Conservation of works of art
Conservation of works of art in the sixteenth century
The restoration of ancient statues
The practice of reusing [ancient sculpture] as filling material was for a long time destined to coexist with the earliest interventions that might be described as “restorations”; that is, with interventions that sought to give back to ancient fragments the completeness that would enable an improved aesthetic appreciation and, more often than not, a subject matter without which the figure would remain illegible, in terms of a representation linked to the fundamental requirements of “history”. Fifteenth-century Venice was the city that presented the richest array of examples of the traditional reuse of materials, this reuse gradually turning into solutions that could be classed as restoration, at least in the sense of the word during the Renaissance.
What to make of the fine statue representing Saint Paul in an eighteenth-century niche in Campo San Polo? The ancient statue has in fact a head in the style of the Bon workshop, not seemingly overconcerned with problems of imitating the style of the original: completed in this manner, the whole was inserted into the lunette of the Gothic portal of the church of San Polo. And can the insertion of a Roman bust in a niche decorated in the style of Bartolomeo Bon in Calle Bon or dell’Arco, be simply considered the reuse of material?
Restoration of a kind can be detected in the head, thought to be of Plato, “with the tip of the nose made of wax”, which Niccolo and Giovanni Bellini sold to Isabella d’Este in 1512, and which originally formed part of the inheritance of Gentile Bellini. As often the case in Venice, in the context of its relationship with the Antique, there was no end of stories, veiled with a particular mystery, such as that of the Berlin Ephebus discovered on Rhodes, which was apparently completed with a bronze foot that Bembo had found in Padua, which fitted it to perfection (at least, that is the tale passed on to us by Enea Vico).
It is difficult to find such a wealth of examples elsewhere; there is little that can be reconstructed of Vasari’s “endless antique heads placed above doors”, which we are told were restored by Donatello (we know that these were, at least in part, put in order by Verrocchio) for Palazzo Medici. In the marble sculptures that are still in existence, or which passed into the Grand Duke’s collections, we can no longer identify these first adaptations, which were substituted as the taste in collecting changed. We know only that the “the white antique marble depicting Marsyas, placed at the entrance to the garden” (restored by Donatello, according to Vasari), corresponds to the sculpture which is now in the Uffizi, but the attribution of the restoration still requires verification. The other Marsyas, given to be restored
to Andrea Verrocchio and now lost, was praised by the great sixteenth-century historian for the way in which “it had been worked with so much judgement and skill, that certain fine white veins which were in the red stone, were engraved by the artist so as to look like nerves, such as are seen in flayed flesh. These must have made this work, when first finished, very life-like”.
The completion of an antique fragment required first of all a correct or plausible interpretation of the missing parts, and then their execution in a “manner”i that was in keeping with the antique original. Problems would arise when the interpretation of the fragmentary parts seemed to challenge any possibility of comprehension, as is shown by this passage by Ludovico Castelvetro, which has only recently come to the attention of art historians:
“Not many years ago, during excavations in Rome, a large and beautiful marble sculpture of a River [God] was brought to light, its beard broken, and partly missing. Judging by the portion which remained around the chin it seemed that the beard, had it remained intact and taking account of the proportions, should have reached down to the navel. However, the point of the beard could be seen at the top of the figure’s chest, not descending any further; all were perplexed, and no-one seemed able to imagine what the beard must have looked like originally. Only Michelangelo Buonarroti, that sculptor of rare and wonderful brilliance, who was present, quietly engaged in his own thoughts, understood how it must have been, and said: “Bring me some clay”. With the clay that was brought, he fashioned that part of the beard which was missing, in proportion with the fragment remaining; when added, it reached down to the navel. Then, tying it in a knot, he clearly showed how the point of the beard would then only reach the top of the chest, in the identical place where the point of the broken beard remained. Thus, to the great admiration of all who were present, he demonstrated what the missing beard had looked like, and how it had been knotted”.
The description of the sculpture allows one to identify it as Tigris (Arno at the time of Clement VII), which is now in the Vatican Museums, restored with its lordly knotted beard. In this instance, as in the case of the Laocoon, which is much better known and documented through copies, drawings and sketches, as well as real attempts at integration, the restoration consists primarily in the interpretation of the original appearance of the now mutilated figure. But once this interpretation had been resolved (which was only possible in the above example, for an artist of the intelligence of Buonarroti), there still remained the problem of which of the options, some more and some less faithful to the original, should be used in the completion of the work.
