Interview to the art conservation world
Restorers have a beautiful job. A bit like ours, difficult but beautiful.
They share with us the passion for materials that translate into art. And they know the matter, in ways that sometimes overlap, sometimes complement our own.
Their point of view adds always something new.
Together with Sandra Pucci, restorer, we worked on a picture that was considered “minor”, but which came with many surprises: the San Giovanni Battista of the church of Santo Stefano in Empoli. A seventeenth-century oil painting on canvas, a copy (or a version or a replica?) Of the painting preserved at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City and attributed, albeit with some reservations, to Caravaggio.
Sandra, how do you become a restorer?
It is a profession that attracted me from a young age, because I understood that, through it, it was possible to come into close contact with the author of the work and his language, reaching a real exclusive intimacy.
As regards my training, I attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, the only possible access for me, in those years, to the subject of restoration. I decided to enrol because it was possible to attend the restoration course held by one of the most important restorers at the time, prof. Paolo Gori, and it was a good way to approach the world of restoration; in fact, learning the subject of restoration from a master restorer had, in those years, the same value of a specialized school as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which, moreover, in those years, presented considerable difficulties of access, due to internal problems in the organization. In addition to this, the Superintendency did not require a specific diploma, but rewarded a specific preparation, especially when achieved in a well-known workshop.
How did it go with San Giovanni di Empoli? The diagnostic campaign on painting was commissioned only after the restoration had already begun
Unfortunately, not working in big city often means dealing with very tight budgets. Diagnostic analyses are often discarded, or not even considered, due to their unavoidable costs.
Even the restoration project will have a much lower budget, it is a matter of finding a compromise between the needs of the artwork and the means of the client.
When I started working in my reference municipalities -Empoli, Valdelsa-, I found many ‘do-it-yourself’ restorations that in fact had worsened the artwork conditions. Restorations carried out without any permission from the body in charge of protection, that is the Superintendency. And it is a very serious issue, because there is so much of the Italian artistic heritage in smaller centres.
Unfortunately, the possibility of carrying out a diagnostic campaign on the San Giovanni came only at a later stage. It is certain that if it had been done before the restoration it would have had a bigger impact, but this is easily understood.
When I started, I found myself in front of a painting completely “peeled off” due to a previous restoration that severely removed, during the cleaning phase, the outer layer of the picture. As it often happens, to remedy the damage caused, a heavy pictorial retouching with tempera was carried out, that, altered over time, further compromised the legibility of the artwork.
The investigations conducted by Art-Test allowed to highlight the good execution technique, and to identify the pigments used, all compatible with a seventeenth-century execution. We also discovered some “pentimenti“, unusual in copies. Interesting clues. We realized that the painting has potential to be explored; diagnostics, in this case, could be the most important tool, since if we are now faced with a painting lacking in strength, this must not be misleading: the painting retains the original pictorial finishes only in a few parts, the rest is too impacted by its problematic conservation history.
Also in light of your experience with the San Giovanni, would you recommend performing diagnostic analyses?
Diagnostics is essential, it should always be the first approach. Unfortunately, the cost has an impact, especially in certain cases and in particular in more provincial realities.
Perhaps it should be a cost covered by the Superintendency itself, certainly when the budget is small, covering for such costs is difficult.
It is also discouraging to receive non conclusive answers, or answers which then turns out not to correspond to the reality of the facts. The professionality of those who carry out the analyses is essential. And it is fundamental the relationship between diagnosticians and restorers, which I believe must be based on mutual trust.
To learn more about the results on San Giovanni Battista, you can see the recording of the conference held in Empoli on 11 April 2016 (here our speech), moderated by Bruno Santi with reports by Mina Gregori, Nicole R. Myers, Maria Cristina Terzaghi, Angela Cerasuolo, Valfredo Siemoni, Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli, Sandra Pucci, Anna Pelagotti, Roberta Lapucci, Marco Masseti, Gianni Papi