note sarà una miniera per i futuri studiosi. E’ quasi impossibile fare un resoconto adeguato di questo lavoro, poichè fu eseguito con passione, percezione acuta, e amore. Cominciando dal tesoro della documentazione fotografica, dalle ricostruzioni, dagli studi sulla calligrafia, dai paragoni stilistici tra gli affreschi della cattedrale e quelli di Sant’Orso. Gli autori hanno ponderato le iconografie dei murali nella Cattedrale, notando particolari unici per l’epoca, come la rielaborazione delle storie di Sant’Eustachio, e la combinazione dei soggetti del Nuovo e Vecchio Testamento. Hanno aggiunto infine che “…l’iconografia …non è ancora chiarita in tutta la sua complessità.”

Non soddisfatti di studiare soltanto le immagini nel loro contesto, gli Autenreich hanno anche esaminato la tecnica pittorica e problemi sulla distinzione delle mani sia nel ciclo della cattedrale, che in quelle di Sant’Orso. Hanno individualizzato due pittori distinti nella Cattedrale, uno
di quali, loro concludono, fu il pittore della Collegiata di Sant’ Orso. Questi loro suggerimenti di connoisseurship saranno un punto di partenza per tutti gli studi futuri.

Gli storici dell’arte sono, in genere, molto interessati, se non addirittura fissati, sulle datazioni. Dal canto loro i nostri autori hanno concluso proponendo una data intorno alla metà del secolo XI, specificatamente il 1040-50, che sembra essere confermata dall’esame dendrocronologico. Inoltre questi studiosi hanno preso in considerazione i delicati problemi che il restauro comporta. I loro commenti sui restauri combaciano molto bene con i miei, quando dicono “noi proponiamo a questo punto di desistere assolutamente da ogni ritocco o restauro pittorico….e di rinunciare a sostanze protettive. ”

A riprendere il soggetto affascinante della iconografia sia del ciclo della Cattedrale che di quello di Sant’Orso è stata la professoressa Costanza Segre Montel in un ampio studio. Montel pur prendendo in considerazione spunti da altri, fa le sue osservazioni basate molto su esperienze provate in Piemonte. Essa riconosce anche i rapporti fra i due progetti e pone più enfasi sulla loro corrispondenza. In particulare modo ha portato alla luce il registro con gli antenati di Cristo ricostruendoli a cominciare da Abramo a Santa Maria. Per quanto riguarda l’altra serie, Montel sottolinea che ci sono vescovi a mezzo busto che offrono problemi iconografici ancora molto difficili. Anche questo studio rientra nel contesto dei problemi delle “mani” dei due cicli, che vede un maestro presente in tutti e due. Questo contributo è munito di un ricchissimo apparato di note.Investigazioni di carattere scientifico vengono presentate da varie persone in rapporto al restauro, con differenziati contributi tecnici che formano una documentazione fondamentale per il futuro. Il commento di Lorenzo Appolonia, Simonetta Migliorini e Carlo Vaudan asserisce che “il processo di restauro è, di per sè, un atto di aggressione sulla superficie dell’opera d’arte.” Questo importante riconoscimento dovrebbe essere scritto in lettere maiuscole in tutte le officine di restauro. Ciò non vuol dire, però, che il restauro non debba essere fatto su un oggetto, ma è preferibile che si riconosca almeno l’esistenza e la possibilità di un’altra scelta. In questo caso, come ci ricordano gli autori, non si poteva individuare la pittura che era coperta da un voluminoso spessore, senza restauro.

Anche i restauratori hanno ragionato sul loro intervento, in cui la parte più problematica, almeno per me, si trova nella rubrica “Il ritocco integrativo.” I tecnici rilevano che: “Si è quindi cercato di intervenire in modo limitato, ma adeguato a dare una omogenea leggibilità ….alle superfici.”