The original position of the arm of the Laocoon was understood right from the beginning, when it was discovered in 1506; Amico Aspertini’s drawing in the sketchbook in the British Museum was faithful to it, as was the copy executed by Baccio Bandinelli between 1520 and 1525. However, the problem did not present itself in terms of simple reconstruction or faithful renovation (ripristino). If one really wanted to show the original to its best advantage, emphasizing its merits (its quality, we might say), rather than simply carrying out xVasari’s term “maniera” is usually translated by the terms “manner” or “style”, and incorporates both the aspects of physical handling of the material and the stylistic elements represented a faithful integration, a case could be made for enhancing its “grace” (grazia); that is, its sense of movement and rhythm, beyond a slavish imitation of nature. That is what Montorsoli 26 would do, with the outstretched arm in clay with which he replaced the wax arm of Baccio Bandinelli’s first restoration. The intrinsic value of this choice is amply testified by its confirmation with each successive restoration, when Agostino Cornacchini refashioned Montarsoli’s clay arm in marble between 1725 and 1727, as well as those carried out after the Napoleonic requisitions. Winckelmann, who was well aware of the different position [of the arm] envisaged by the original authors, observed that “the arm bent back over the head would in some way have detracted from the work, dividing the spectator’s attention”.
Vasari refers to the principle of “grace”, when recalling the arrangement given by Lorenzetto to the antiquities restored for the courtyard of Cardinal Andrea della Valle: “within the courtyard he arranged columns, antique bases and capitols, and distributed around the basement, piles of ancient fragments [carved with] stories. And this is why other gentlemen, following this example, had many antiquities restored; for instance the Cardinals Cesis, Ferrara, Farnese – in short – all of Rome.
And it is true, these antiquities have much more grace when restored in this manner, than have those imperfect trunks, or those limbs – headless or in some other respect defective or incomplete”.
It is not by chance then, that from the sixteenth century, a sculpture such as the Torso Belvedere was left incomplete without reintegrations. Even in its extreme incompleteness, the sense of movement, indeed the “grace”, which permeates the work, allowed the figurative message to appear clearly, despite the work’s fragmentary state. The restoration of the Laocoon with the outstretched arm intervened within the original composition of its ancient authors, thus giving it better “disegno”. And this is the attitude that we find behind another famous episode, involving the lower portion of the legs of the Farnese Hercules which were completed by Guglielmo della Porta, a restoration that was not removed when the originals were discovered, on the advice of Michelangelo (according to Baglione).
It is also in this vein that we should understand Benvenuto Cellini’s intention, his desire to “serve” the master of antiquity who had executed the youthful torso that is shown him by Cosimo I and which formed the basis of the Ganymede which is today in the Bargello: “… I do not recall ever having seen amongst the fragments of antiquity, a work of such 27 beauty representing a young boy, nor so finely fashioned. For this reason, I am offering to restore it for Your Renowned Excellency: the head, the arms and the feet. And I shall make him an eagle so that he shall be known as a Ganymede. Although it really does not suit me to cobble together sculptures, because that is the work of cobblers who do it rather badly, the excellence of this master requires that I should serve him”.
Underlying all the older restorations, there was also the problem of how to harmonize these with the [original] marble, and the treatment of their finish. Often the surface would be polished, abraded, sometimes even chiselled to blend together the old parts with the new, but also in order to remove the more degraded part of the surface, making it more solid with a view to its future conservation. The use of marbles of a different nature to that of the original was the norm rather than the exception for integrations, to the extent that Raffaello Borghini in his Riposo, after having spoken of the putty to be used to “stick the parts together”, then went on to describe the method of giving “antique colour to marble”:
“Some take soot, and put it onto the fire in vinegar, or else in urine, until it reaches boiling point; then they strain it, and use the liquid with a brush to tint the marble. Others take cinnamon, and some cloves and boil them in urine, and the more they boil [it], the darker the colour, and with this warm mixture they give one or two coats to the marble. Others (because there are many differently coloured marbles), to better counterfeit them, take many painters’ pigments, and mix them with walnut oil, until they have the colour they are looking for, trying it out on the marble. And this they use, where necessary, to harmonize the new marble with the old”.8 Small bronzes and small sculptures fashioned out of precious materials also underwent restoration: Duke Cosimo, when excavations brought to light the Chimera of Arezzo (1554), used to amuse himself by cleaning the small bronzes which had been found alongside it, and Cellini would help him by completing the missing parts of the figurines. But Cellini had already restored antique bronzes: in 1546 “the bronze man of fear” (in reality pseudo-antique), and in 1548 a figure for which he had created a horse. In the Museo Archeologico in Florence, there are numerous small bronzes from the Medici collection which were reintegrated in the sixteenth century, especially heads completed with busts of gilded metal and precious stones. Amongst them should be noted an antique torso, Herculean in type, which has new legs, right arm and left forearm, as well as an adolescent head.
