Silvia Bensi

Dec 18, 2021 | Restoration, Studies and Projects

“Physics and chemistry are still fundamental in my work today””

Silvia, how did you become a restorer?

Since I was a child, I have always had the talent for drawing and painting. Despite this passion, partly inherited from my father who was a painter, my studies were initially focussing on scientific topics. I attended the scientific lyceum thanks to which I was able to acquire the bases of physics and chemistry which are still fundamental in my work, e.g. the cleaning phase of the restoration treatment is based a lot on the knowledge of the chemical nature of both the material that we want to remove or make thinner, and the substance that we are going to use. After high school, however, I decided to follow my passions and I enrolled in the faculty of art history. It was at the university that I got to know the profession of the restorer. I realized that restoration was a perfect for me: the perfect combination of my passion and my studies, the synthesis of two worlds that now belonged to me: art and the science of materials that constitutes it. While still at uni I decided therefore to try to enroll also at the three-year professional school set up by the Tuscany Region headed by the art and restoration scholar Alessandro Conti. Once I obtained my diploma as a restorer, I began my career in this fascinating world.

You collaborated with Art-Test on the restoration of the lunette of the Pietà by Lorenzo d’Alessandro da San Severino, painted on a panel in the Uffizi. What memories do you have of this job? Do you want to tell us some anecdotes?

I am happy to have been able to work with Art-Test, it was one of those cases in which a budget was also made available for diagnostics. In my opinion certain diagnostic analyses should be made compulsory for all paintings or at least for all those paintings located in the most important museums. This would bring numerous advantages allowing not only to be able to deepen the technique of execution but also to improve the state of conservation. In the case of the Pietà, Art-Test allowed me to observe a splendidly manufactured preparatory drawing thanks to the reflectography technique, and with the observation in UV fluorescence it was possible to clearly highlight those areas that had undergone repainting.

This was the first job with Art-Test, and I always remember it with pleasure, I found your approach fascinating and above all the more you proceeded with the investigations, the more I had the opportunity to know what I was going to restore. I was able to observe the stratigraphy of the work in such detail that it was like being present at the very creation of the painting.

The lunette had undergone an aggressive cleaning, especially on the lacquers, and there was no technical data sheet giving information on previous restorations, so again the diagnostics were further useful by providing me with this information as well.

Generally, what are the problems you most commonly encounter during a restoration in which diagnostics are more useful? And above all, have diagnostic investigations always provided useful information?

The cleaning phase is certainly an example. It is very unfortunate that a sufficient budget is not always made available to carry out at least those “basic investigations” providing information on the technique and pigments used, which are extremely useful and, in my opinion, necessary notions especially in the case of a cleaning, in order to choose the most suitable solvents. Although I have been working for 35 years now, from 1999 onwards I have always followed upskilling trainings held by Paolo Cremonesi, because I have always been interested in the scientific approach. I sincerely hope that the restoration  practise may become more and more scientific. Over the years, with new diagnostic techniques we can understand what we are going to remove with cleaning, and how and at what speed. Working a lot on wooden sculptures, which often have numerous repaintings, diagnostics are indispensable for me. Diagnostic investigations have always provided me with answers. I have often offered the opportunity, working for important museums, to  work with diagnosticians on my restoration projects. Although I know this is unfortunately not always possible.The fact is that approaching a restoration without the knowledge provided by these analyses, is quite risky. How can you go on without knowing the underlying layers? The only real problem diagnostics faces is in terms of funding, because very often, especially when dealing with minor works and smaller museums, scientific tests are not taken into consideration because of a too low budget.

You have been working in this field for many years, what changes have you noticed in terms of customers, prices, and clients? I have worked with  antique dealers, especially at the beginning, but mainly with public institutions. I have also restored privately owned works.  In the past 30 years little has changed in terms of customers and clients, except for wooden sculptures that some decades ago were neither noteworthy nor studied while nowadays it is a field that sees great interest.

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