Per chi si intende questa leggibilità? Per gli specialisti, per i visitatori qualificati, o per i turisti in media? Il problema della leggibilità è antico e molto complesso: ci sono soluzioni che richiedono molta ridipintura fino al punto di offrire una tonalità neutra. Poi, senza proseguire troppo su questo argomento, ci si deve chiedere fino a quando possa essere leggibile, perchè gli anni 1980 sono senza dubbio diversi da quelli del 1990, chissà come si presenterà una buona leggibilità nel 2010? Anche le questioni di reversibilità sono molto argomentative e difficili, ma di questo si può discutere altrove più adeguatamente. Cito, comunque, il testo del chimico dell’ Opificio delle Pietre Dure di Firenze [Mauro Matteini] che scrisse di recente: “I restauratori sanno bene quanto sia difficile realizzare nella pratica un’effettiva reversibilità e come sia quasi impossibile, in particolare, andare a rimuovere un consolidante a distanza di tempo.”

Nel campo del restauro uno dei punti più urgenti è una manutenzione continua e il controllo ambientale con tutti i problemi. Per esempio, alla Sistina, dopo il restauro degli affresci di Michelangelo, si mise in operazione un sistema allora considerato moderno e, secondo il Vaticano, efficace. Per vedere le soluzioni proposte per la Cattedrale di Aosta, si consulti l’articolo di Carlo Vaudan e Simonetta Migliorini negli atti.Un contributo di un genere totalmente diverso è stato offerto dallo storico Giuseppe Sergi, che presenta un quadro delle condizioni politiche nel presunto in cui gli affreschi furono eseguiti. Storico-artistiche sono, invece, le osservazioni di Andriano Peroni, che propone i punti di partenza per la programmazione degli affreschi nell’ottica di una architettura fittizia, ricreata con l’aiuto di minime tracce rimaste. Il contributo di Herbert L. Kessler è centrato sul problema iconografico-culturale del ciclo di Sant’Orso dove sussiste una mescolanza di immagini del Nuovo Testamento e di eventi agiografici. Questi appaiono del tutto casuali e frammentari per certi studiosoi mentre per altri fanno parte di un programma coesivo. Siccome non è possibile risolvere completamente il problema, Kessler li connette con altri cicli presenti ad Assisi e a Roma, fino al punto di collegare Sant’Orso (anche dedicato a San Pietro) al Vecchio San Pietro.

In una lezione presentata da Paula D. Leveto, che concentra la sua attenzione su i famosi murali di Castelseprio, che per mezzo secolo se non dippiù sono stati discussi dagli specialisti per quanto concerne la loro datazione. Con l’aiuto di modernissimi metodi, come il Carbone 14, e con una esaminazione tecnica dei materiali, Leveto è giunta a una conclusione, contraria di quella esposta da Bertelli, per cui gli affreschi sarebbero stati dipinti durante una fase posteriore alla construzione dell’edificio, un tipo di argomento questo molto rilevante per gli affreschi aostani. Nel caso di Castelseprio, esistono indicazioni fisiche che dimostrano che la preparazione e la dipintura furono eseguite in un singolo processo. La situazione contemporanea della pittura murale sono state studiate da Marie-Thérese Camus per certe chiese nella Francia centrale che ci offrono paragoni assai indicativi con Aosta, mentre Joaquin Yarza Luaces fa un confronto con la pittura e le miniature nei regni di León e Navarra intorno all’anno Mille.

Armata di un bibliografia formidabile, che comprende dozzine di manoscritti, con questa pubblicazione si è aggiunto un immenso e utilissimo repertorio fotografico dei due cicli. A parte, il secondo volume potrà essere utile agli studiosi con cui facilmente potranno fare i confronti dei due monumenti: questo “Atlante Fotografico” è in sé un modello di qualità.

Sono, devo ammettere, molto orgoglioso di aver fatto parte di questa pubblicazione anche se minima, con la convinzione che abbiamo davanti a noi un modello di come si deve fare uno studio di questa complessità. Sono anche convinto che con la presenza di questi due volumi la centralità di Aosta per il sviluppo della pittura subito dopo l’anno Mille, ironicamente giustamente 1000 anni fa, sarà confermata. Nel senso non di retorica politica, ma dal punto di vista della qualità sia per gli studi, sia per le pubblicazioni, sia per tutto il lavoro dedicato alla presentazione dei lavori fatti che hanno reso visibili questi meravigliosi dipinti, la Regione della Valle d’Aosta deve essere vivamente congratulata.Voglio augurare, infine che tra non molto un simile congresso possa essere organizzato per la scultura aostana della stessa epoca come era stato già programmato, con particolare attenzione a Sant’Orso, e con la speranza che Sandra Barberi avrà ancora la forza di portare avanti questa iniziativa.