Giorgio Vasari: works of art and the passage of time
In the sixteenth century, we begin to find observations relating to the conservation of works of art, in writers on art. Michiel, for instance, would observe how in the house of Leonico Tolomeo in Padua, the “portrait of Leonico himself as a young man” by Giovanni Bellini was now all “flaked away (“tutto cascato”), yellowed and obscured”, and would refer frequently to antique fragments in Venetian palaces, but shown as they were, and not as part of a decorative scheme; rather in the way they can be seen in Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of Andrea Odoni in Hampton Court. In addition, in a work as elaborately drawn up and rich as Vasari’s Lives, we find a vast field of discussion related to the problems and expectations connected with conservation, and the possibility of survival of works of art.
Despite the Neo-platonic myth of even the waves and the wind respecting Raphael’s Spasimo di Sicilia, Vasari was well aware of the dangers to which works of “disegno” were exposed, “as even marbles and the most eminent works of men are at the mercy of fortune”.11 To remain within the scope of works in the “modern manner”, the loss of the preparatory model for a Venus by Sansovino, destroyed during the Florence flood of 1557, was to be lamented, as was the extreme damage suffered by Perino del Vaga’s Deposition which, we are told, would have been “one of the most priceless works in Rome”, had it not been submerged during the flood which followed the Sack of Rome: “the water softened the gesso and swelled the wood so that, whatever the water had reached, had peeled right away, so that little of it could now be enjoyed. Rather, one was filled with pity and regret, to see it [in such condition]”. Raphael’s Madonna del Cardellino found itself engulfed when Lorenzo Nasi’s house collapsed in 1548: “none the less, having found the pieces amongst the rubble of the ruin, Batista (son of Lorenzo, and a great lover of art) had them put back together as best one could”. In 1527, when the Medici were hunted out of Florence, “during the fighting for the Palazzo della Signoria, a bench was thrown from the building onto those who were attacking the door; as luck would have it, the bench hit one of the arms of Michelangelo’s David, and broke it into three pieces.” These pieces were gathered up by Giorgio Vasari and Cecchino Salvati, who were boys at the time, and preserved in their homes, so that in 1543 Duke Cosimo was able to have the three pieces reattached with copper pins.
To ill-fortune then, one must add neglect, as well as the ignorance of those who were unable to understand the importance of a work, especially if in the “old style”, or out-and-out vandalism as in the case of the soldiers during the siege of Florence in 1530, who destroyed the marble sculptures prepared by Benedetto da Rovezzano in San Salvi, for the chapel of San Giovanni Gualberto in Santa Trinita.
Often, prized works, such as frescos or buildings, were destroyed out of the necessity to make way for new constructions or decorations; a habitual occurrence, not to be deplored when a work of greater “disegno” replaced a lesser one, that is one in the old style or simply one inferior in quality. If such occurrences were to be accepted as inevitable, in as much as bound to the wheel of fortune, as with all human endeavour, Vasari, in a rather more sinister light, also presents us with such works that have been wilfully damaged or destroyed through the envy of artists. Amico Aspertini was reputed to have damaged the antiquities which came within his reach or which he drew; Baccio Bandinelli was thought to have used for his own work certain marbles from San Lorenzo on which Michelangelo had already begun to rough out some figures, had broken into pieces the Hercules and Anteus, which Montorsoli had been working on for the Villa Medici in Castello and, worst of all, he had torn into pieces the cartoon for the Battle of Cascina.
