Thousand Little Renaissances
How art is restored and conserved. A workshop.
Florence, late September. This iconic Italian city is where classical art had its literal Renaissance in the 14th–16th centuries. Think Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci; think realism, perspective, and anatomy. It hosts a wealth of world-famous paintings, churches, and palazzos. Even some of the house facades here are renowned.
I am visiting Tuscany for two weeks with a travel program for digital nomads. It exposes groups of 20 to 30 people from around the world and various backgrounds to local culture, each other, and themselves.
As part of this stay, some of us have booked a workshop that zooms in on a special kind of rebirth. We are welcomed by Martina Previatello, professor for fresco techniques, drawing and painting at Istituto per l‘arte e il restauro, situated in Palazzo Spinelli, and Catherine Burnett, today acting as her interpreter.
„The first thing we teach our students is that you can touch the paintings,“ Martina tells us as we surround the brown, patchy canvas, that somehow makes me think of a pirate treasure map. When a work of art survives this long, time has accumulated on its surface in the form of dust and candle smoke, rendering it pale and dark.
Before Martina can clean a painting, though, she has to conserve its structural integrity. Gravity has pulled on the fabric of this canvas for ages and, little by little, the threads have given in. Earlier techniques of restoration applied broad patches to the back of the canvas where it was torn. This added additional gravitational stress to these areas, however. Today, damages to the canvas are healed with tiny patches, handcrafted as exact puzzle pieces, carefully attached to the original fabric.
Once the back side is taken care of, the next step is to stretch the painting onto a new frame. If the margins of the fabric cannot support this anymore, as a last resort, it will be glued onto a new canvas. But this would be permanent and „in conservation, we always try to be reversible and recognizable,“ Martina adds.
At least in Italy, which has one of the most advanced systems of art conservation on the planet. A huge green painting, leaning against the opposite wall, makes the perfect case for why this is so important. It is unevenly covered with Japanese rice paper; a DIY job gone horribly wrong. „This has been here for a couple of months and we are still trying to figure out how to save it.“
Once the paintings are reframed, Martina and her colleagues can start working on the front. She shows us a large Christian motif with a pattern of recognizable white dots on it. This is where they have conducted tests to select the right solvent for this very painting. The goal is to remove most of the layers of dirt and varnish, but none of the actual paint.
There remains a level of subjectivity, however, as to how bright the colors of a painting might have once been intended by the artist. If you have ever read a story about art restoration before, chances are you have come across the controversy stirred up by the restoration of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
After the structural integrity is restored, and the painting was framed and cleaned, there might be parts of the image that are missing due to damages. While some private owners might want a painting to be restored exactly to how it used to look like, public customers like museums actually do not want this. They would regard such damages as facts and historical commentary and so usually are committed to the two rules mentioned above:
- to be reversible and
- to be recognizable by experts.
There are two practices Martina would employ. If she could know how the missing part of an image has looked like, she would repaint that part using a different material and technique than the original is painted with. For example, she will only paint in a succession of very thin lines instead of filling an area. This way it will look intact when an audience looks at the painting as a whole. But an expert can look up close and see exactly which parts are original and which have been restored.
The second practice will be used when Martina does not know exactly what the artist had painted in a missing area. For example when a face is missing, she cannot know the exact facial expression the artist had intended. If Martina would leave the area blank, however, the white canvas would draw visual attention toward the damage and away from the piece of art. In this case the area will be filled in a very blurry way using colors found in the painting. This still leaves the damaged parts identifiable, but does not detract as much attention.
After all this theory, it is time for us to learn and try a technique ourselves, called Sgraffito. When families in 15th century Florence were rich enough to decorate their houses, but not rich enough to hire a fresco master, this easier technique was likely their choice. The facade would first be plastered using dark pigmented plaster and afterwards covered by a thin light layer of white lime wash. The artist would then scratch off the light color to create high contrast patterns and ornaments.
While our group of participants is carefully scratching away the white lime wash on our practice tiles, in the adjacent room a group of students is practicing to restore missing areas in paintings using fine lines, like Martina has told us before. Unlike us, they are part of a four-week summer course in paintings restoration. Other students spend three or five years at the institute as parts of their professional education.
I wonder, if these two will become the next generation of conservator-restorers. Will they conserve their cultural heritage for the centuries ahead of us? Which paintings will they, quite literally, get their hands on?
The Uffizi alone has two million visitors per year. And most of them have never heard their names, their patience and assiduity. But it is the relentless work of these people, that have preserved works like The Birth of Venus for us to marvel at. And thousands of other paintings. Every year for as long as we can preserve them.
Istituto per l‘arte e il restauro offers graduate and post-graduate programs, summer courses and workshops. In its more than 35 years, it has restored and conserved over 16,ooo pieces of art.
Unsettled offers digital nomad travel experiences for a month in destinations like Medellín, Marakech, and Bali. I have travelled with them to Buenos Aires and Tuscany. They have scouted this workshop for us.
Jan Bromberger works as an entrepreneur in Munich, and travels the world during northern hemisphere winter.