2001-02-06 Churches Charge Admission Santa Maria Novella admission tourism Florence

City of Florence to Charge Admission at Santa Maria Novella

By James Beck

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.

2001-02-06 Churches Charge Admission Santa Maria Novella admission tourism Florence

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.

2000-11-02 - Masaccio Trinity Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio’s Trinity: The Tyranny of the Fragment

2000-11-02 - Masaccio Trinity Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Donors, c. 1425-27/28. Church of Santa Maria Novella (Florence).

The Direction of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence graciously permitted me to visit the ongoing restoration of Masaccio’s Trinity, in Santa Maria Novella, on Thursday August 31st, 2000.


In interviews published in Florentine and Torinese newspapers I had publicly lamented the restoration. My objections, in part, were based upon a firm conviction that the mere decision alone to carry on this restoration represented a cultural presumption one which aims at dramatically altering the appearance of the painting as we have come to know it. No broad consensus about taking this step had been developed, not to mention calling was an international meeting or conference of specialists and interested parties. The step to intervene was taken unilaterally. But still more crucial to my disappointment, one has to look in vain for a carefully calibrated statement, or any statement at all for that matter, regarding the need of the “drastic” (the word used by the Opificio official in charge of the operation) intervention nor its goals, which should precede any such work. We have no reports concerning the painting following a restoration by the late Leonetto Tintori, conducted at the beginning of the 1960s. Furthermore a statement about the methodology proposed, if one exists, should have been made public, in my opinion. All the procedures used normal by a medical intervention, for example, were passed over, at least according the information I have been able to obtain. The Opificio, presumably with permission from the appropriate Florentine superintendencies, decided to move ahead without the formalities mentioned. Apparently an occasion offered itself: the church had been closed for an overall, elaborate scrub down as part of the Jubilee Year celebrations. Why not do the Trinity, was the thinking, I can only guess.

My purpose here is not to rehearse the history of the fresco and its various restorations, much less an evaluation of the cleaning and refurbishing of the Brancacci Chapel frescoes. On the other hand, it is worthwhile to underscore the obvious: Masaccio’s Trinity is arguably the single most prestigious painted work executed in the Early Renaissance. Here for the first time we find an effective combination of characteristics are regarded as “modern.” A thorough explication of the new, or if you insist, the revived perspective together with the rendering of the gravitational and monumental human figures are immediately apparent. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continue to amaze and baffle if the most experienced critics. Although Masaccio apparently painted recognizable likenesses in the Sagra (Cloister, SM. del Carmine), a fresco which has not survive, in the Trinity we find for the first time profile portraits on a large scale of the donors. . For good reason, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art a seminal painting.

The modern history of the Trinity includes having been moved twice, once in the mid-Nineteenth century, and again in the mid-Twentieth, is well documented and beyond the scope of my presentation. Inevitably there has been losses in these moves, especially around the edges of the mural, while others had been incurred during the ‘strappo.’ Additionally ‘normal’ deterioration which may be expected over the life of a painting executed 575 years ago did not spare this fresco.

Whatever needed to be done in the 1990s, it could not have been the result of water or humidity in the wall, the usual enemy of fresco, because it had been separated from the wall by Bianchi 150 years ago. Was there an emergency which dated back to the beginning of the end of the 1980? If that had been the case, the officials, who already floated the idea restore the Trinity back then following the completion of the Brancacci Chapel (1988), they should have intervened much earlier than 1999. If they waited and a bone fide threat to the life of the painting was present, one might form the opinion that a dereliction of some kind surrounded the delay. Presumably, therefore, we can confidently conclude that there was no immediate emergency whatsoever. Consequently there would have been plenty of time for a more patient and less secret approach to the restoration.