Confronted with so many incidents that could endanger a work of “disegno”, it was well to have in mind the advantages that a good technique could bring in terms of the conservation of a painting, the drawbacks resulting from poor choices. Some of the most significant works in the modern manner had [already] darkened excessively through the use of lamp black (“nero di stampatori”) in the darks: the Marriage of Saint Catherine, for instance, by Fra Bartolomeo, Raphael’s Transfiguration in which the artist had used the pigment almost “through caprice”, the panel in Santa Maria dell’Anima by Giulio Romano “because the black, although varnished, dies as it is by nature thirsty, whether it is carbon black, or burnt ivory, or lamp black, or burnt paper”. The poor outcome of the use of lamp black is – of course – for readers of Vasari, almost proverbial, although it seems to me legitimate to ask to what degree should one indeed regret the alteration of this colour, and whether Vasari’s annoyance does not principally reflect his opposition to the cold tonality of the shadows in which it was used: less soft, seeming not to share to any degree that brown and enveloping character obtained through painting in the oil medium, that he himself so clearly appreciates in the introduction to the Vite. That is, the position he took was an indication of taste, which made him attribute defects in the behaviour of a colour, when in reality, the chromatic choices made [by the artist] were, above all, different from his own.
Good technique would, on the other hand, sometimes favour the preservation of a work; for instance, Rafaellino del Garbo’s Resurrection, painted in oil, escaped damage from the lightning which struck its frame, so that it can still be seen today in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, in good condition, but in a fine mid-sixteenth-century frame, which obviously post-dates the lightning damage. But if the panel by Rafaellino was simply another example of the excellence of the oil medium, some of the new expedients used by artists to improve the longevity of their works, or preserve their original appearance, did not always meet with Vasari’s approval; for instance, Beccafumi’s choice of tempera as a medium for the execution of the altarpiece in the Oratory of San Bernardino in Siena, or Sebastiano del Piombo’s paintings on stone, of which he denounced the excessive weight.
Copies were made, in order to preserve the memory of works of art, which in themselves were, sooner or later, destined to disappear (as had happened with the works of Antiquity); Vasari recounts how he had Aristotele di Sangallo reproduce in oil a drawing from the cartoon of the Battle of Cascina by Michelangelo, “as paper is so easily damaged”; whilst the copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper was useful to him in order to understand the original, of which, he says in 1566, he could only make out “confused blots”. Another way of transmitting the memory of such works of “disegno” was to write about them. Vasari lingers with pleasure on the churches in Arezzo, and their works of art, destroyed during the construction of the Medici fortress, and on the buildings knocked down for the defence of Florence during the siege, such as the monastery of San Giusto alle Mura, described at length in the Life of Pietro Perugino.
The restorations that occupied his attention most, were the completion of ancient statues, the renovation of mosaic cycles, and the repainting of frescos and panel paintings, about which he was always vexed. Referring to the cherub which had suffered from the damp, and which Sodoma had repainted in Signorelli’s Circumcision in Volterra, he observed: “it was repainted much less finely than the original”; and that “it would be better at times to preserve the work of excellent masters half ruined, than have them retouched by those who are less able”. Of the panel by Fra Angelico in Fiesole, which was enlarged by Lorenzo di Credi, he noted that “perhaps, because it appeared to be deteriorating, it was retouched by other masters, and looks worse”, not revealing, out of respect perhaps, the name of the artist who carried out the intervention. On the other hand, he seemed happy enough to name a minor artist such as Solazzino as the author of the repaintings on the Inferno in the Camposanto at Pisa. Elsewhere, the author of the repainting remained anonymous, perhaps because he was too second-rate, such as the one responsible for repainting Giotto’s Annunciation in Santa Croce (“with little judgement on the part of he who commissioned the work to be done”), or else the artist who had in “in a poor manner transformed” (“in mala maniera condotto”), a fourteenth-century fresco in the Chiostro Verde in Santa Maria Novella, by repainting a city and a landscape as background to a Crucifixion between two Dominican friars: a repainting which can still be seen in old photographs, and was removed – a questionable choice – when the fresco was transferred from the wall. Confronted with the interventions of such painters, who obviously were excluded from the circle of the most excellent artists dealt with in the Lives, rather than it being a question of old or modern manner, it was rather that of “bad style” (“mala maniera”), as is suggested by the fate of two tabernacles by Jacopo del Casentino which were remade by “a worse master than Jacopo had been”: objectively, falling short of the “greater art” one would rightly expect of a work in the modern manner.
