Restoration Debate Spotlights American Students Abroad

by Phillip Eliasoph

Hidden behind the massive wood carved doors across from Piazza Madonna under the dome of the Medici Chapel in the San Lorenzo district, we encounter a surreal scene: American students colorfully decked out in their logo T-shirts, funky discman earphones doubling as necklaces, chirping among themselves with lively accents ranging from Texas drawls to urban hip-hop. The terracotta rooftops, ochre-washed buildings and clanging of bells from the San Lorenzo campanile position us in the nucleus of Florence. But no ruffians from the Guelf party are feuding today with their swords unsheathed, hunting their Ghibelline foes; instead of hearing characteristic Florentine names such as Cosimo, Francesca or Paolo, I can faintly eavesdrop on conversations among Alice, Kevin and Jennifer. It’s entirely unexpected to discover a class with American college students mixing limewater and earthen pigments, creating fresco colors of rosso indiano (Indian red), giallo di Napoli (Naples yellow) and that distinctively imperial pigment often utilized for the Virgin’s mantle, oltremarino (lapis blue from “across the sea”). These motivated students are just a small component of the salutary growth of art conservation and restoration training programs today. This report considers a range of issues in the conservation field and presents one active program in Florence with young Americans seeking both undergraduate transfer study-abroad academic credits and advanced level certification.

For twenty-year-old Colin Blake from Brooklyn, New York, who is studying abroad through the Fairfield University program at the Lorenzo de’ Medici-Art Institute of Florence, “this immersion experience is the highlight of my art education.” Back on his home campus in Connecticut, the Renaissance fresco cycles are distant images projected on the screen in the stygian darkness of a slide lecture. “Here in Florence I am able to learn from first-hand observation of the historic mural paintings around town, while at the same time gaining valuable skills in the process of fresco technique and restoration.” Fueled by new scientific and technological techniques, conservation has become a major growth market, with the realization of the need to protect artworks against alarming environmental and man-made hazards.

Phillip Eliasoph, Academic Director of Fairfield University’s Florence program, with students at the Piazza Santa maria Novella in Florence.

The profession has witnessed remarkable advancements since that watershed date of November 1966, when a deluge worthy of Leonardo’s most catastrophic drawings flooded the artistic patrimony of Florence. Out of eighteen feet of mud and devastation came a rejuvenation: the modern era of art conservation and restoration saw its convulsive birth.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968, the newly improvised restoration techniques were demonstrated in a landmark exhibition, “The Great Age of Fresco: Giotto to Pontormo,” organized with the collaboration of Professor Ugo Procacci, Superintendent of the Florentine Galleries. This extraordinary loan exhibit, “the only one of its kind and one which will never be repeated, is a tribute,” 1 according to Procacci, dedicated to the Italian people and international rescue squads whose actions saved so many Florentine treasures. Robert Lehman, Metropolitan Museum trustee and devoted Italophile, added his hefty financial clout to the event along with Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s political muscle. The Cristoforo Colombo, grand dame of the Italian Navigation Line, transported these colossal objects in the era before wide-body jet aircraft.

Professor Millard Meiss’s catalogue statement mentions the losses evident on these panel paintings and fresco fragments: “The authorities and restorers in Florence have wished to present only what remains of the frescoes of the great masters of the Renaissance. They have not tried to make these frescoes look complete, as though produced yesterday. Though the conservators are very skillful imitators, they have not in other words posed as Nardo [di Cione] or Castagno or Pontormo.” 2

In 1978, the Committee for Conservation Working Group for Training in Conservation and Restoration promulgated a document “to set forth the basic purposes, principles, and requirements of the conservation profession.” Revised in 1984, this is the international guideline governing training and research in the field. Given the daunting nature of internationally accepted practices, an attempt has been made to establish coherent terminology. For example, there is general confusion about the terms conservation and restoration. Conservation generally means the processes of cleaning, stabilizing, and limiting damage. Restoration might be associated with the antiques trade, denoting the idea of making an older object more functional, i.e., the decayed fourth leg of a Louis IX chair would be repaired for sale and ultimate usage. Viollet-le-Duc led the restoration cause in the nineteenth century, seeking to imitate elements of a building in the style of the original. Lacking any international licensing organization, a wide spectrum of approaches can cause irreversible damage. But there is a universal understanding that the basis for all training is to establish the notion of guardianship and responsibility for the integrity of works of art.

Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage,3 published under the auspices of the Getty Conservation Institute, serves as a essential sourcebook. In the preface, Nicholas Stanely Price delineates practical issues concerning the meaning of “cultural heritage,” deciphers linguistic subtleties between restauro or conservazione in Italian, restauration in French, and the derivative cognates in English, and introduces a range of scientific and technological tools. The crucial question on the reintegration of losses is surveyed by specialists including Cesare Brandi, Paul Philippot and Umberto Baldini. Another valuable publication is The National Gallery Technical Bulletin, twenty-three volumes to date, published annually in London, reviewing ongoing research projects in the collection (to order:

To check the hastened pace of aggressive cleaning projects, especially in Italy, Columbia University professor James Beck has become the leading critic of what he terms the “Restoration Establishment.”4 With admirable outspokenness, he serves the unenviable role of anti-restoration advocate on behalf of Italy’s silent artworks. Even the fate of Michelangelo’s David, that iconic Florentine monument,

Fresco-painting class in Florence learning how to mix pigments and create the under-drawing sinopia (saturnia red on a rough plaster, called the ariccio.) Each student has created a cartone (cartoon drawing) from the original masterpiece.

is subject to acrimonious discussion. In July a front page article in The article in The New York Times noted that deciding whether the colossus “should be cleaned, restored or left untouched is invariably the stuff of intense debate.” 5 Inveterate fresco tourists through Florence, Arezzo, Milan and Rome within the last decade have seen the night-to-day transformations in color, shading, and overall tonality in major fresco cycles including Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel, Piero’s Legend of the True Cross, Leonardo’s Last Supper, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Last Judgment. With funding supplied by Italian banks, olive oil and wine distributors, and even Japanese television, unveilings of the new and improved—or old and more authentic?—fresco cycles have gained international media attention and public controversy.


Lacking the requisite technical expertise, I would hesitate to offer any definitive observations on these robust interventions. During frequent visits to Italy over the past thirty years, I have observed the progress of these cleanings only as a sympathetic eye, hoping to utilize the most rudimentary connoisseurship skills in the footsteps of Berenson’s lessons on tactile values. Are they remarkably successful in bringing new light to lugubriously sooty mural surfaces? Yes. Have these zealous cleanings done irreparable damage to the authentic layers of fresco pigment? To some microscopic degree, probably so. Should we therefore be entirely mistrustful of or hostile to these breathtaking restorations, which to the naked eye have revivified the frescoes? No. Perhaps I am naive or simply gullible, but I tend to believe that the best possible options are being responsibly and cautiously employed by Italian scientists and restorers.

As a persistent anti-restoration voice and founder of ArtWatch Interna-tional, Beck has survived the idiosyncrasies of the Italian judicial system and excoriation from the Italian press. He was cited for defamation in an Italian law suit in 1991 by the restorer who transformed Jacopo della Quercia’s sublime Ilaria del Carretto (1406–08) into a “white, waxy, and over-all clean” 6 effigy. Through its petitions and public awareness campaigns, ArtWatch ( brings attention to the aggressive cleanings which might have the distorting effect of “modern corrections.” In a recent critique of the “Practice of Removing Old Restorations on Paintings,” the ArtWatch Newsletter argues that the Sistine Ceiling “appears to be too much like highly readable Walt Disney illustrations” and a foiled plan at the Louvre to clean the Mona Lisa would be “tampering” with the delicacy of the original. ArtWatch is seeking a moratorium on these unabated restorations and serves the artworld with its Bill of Rights for a Work of Art, much as Greenpeace claims its stewardship for the global environment.

I was fortunate to attend a symposium at the Yale University Art Gallery in April 2002, arising from a multi-year collaboration among conservators at Yale, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and its sister Getty Conservation Institute, and curatorial consultants from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Trinity College, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Under the broad banner of “Early Italian Paintings: Approaches to Conservation,” the three-day conference featured papers and

American undergraduate students from Fairfield University engage in hands-on conservation.

featured papers and panel discussions among conservators, scientists and art historians. Yale’s gifted Senior Conservator of Paintings, Patricia Sherwin Garland, explained her treatment of Neroccio dei Landi’s fifteenth-century Annunciation, which opened further questions about authorship. Getty conservator Yvonne Szafran discussed two Sienese panels of Saints John and Jerome by Taddeo di Bartolo, revealing new discoveries about original paint and varnished sufaces.