My purpose here is not to rehearse the history of the fresco and its various restorations, much less an evaluation of the cleaning and refurbishing of the Brancacci Chapel frescoes. On the other hand, it is worthwhile to underscore the obvious: Masaccio’s Trinity is arguably the single most prestigious painted work executed in the Early Renaissance. Here for the first time we find an effective combination of characteristics are regarded as “modern.” A thorough explication of the new, or if you insist, the revived perspective together with the rendering of the gravitational and monumental human figures are immediately apparent. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continue to amaze and baffle if the most experienced critics. Although Masaccio apparently painted recognizable likenesses in the Sagra (Cloister, SM. del Carmine), a fresco which has not survive, in the Trinity we find for the first time profile portraits on a large scale of the donors. . For good reason, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art a seminal painting.

I take this opportunity to comment upon what I saw on that hot Thursday morning in August in an effort to better comprehend general conditions surrounding current fresco restoration practice. Besides, I will offer an up-to-date alternative to the embracing actions which have been undertaken far and wide over the recent past and which are promised in the future, unless the culture is prepared to take preventive steps.

Instantly I was impressed by the formation of the scaffolding with its horizontal platforms or levels resting up against the fresco in a configuration obviously created to facilitate the restorative activity but which, at the same time, is highly arbitrary with regard to the picture itself. These zones have no rapport with the picture’s composition nor the location of the figurative imagery within it. To be sure, the system applied is standard, and here lies one of the most damaging aspects of modern restorative procedure. Not only does it fail to offer an overview as work progresses, but even large subdivisions are not visible as comprehensible units. As every beginning art student learns, any changes in one portion of a painting affects the rest. Hence by the very physical structure imposed upon the restoration, an overview must await the removal of the entire scaffolding. Is there any wonder that one of the most common lamentations among critics of restorations these days is the loss of unity of the whole and harmony among the parts. I suggest that this is an inevitable result.

A restorer however skilled and devoted to his craft must find it virtually impossible, in my opinion, to get much right once placed in such an operational straight jacket. The effects of this kind of arbitrary division is staggering. It requires that while working on the lower portion of the body of the Crucified Christ, for example, the upper portion and the head may not even be visible. To make matters worse, this condition holds true during both principle phases of such interventions: (1) the cleaning, and (2) during repairs, repainting, inpainting and other surface adjustments. Parenthetically, I must add that the word repainting is a term that restorers spurn, preferring instead “inpainting,” or some other euphemism. My view remains that if brushes and colors are used and you apply the colors with brushes, that activity is “painting,” and when it replaces previous colors that were once on the surface, that is “repainting.”

Most artists insist that they remain in control of the entire work as they proceed even on large canvasses or walls. This possibility is largely eliminated not only by the system of layering just described, but also because the space allotted to the scaffolding is extremely shallow. That many restorations use this construction does not alter the implicit weakness of the practice. The conditions are unreal ones which virtually force the operator to approach the art object be approached in fragments and details often with the aid of magnifying glasses.

Conversely, the severely constricted working area makes it impossible to get distance when looking at one section or another of the painting. During the cleaning and repainting, there is never an opportunity to revert to the correct viewing distance, which is roughly calculated by artists as double the height. The remarkable application of linear perspective cannot be understood from arms length. In other words, the most distance which can be obtained from the cage is severely inadequate, another indication that the current methodology it flawed.

The question of lighting is yet another factor which adds to the distortion of the visual conditions under which modern restoration unfolds. Symptomatically, when I was there, a staff member kindly offered me a strong lamp, the ones they use during the restoration process, to view up close the surface and what they were doing. I rejected the offer remarking that Masaccio did not have such lamps when he painted the frescoes, so I hardly need them merely to view it. The question goes far beyond this particular intervention. The strong lights used for the cleaning in particular offer a totally unreal view of the object and I suspect leads to all kinds of aberrations (as is the case with the Sistine Ceiling) once “normal” light is applied. The conceptual approach to the restoration task, as it was done in the case of Leonardo’s Last Supper for over 20 years, is to treat the surface, dealing with tiny pitems, minuscule flacks of original paint, treated under strong light and with magnification. Behind this artificial environment is the assumption that the cleaning is somehow “scientific”, and it is enough to work millimeter by millimeter and then miraculously the whole will take care of itself. Well, it never does. Not in the Sistine Chapel, not in the Choir of San Francesco in Arezzo, and not for the Trinity.