Twelfth-century Romanesque Master, fragments of a Madonna and Child; devotional mounting dated 1851. Farfa, Abbey.
Events involving works of art in the sixteenth century
With the exception of provisions taken for the simple conservation of works of art, or the references to Andrea del Sarto’s frescos (the Tabernacle of Porta Pinti, as well as the Last Supper of San Salvi) which the vandals of the siege of 1530 did not have the heart to destroy, Vasari refers several times to “trasporti a massello”, which give us a good indication of what, especially during the demolition of the rood-screen, was considered to be worth saving.
The most obvious instances were those dictated by devotional interests, even if linked to figurative aspects rather than those of worship: for instance, in Arezzo in 1561, Spinello Aretino’s painting of Our Lady who Offers the Christ Child a Rose [is saved]: a work in which, according to Vasari, “simple grace which holds of modesty and sanctity . . . draws men to hold it in utmost reverence”. Otherwise, we see that the works which were saved were almost exclusively fifteenth-century ones; neither the Martyrdom of Saint Mark by Stefano in the Cappella degli Asini from the rood-screen of Santa Croce, nor Taddeo Gaddi’s San Jerome, Giotto’s Saint Ludovico nor a youthful fresco by Fra Angelico in Santa Maria Novella survived Vasari’s readaptations of these churches, although in the Lives they are remembered with a certain amount of interest. In Ognissanti, on the other hand, Ghirlandaio’s Saint Jerome and Botticelli’s Saint Augustin, which were by “the door leading into the choir”, were transferred, fastening them “with irons”. Similarly, around 1568, in Santa Croce, the fresco by Domenico Veneziano depicting Saint Francis and Saint John the Baptist was also transferred using a metal armature, a band ten or so centimetres wide.
28 In Parma in the sixteenth century, Correggio’s Annunciation was transferred (with mediocre results as Mengs recorded), as was his Coronation of the Virgin. The first transfer of the Annunciation took place when the church in which it had been painted was demolished in 1546 in order to build the fortress, and subsequently it was again transferred, this time to the church of the Annunciata, which Giambattista Fornovo began building in 1566.
29 The shallow dome with the Vergine ed il Redentore che la incorona, first brought to the Ducal oratory in La Rocchetta, and then moved in the eighteenth century to the Palatine Library, was originally transferred in 1587, when the apse of the church of San Giovanni Evangelista was built further back to allow for the new placement of the choir. In the new apse, the fresco was copied by Cesare Aretusi and, as well as the principal figures which were transferred a massello, some sections of the surface intonaco painted with the heads of angels were also detached in the age-old custom of preserving some memory of frescos that were to be hidden or demolished. Similar circumstances, I believe, surround the rescue of the “putto” painted by Raphael, now in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. It is to this, or to a similar fragment, that Cavazzoni was probably referring when he spoke of “a small putto, painted in fresco, brought from Rome by the hand of Raphael of Urbino” in the house of Count Battista Bentivoglio in Bologna.
In the earlier generations of Mannerists, there was still a live attachment to the paintings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A generation later it would become unthinkable to hear a painter confess to have “learnt much” as a boy when copying two figures, wasted away through humidity, by Giovanni Toscani in the Duomo of Arezzo, “studying the manner of painting of Giovanni, and the shadows and colours of that work”. Of even greater interest, in that sense, is Vasari’s tale of Perino del Vaga’s visit to Florence in 1523, and his attempt to pit himself against Masaccio. He executed a Saint Andrew to accompany Masaccio’s Saint Paul, right up to the cartoon stage, to demonstrate that in Rome one knew how to match the style (“paragonare”) which the Florentines believed no-one had surpassed “[neither] in the relief, nor the resolution, nor the practice”. Massaccio, therefore, still represented a valid paragon and important point of comparison.