Keith Christansen from the Metropolitan’s European Paintings department gave a skeptical overview on the “Truths, Half-Truths, and Fictions of Conservation,” which pondered the cyclical process of restorations. Lehman Collection colleague Laurence B. Kanter offered clever insights about displaying paintings in fragile condition, in fragments or in odd, anachronistic frames. An Italian flavor was added with several leading Florentine restorers, who explained their very hands-on approach to their vast artistic patrimony. American curators were cautioned not to engage in excessive treatment of their rare Renaissance paintings simply to keep their conservation labs occupied. For the Italians the problem is the reverse, since they can never quite get through the top of their urgent first-aid triage needs with such vast collections.

The college restoration class I observed in Florence gathers American students participating in the booming international education opportunities. Representing a full spectrum of small, private New England colleges, art institutes and large state universities, students receive academic transfer credits for their on-site experiences. They are living and learning in Florence, gaining cultural and artistic training that transforms the city’s 125 museums, churches and monuments into a classroom studio without walls.

With animated, gesticulating hands demonstrating techniques, Professor Lorenzo Casamenti directs the art restoration program for the Lorenzo de’ Medici-Art Institute of Florence. A tall and agile individual with the piercing gaze of a Donatello saint, Casamenti shares the knowledge he gained as a young apprentice during the 1966 flood. Casamenti has contributed to restoration projects including Ghirlandaio’s Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion fresco at San Marco and Gozzoli’s exquisite Magi fresco in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. He worked throughout the 1990s as part of a brigade of 200 technicians to reattach and restore ruined parts of the Vasari and Zuccari Last Judgment (1579) fresco inside the cupola of the Duomo. Suspended over 250 feet on twenty-four levels, they restored a surface area of 3,600 square meters, a project greater in scale than the Sistine restoration campaign. Assisting Casamenti and giving practical advice to the American students is Lily Prigioniero, who left her hometown of Marshall, Michigan, in 1983 to train as an art restorer in Florence. She recalls in her diary from 1985 her climb onto a scaffold to restore Pontormo’s Apparation of St. Veronica: “I meticulously hid the tiny missing specks of color with my triple-zero brush, while I felt Pontormo breathing down my neck as he depicted an entire angel’s foot with one decisive brushstroke.”

“I learned what was necessary to restore and conserve frescoes and oil paintings,” comments Megan Fanning, a University of the Pacific student from Victoriaville, California. “And while we gained instruction from Lorenzo and Lily about which chemicals to use, what tools and quality products were best suited for a treatment problem, the greatest instruction was learning to develop an eye for color and a steady hand through patience.” Madelynn Mabry, from Davidson College, who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, wonders: “How could the direct imitation of another artist’s work ever be anything but a forgery?” When treatments were considered for substantially damaged paintings, she questioned why “dramatic measures would be necessary; truly a case of being between a rock and a hard place.” With a sensitive eye, Simona Fletcher, an art student at Connecticut College, critiques the restoration on Cimabue’s textbook Crucifix at Santa Croce: “I did not like the use of chromatic abstraction for in-painting (filling in with new colors)…the Crucifix was badly damaged in the flood and a neutral tone was chosen and in-painted with small cross-hatched strokes. The overall effect is, to me, rather jarring and unnatural, somewhat distracting from the original work; but this made me wonder how much our appreciation of this great work of art would have been diminished if we had only glowering gaps of empty work.”

The restoration debate will surely continue unabated. Skeptical criticisms can only enhance the extreme cautionary restraint required before interventions take their toll. But the earnest enthusiasm of these young Americans convinces us of their determination to treat their precious cargo with the utmost ethical and artistic diligence. There is every reason to have confidence in this new generation of conservators being trained to respect these fragile vessels of the past. As Ruskin understood, these damaged Florentine panels and flaking church walls contain indelible images ultimately revealing “that golden stain of time.” 7

The author wishes to express his gratitude to Dr. Fabrizio Guarducci, President of the Scuola Lorenzo de Medici Art Institute of Florence; Dean Susan Madocks; photographer Neri Fadigati, and Joanne Maddux of Fairfield University for their invaluable assistance in facilitating his visits in Florence.


1. Ugo Procacci, Introduction, The Great Age of Fresco: Giotto to Pontormo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1966 (Florence: Art Editions “Il Fiorino,” 1968), p. 43.
2. Millard Meiss, Preface, ibid., p. 17.
3. Nicholas Price, et. al., Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 1996).
4. James Beck and Michael Daley, Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).
5. Alan Riding, “Question for ‘David’ at 500: Is he Ready for a Makeover?”, The New York Times (July 15, 2003), p. 1.
6. Beck and Daley, op. cit., p. 29.
7. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (London: Smith, Elder, 1849).

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2003, Volume 20, Number 4.