None of what has been stated above should be viewed as a specific criticism of the restorers at work at Santa Maria Novella. They are doing what all their colleagues do. What I am suggesting is that the underlying assumptions and the methods of work are inadequate at best. Many of the great cycles that have been recently restored were better left alone, and let us not forget the Correggio’s in Parma. If there was a real emergencies concerning the life of a marvellous work, one might concede that the intervention, even with misguided assumptions, had to be undertaken. Actually I was assured that there was no immediately emergency in the case of the Trinity, nor for Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Leonardo’s Last Supper.

More specifically related to the Trinity, (but true of the others to one degree or another), Tintori’s retouching and repainting [sic] done in water color had been removed. Evidently that was an easy task. On the other hand the restorations and repainting by Bianchi, being more permanent in terms of technique. were retained. The choice of keeping one intervention with all its assumptions and removing another with its own set of assumption was not the result of a philosophy. Instead the decisive element was convenience. It was easy to remove Tintori and difficult to remove Bianchi’s work. Hardly an assuring path.

Another disturbing aspect of the Trinity restoration is the application of Barium Hydroxide as a consolidate. The use of this chemical which has a longish history especially in Florence, where its modern application was ‘invented,’ is not used by the Istituto Centrale di Restauro in Rome, the other governmental restoration center. It is not my intention to take sides on the controversy as to whether Barium is a “good” chemical or a bad one or one that on balance should or should not be used.. That Italy’s two governmental restoration institutes differ on its application, at best is puzzling and should alert the public to the experimental character of the product. Are we tranquil about using it one of the world’s most rare pictorial productions? Would it not have been more prudent to apply more traditional materials? The same kind of questions can be raised for the chemical cleaner AB57 used on the Sistine Ceiling, a product which is practically never used anymore, being regarded as to harsh. These questions cannot be answered by simplistic claims of one side or another. They should be the subject of serious debate by the entire field, including experts on Renaissance Painting, artists and member of the culture in general. Until they are resolved, however, we should probably ban their use as we do for unproven new medicines.

Right from the start, the “drastic” modern intervention, done while the church was closed to the public and thus largely unnoticed, remains an experiment. The real problem is that it should never have been undertaken, at all, and certainly not in secret without public discussion. Why not get second and third opinions, as we do before undergoing a serious medical operation on our bodies. From what I have seen in an interim stage, a great deal of repainting (sorry, I have used that terrible word again) will be required to harmonize what is momentarily a disjointed set of images in which the lights have become almost impossible to reconstruction, where the modelling is totally idiosyncratic, where the treatment of the male donor’s face (a member of the Lenzi family?) looks like he had suffered a bout with small pox. Perhaps the current crop of restorers are better than Tintori, perhaps not. The point is that there was little good reason to jump into this dangerous effort.

In order to save the saveable, I suggest that all reintegration be stopped and the work left as it now appears. I made the same point to officials present in August and repeat it now. In order to give the viewer, whether a sophisticated one, or a neophyte, a tangible impression of Masaccio’s art and his probable intentions, I propose that a scale computer generated facsimile be created and placed next to the “original.” In this way we would prevent further tampering with such a basic creation while providing a viable imagine to the public. The facsimile can readily be changed from time to time, as our knowledge of Masaccio, of his working methods, and of the early Renaissance expand. What is wrong with applying this solution immediately to the Trinity, and using it widely as a substitution for drastic interventions? In this way we would save the text for posterity, prove a highly readable view to the public and probably even save money which can be diverted to places where works are rotting away in neglect.

I call upon the Opificio and the Superintendents of Florence, to take up this proposal, which demands a certain degree of courage. They would become true pioneers in the restoration field, and simultaneously would protect our treasures.

2000-03-01 - Raphael Madonna of the Chair with St. John the Baptiste as Child

On Traveling Exhibitions

The business of exhibitions puts masterpieces at risk.