It is therefore significant that we find Perino as a protagonist in the rescue of a Madonna by Giotto, which would otherwise have been lost in the demolition of the old basilica of Saint Peter’s. In his Life of Giotto, Vasari limits himself to referring to the “beauty” of the work (a relative “beauty” of course, only such as one might expect to find in a fourteenth-century painting), which had led to its being transferred. In the Life of Perino, on the other hand, Vasari focused on two elements that were to become topical from the sixteenth century onwards, when rescuing the work of an Early Master: historical interest and a certain civic “pietas” [in this case] for his compatriot Giotto: “The old walls of that church were falling into ruin, and as the masons were constructing new ones for the building, they came to a wall on which were painted Our Lady and other works by Giotto: Perino and his great friend the Florentine doctor Niccolo Acciaiuoli, in whose company he was, having seen it, were both moved with pity for this painting. They prevented it from being destroyed and, moreover, having had the wall cut all around it, they had it secured with metal [bands] and beams, and then had it placed beneath the organ of San Piero, where no altar or other work had been ordered. And, before the wall which surrounded the Madonna was demolished, Perino copied the Roman senator Orso dell’Anguillara, who had crowned Messer Francesco Petrarca [Petrarch] on the Campidoglio, who had been painted at the feet of this Madonna. Also the stuc- chi, and decorations around the Madonna, and a memorial to another Niccolo Acciaiuoli who had also been a Roman senator. Perino immediately put his hand to making drawings and, helped by his young assistants, and by Marcello Mantovano who was a relation, the work was carried out with great care”. Historical interest, if not linked to the history of the figurative arts, was not in itself sufficient to preserve works of art; ancient customs, effigies of famous characters and other documents could also, and more simply, be transmitted as copies. Of a fresco by Bruno and Buffalmacco in Santa Maria Novella, which would be destroyed not long after the Lives had been written, in works which Vasari himself directed, he observed:
“This painting, although not very beautiful is nevertheless worthy of some praise, taking into account the drawing by Buonamico and the invention, and particularly because of the variety in dress, the visored helmets and the armours of the time. I made use of them in some of the histories I painted for Duke Cosimo, in which I needed to represent men armoured as of old, and other details pertaining to that time, which greatly pleased His Illustrious Excellency and others who saw it. And from this, you can judge how much capital can be made from the inventions and the works of these Early Masters … ”.
Artefacts that were less bulky than frescos, such as the cassoni attributed to Dello Delli, were more likely to be preserved as historical documents: many citizens preserved these in their homes, preferring them to modern furniture, as did Vasari himself “because it is good to keep some memory of these ancient things”. In the new apartments that he had built for Duke Cosimo in the Palazzo della Signoria, examples were kept “which are by the hand of Dello himself, and which are and always will be worthy of admiration, for the men and women in all the varied costumes of the times which one sees in them”.
The favourite kind of historical documentation, following Paolo Giovio’s example, was portraits of famous men. Vasari recalls effigies copied from frescos that were due for demolition, and copies executed for Giovio’s museum such as certain heads painted by Fra Angelico in the chapel destroyed under Paul III, or others which Raphael instructed to have copied from the frescos of Piero della Francesca and Bramantino, before pulling them down to make way for his own frescos in the Stanze. Of the earliest examples of interpretations taken from “portraits” copied from frescos of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, we have no record, as the pieces that have survived from Giovo’s collection are of more recent date; while the copies of the copies executed by Cristoforo dell’Altissimo for Cosimo are too far removed from the original to give us an idea of how a good sixteenth-century artist might have interpreted a passage derived from the work of an Early Master.
But the most pressing problems, and those closest to the preoccupations for the conservation and for the enhancement of works of art, which, in time, would develop into restoration, can be found in the attention that is already required by the great examples of the modern manner. In the Sistine Chapel, the first of the cleaners (“mundatores”) officially charged with the regular dusting of the frescos was L’Urbino – Francesco Amadori – a servant of Michelangelo. A “motu propriu” of Paul III of the 26 October 1543 entrusted him with the lifelong task of maintaining the beautiful paintings (“pulcherrimaepicturas”) (those completed in the Sistine Chapel, and those in progress in the Pauline Chapel) “free of dust and other dirt such as from the smoke of candles which are used during the holy services”.™ A seventeenth-century cleaning of the frescos, known through a passage found in certain copies of the Mancini manuscript, gives us an idea of the cleaning techniques used: “Under Pope Urban VIII, the paintings in the palace known as Sisto’s [that is, the Sistine Chapel], were cleaned, and this is the order of procedure: having removed the loose dust from each figure with a linen cloth, the dust and other worse filth was carefully removed with slices of bread worth a baiocco or less, rubbing with care and in some places, where the dirt was more tenacious, then lightly wetting the bread, thus returning the paintings to their pristine beauty without in any way damaging them. This handiwork was carried out by Master Simon Laghi, gilder of the palace, and was begun in January 1625 .. .”.
Gaspare Celio was probably referring to this cleaning when lamenting that the fifteenth- century paintings in the Sistine Chapel “with wanting them to look fresher, are no longer what they were”. As a result of the subsidence of 1565, an actual reintegration of the intonaco [and hence paint layer] had been necessary in the vault painted by Michelangelo. For the reconstruction of the figures, it is possible that he was able to make use of drawings or other graphic documentation, whilst in the handling of the paint he showed the ability – particular to restorers.
The episode recalled by [Ludovico] Dolce of a restoration by Sebastiano del Piombo in Raphael’s Stanze (no longer identifiable) is well known. The Venetian writer wished to underline the particular difficulties of harmonizing the differing styles of the two artists.
During the Sack of Rome, soldiers had “with little respect lit a fire for their own use in the rooms painted by Raphael, and either the smoke, or they themselves, had damaged some of the heads. Once the soldiers had left, and Pope Clement returned, he was so troubled that such beautiful heads should remain damaged, that he had Sebastiano repaint them.”
When Titian visited these rooms in the company of Sebastiano del Piombo “with both his mind and his eyes fixed on Raphael’s paintings which he had not seen before, having reached the part in which Sebastiano had repainted the heads, he asked him who had been so ignorant and presumptious as to besmirch those faces [with paint], not realizing that it was Sebastiano himself who had reshaped them, but only seeing the unseemly difference between the other heads and these”.
If the reconstruction appeared as a smear, it would seem permissible to deduce that was because of the alteration that it had already undergone with the passage of time, so that it no longer harmonized with the original. The alteration therefore emphasized the difference in handling, in brushwork, in style, all of which could not originally have been so evident; it also underlined a fundamental disagreement, in which a more highly cultured tradition, more closely linked to artists, will always prefer visible damage, which only interferes to a limited extent with the painting, and does not disturb the “the inner eye” (l’intelligente) [to restoration].
At what level, and to what degree did the problem of respect of authorship present itself, is suggested by the differing fates of two unfinished panels depicting The Adoration of the Magi in the second half of the sixteenth century in Florence; that is, in a city in which 32 there was an abiding tradition of care and respect for those works of art which were recognized as being of importance. One of these was Leonardo’s famous painting which passed from the house of Amerigo Benci to the collection of Francis I in the Casino of San Marco: its unfinished status as a work of art precluded its use as an altarpiece, but made of it a precociously collectable object. It was therefore left in its unfinished state, which sixteenth- century taste was already prepared to accept as an example of Leonardo’s style, on whose chiaroscuro (which was moreover of exceptional figurative concreteness) no intervention was possible.
The other Adoration of the Magi was the one that Giovanni Antonio Sogliani had kept 33 in his studio for many years without ever completing it; when sold at his death as “old stuff ” to Sinibaldo Gaddi, it was completed by the very young Santi di Tito and placed in the Gaddi Chapel in San Domenico, such an intervention being necessary in order for the painting to reach its destination. Neither is any attempt made to intervene in the unfinished sections of Raphael’s Madonna del Baldacchino, and these are still easily distinguishable (and constitute an invaluable guide to an understanding of his technique). These would also be left untouched when Cassana enlarged the panel at the end of the seventeenth century. Therefore, when the works [concerned] were by Leonardo or Raphael, there was no intervention: but when a painting was by Sogliani or, in the case of Bronzino’s great altarpiece for the nuns of the Conception, when there were circumstances in which the wishes of the commissioners were more strongly heard, the painting would be completed.