In recent months a controversy has re-erupted in the press and among art experts in Italy which is gradually spilling onto the international scene. Its impact upon the habits of displaying art treasures cannot be underestimated. The influential, skillful and politically adept Soprintendente of Fine Arts of Florence, Dr. Antonio Paolucci, the man who recently supervised the widely acclaimed restorations in Assisi after an earthquake rocked the basilica there, has been organizing a mammoth exhibition of Italian Renaissance art to be sent from Italy to Japan. Others shows of a similar nature have quietly been sent to Asia over the past few years, without much outcry. This one is far more encompassing in terms of the fame of the objects as well as their sheer number, in the hundreds, which will be wrapped, crated and shipped in temperature-controlled containers. Paolucci, whose impeccable curriculum vitae includes a stint as Italy’s Minister of Culture in a previous government, has been publicly attacked for his plan.

Serious objections have been raised about the dangers of shipping rare art works – Titians, Leonardos, and Michelangelos – even from Paolucci’s own usually solid ranks (e.g., the Soprintendente of the Veneto, Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso), as well as from art historians, including Professors Carlo Bertelli (who was formerly a soprintendente) and Alessandro Parronchi, the dean of Italian scholars, not to mention restoration specialist Professor Francesco Guerrieri of the University of Florence. The attacks this time have not come from art rights groups who have long ago pointed out the dangers, quite specifically when the Barnes Collection was sent around the world, but the art establishment itself, including the respected editor of London’s Burlington Magazine, Dr. Caroline Elam. Has there been a sea of change?

Blockbuster exhibitions have been a cornerstone of museum operations, at least for the past generation, being regarded as central postate in annual programming almost everywhere. These art spectaculars, looked upon with relish by the institutions’ fundraisers, the curators who participate in the planning and the structuring of the shows, the art restorers who get the objects in shape for display, not to mention socialites and firstnighters, publishers, and the press, have never before faced such a serious challenge to their legitimacy.

Positive aspects of blockbusters, and there are some, can be readily enumerated. Increased revenue which normally is expected to result from a successful blockbuster is nothing to sneeze at, planting the possibility in the minds of the cynically inclined that such is the main motivation. To be precise, increased entrance fees are not the only source of the infusion of money from the big shows. Catalogue sales, which can run into the tens of thousands of copies and even more when external sales are calculated, can produce decent revenue. Specialized products sold in the ubiquitous museum shops constitute yet another element that benefits from blockbusters, bringing the balance sheet further into the black. As a spin-off as well, the museum bars and restaurants are busier than usual when the postate are open. And, one should not forget that with the expanded attendance annual membership figures climb, and, after all, every little bit helps.


The tourism, and with it the political quotient, obviously comes into play, which is specifically the case with Paolucci’s Japanese show, an event that could not be contemplated without governmental support. The explicit intention is to demonstrate the grandeur of the Italian tradition by placing on the circuit Michelangelos, Raphaels, Titians, and Donatellos, among others. Presumably the display would add stimulus for increased tourism in Italy, just as Sensation has done so for Brooklyn, if not for all of New York. From it, we can anticipate that the waiting time in front of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David at the Academia will lengthen beyond the current two or three hours. Peddlers may very well benefit too by selling more postcards and knickknacks to the well-disciplined but bored tourists waiting their turn for enlightenment. The major cities with great collections, like New York, Washington, London, Paris, Madrid and St. Petersburg, have very deep ties with museums, arguably the principal tourist attraction in these cities, and all that they signify for the hotels, restaurants and shops. Art is big business and a gigantic attraction. If the blockbuster is sensational enough, everyone seems to benefit, that is, except the art works.

Less direct but equally sought after benefits of blockbusters include the publicity which inevitably can be counted on from the media. Is there a journalist who does not love an exhibition of the Young Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Ingres Portraits, Egyptian Gold, a Real or Fake Michelangelo Cupid, or Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors? These postate are even advertised in the mass media and in the metro to get the highest attendance possible. Together with more money and increased attendance, good will is banked for the future at the Metropolitan, London’s and Washington’s National Galleries. An analogy made be drawn with fundraising for public television which must be regarded as self-advertising that is transmitted with frustrating frequency. Over the past few years, the corporate sponsors are being rewarded with mini-ads for their largess. Are similar compromises also necessary in the function of museums?

2000-03-01 - Raphael Madonna of the Chair with St. John the Baptiste as Child

Raphael, Madonna of the Chair with St. John the Baptiste as Child, c. 1514. Courtesy: Palatine Gallery.

Together with the public relations value and the effects of expanded tourism, museum rhetoric is quick to proclaim the value of spectacular shows upon scholarship, which is regarded as a sacred cow. Scholars and specialists are able to see, compare and contrast to their hearts content, works by a given artist, school or region all at the same time. They do not have to go to dozens of far-flung museums, remote churches, obscure private collections, and dingy drawing cabinets. They can see all the objects together. To confront versions and contemporary works in a single space seems to be a unique and incomparable opportunity, and can result, the line continues, in scholarly insights and discoveries. Many, and in some cases most, of the objects of a given category or by a selected artist can be seen, one by one, until the eyes get bleary.

I cannot resist commenting that for me seeing two hundred Cezannes, or two hundred works by anybody else, makes my head spin, and in the end I get very little out of the experience except a slight case of nausea. These monstrous piling-ups are effectively less informative than a carefully and thoughtfully selected, much smaller exhibition in which a curator uses his critical skills and makes judgments based upon a studied but personal view of a given artist or school. Some sort of informed selection has been offered by the specialist, and not left to an uninformed helter-skelter viewing. In this instance, there seems no doubt that more is less, anyway. Of course a disciplined viewer might decide to go to the blockbuster eight or ten times, and look at a small number of objects each visit, but perhaps that is asking too much. Ironically, the way in which the blockbusters present an artist’s oeuvre was never even available to the creating artists themselves, for works disappeared from the studio through sales and commissions.

And there is a practical spin-off of the transport of artworks as well. The museum staffs get numerous free trips to the great cities of the world, for the purpose of scouting around during the early stages of the process while in the later one, they supervise and often accompany the travel of the art objects from their institutions. And one could hardly expect them to travel economy or to stay in second-class hotels.

Specialized studies, inevitably accompanied by weighty and usually unreadable catalogues, are claimed to be, and with a certain justification, the most prestigious art scholarship of the moment. This scholarly component, sub-vented by willing sponsors – international oil companies, cigarette manufacturers, local and national banks – gives increased legitimacy to the blockbuster and make wonderful gifts to their clients.

What is not taken properly into account is that very soon if not already with a modicum of effort, technology will be available to create high quality, exact-scale facsimiles. By substituting such computer-generated images, the questioning of the viability of shipping precious art works around the world indiscriminately will be mooted. If my assessment is correct, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end for blockbusters as we have known them, and the concomitant risks to the art objects will be radically reduced.

Another incontrovertible benefit will accrue. No longer will the normal permanent exhibits of museums be disrupted by the removal of ‘stars’ from their collections. Nor will the famous works be pulled out of churches and museums. After all, who wants to go to Rome’s Borghese and not see Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (despite its recent harsh overcleaning) or Milan’s Brera and not see Mantegna’s Dead Christ? Leave the objects in their original homes or in their acquired ones, should be the rule.

A further advantage of using facsimiles, which need not be glossy, is that they can, ironically, be more accurate than the originals as they have come down to us. We know paintings have been cut down over the centuries, they have been damaged by natural disasters, and they have been severely modified by repainting and overcleanings. Reconstructions can be offered in exhibitions which aim to give the appearance of the original, and even several alternative interpretations can be presented at the same time. Furthermore, facsimile images can be updated and corrected by the computers that generate them in the first place as our knowledge expands. Of course the specialist will always need to view the objects in their current state, but that eventuality involves merely moving a few people, without threat to the safety of the art.

The facsimile alternative should turn out to be a bonanza in terms the usual goal of blockbusters for completeness. There are always works which, for one reason or another, cannot be shipped, including frescoes (except when detached), paintings and sculptures in collections with rules against loans, not to mention bulky monuments. These can all be supplied with relative ease, low cost, and considerable accuracy. The goal of what might be termed completeness is something of a pipe dream, anyway. To have all the works of a Matisse, even from a limited period, is an impossibility, if one takes into account the works that an artist himself may have destroyed, and those that have been lost or have otherwise disappeared. All the more difficult is the re-creation of total oeuvres of artists from the more distant past.

The claim on the part of museum executives is that expanded public attendance, which is a sought-after goal of blockbusters, is automatically desirable. The argument is double-edged, however, for more may not really be the merrier. That the Sistine Chapel, following its widely publicized restoration, draws double the number of persons it did before 1980 does not make visiting the chapel a sensitive aesthetic experience. The spectacle atmosphere, as with blockbusters, means that the viewer sees the back of heads instead of the Old Testament scenes and Michelangelo’s heroic Prophets and Sibyls, in an atmosphere where the noise level is crushing.

Yet ‘the more the better’ is a fixation among museum directors. Pile them in, get the mass public in the vicinity of an art work, and by an alchemical process they will be informed and enriched. Oddly enough, we do not use this argument for a concert of a Bach cantata, which needs musical sophistication and a certain amount of musical education. By merely attending a prestigious exhibition, does the uninformed viewer really benefit? Perhaps a few might be motivated to see more, but this could be more effectively accomplished by other means. After all, the permanent collections of the Louvre, the Met, the National Gallery, and the Prado are so impressive that there is no need to import other objects to get people inclined toward the appreciation of art.

Finally, the obvious danger to the objects from travel and changing environments is spoken of openly. Even if the transport and packaging skills are improving, there is no doubt that works get shaken up when in transport just as we human beings do, on those bumpy roads to and from the airport, and even by jolting movements in the plane. Beyond that, the ever-present possibility of a mistake or an accident cannot be denied, planes crash and ships still sink.

On a less material level, further questions surrounding the blockbuster can be raised. Is the circus atmosphere and the Disneyland overtones which surround them desirable? Is art served by being made into a spectacle? These issues open vast areas for cultural discourse concerning the treatment of art in a modern society which are best left for independent consideration on their own. Suffice to say that for many, art is the repository of spiritual and ethical values. It requires a commensurate treatment.

1998-06-22 - Michelangelo Victory

Letter to the Mayor of Florence: Michelangelo’s “Victory”

1998-06-22 - Michelangelo VictoryIn an open letter to the Mayor of Florence, ArtWatch is calling for an immediate halt to the restoration of Michelangelo’s statue group known as “Victory”.

James Beck June 22, 1998

Dear Honorable Mr. Mayor,

On behalf of ArtWatch International, Inc. and its affiliate in Italy, ArtWatch Italia, I am asking at this time for an immediate halt to the projected restoration of Michelangelo’s sculpture group known as Victory, presently in Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone dei Cinquecento. In our opinion the matter is most urgent because scaffolding have already been constructed around the sculpture, making it ready for the intervention.

ArtWatch, a watchdog organization with nearly 1000 associates worldwide, has taken a stand against drastic and/or unnecessary treatments of our artistic treasures. Activity on the Victory should be halted until information about the projected intervention is made public. Among the points that require full disclosure are:

  1. an explanation of the assumed need for such an intervention or treatment at all;
  2. the goals for the intervention and what is hoped to be attained;
  3. the proposed methodology of the intervention, i.e. what techniques are planned, for example, with the restores use scalpels, mico-sand blasters, lasers, chemicals?

Once the data is made available ArtWatch also calls upon the Mayor to organize an open public debate, preferable in the Salone dei Cinquecento, in which international experts on Michelangelo, specialists devoted to Renaissance sculpture and Italian Renaissance art in general, specialists on marble restoration, as well as all interested parties may participate. ArtWatch believes that, as in the field of medicine, second and third opinions are essential before a restoration is undertaken. In fact, sometimes the most effective cure has been to leave the patient alone. ArtWatch makes these requests on the basis of the operative assumption that works of art of the caliber of Michelangelo’s Victory do not, strictly speaking, belong to the city of Florence, nor, to the government of Italy, but ultimately belong to the entire world, and that the city and state officials in charge are guardians whose role it is to preserve the objects in their trust for future generations. To take any action in relative secrecy is effectively a violation of that trust.

Thanking you for attention to this matter, I am Sincerely Yours,

(signed James Beck)