From what Dolce recalled of Titian’s reaction to Sebastiano del Piombo’s retouchings on the frescos of the Stanze, and from what we learn from Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi about the respect that was obligatory when confronted with even the unfinished state of a work of art that was universally accepted as such, we can better understand the unease felt when confronted with the problem of intervening on the most important painting in the modern manner: Michelangelo’s Last Judgement with Daniele da Volterra’s famous retouchings. After The Last Judgement was unveiled at the end of 1541, the criticisms that would be directed towards it found an authoritative voice in the renowned letter by Pietro Aretino of 1545. But it was not until the pontificate of Paul IV (1555-1559) that the possibility of direct intervention on the painting in order to modify it was considered. Such a possibility was discussed at the actual sittings of the Council of Trent, and at the beginning of 1564 a commission was put into place, specifically to amend the paintings of the Apostolic Chapel. The retouching work did not then begin until after the death of Michelangelo, which occurred on 17 February of that year.
The choice of Daniele da Volterra was made with great tact; he was the artist closest to Michelangelo, and his intervention would have been seen to be the least injurious to the memory of Michelangelo. It would be difficult to imagine how such a task could have been carried out with more discretion, especially in view of the fact that at first a demolition of the fresco had been proposed. The figures of San Biagio and the ample draperies of Saint Catherine’s dress were completely repainted in fresco technique, given the ambiguity to which their position lent itself in the eyes of the worldly. No more than thirty draperies were added, and they were not all by the hand of Daniele da Volterra, as the names of others who intervened on the fresco are known: Girolamo da Fano and Cesare Nebbia in the sixteenth century, in a tradition that was to be renewed right up to the eighteenth century.
Vasari, in the first edition of the Lives, made no mention of the problem regarding the alterations that might have to be made on the fresco; it is only in 1568 that he referred to it in the Life of Daniele da Volterra: “as Pope Paul IV wished to demolish the Last Judgement by Michelangelo because of the nude figures which, he felt, showed the shameful parts in too immoral a fashion, cardinals and men of judgement were of the opinion that it would be a great shame (‘gran peccato’) to destroy them, and they found a solution, that Daniele should fashion some thin draperies to cover them, which task he then finished under Pius IV with the repainting of Saint Catherine and San Biagio, as it seemed that they were not represented with honesty”.
According to Vasari, Michelangelo himself was open to suggestions that might resolve the displeasure created by the “shameful parts” which were depicted “too immorally”. The master, who was occupied in the building of Saint Peter’s, had word passed to Pius IV that “it was a small thing, quickly sorted: he should [concentrate] on sorting out the world, as with paintings this was quickly done”. That Michelangelo was amenable to have small changes made in order to make the Last Judgement more acceptable, was already known when Gaspare Celio first mentioned the name of Braghettone for Daniele da Volterra, referring to the work he carried out on Raphael’s Isaiah in Sant’Agostino, after it had been damaged by a sacristan at the time of Paul IV: it was “retouched by N. called Braghettone because he covered up the obscene parts of the figures in Michelangelo’s Judgement by order of the aforementioned Pope, and with Michelangelo’s consent”; retouching carried out on the figures “so that the owner would not have them destroyed”.
Although Celio represents a rather late source in relation to the events to which he is referring, he nevertheless nicely reflects the ambiguous nature that such a problem presented in the years preceding the corrections: a bad reputation and discredit for the person who intervened on the work of art of another (hence the nickname Braghettone), and on the other hand the consent of Michelangelo for what appeared to be the lesser evil, when confronted with the intentions of the “master”, Paul IV It is this double position that is characteristic of the Counter-Reformation: on the one hand, a desire to strengthen the importance of the position of the artist and his autonomy within a strictly professional compass, while at the same time avoiding the creation of unseemly images or ones containing “errors”; that is, images which through their visual message allude to positions condemned by the Church.
Resolving the problem with the application of “thin draperies”, in itself a simple solution and respectful of Michelangelo’s composition, nevertheless took twenty-three years, taking place at a moment when the figure of Michelangelo was being rehabilitated in Counter-Reformation circles, which leaves more than one question unanswered surrounding these events. But with this, we find ourselves already at the centre of the problems that would be characteristic of the post-tridentine period, when new attention directed towards the image as an object of worship and as a means of doctrinal divulgation led to a series of positions destined to coexist and interweave with that which, in a different field of action, was the conservation and restoration of works of art.
Catholic reform and the Counter-Reformation
For the person approaching the events surrounding the conservation, adaptation and restoration of our artistic heritage from the point of view of its present position, the Counter Reformation (with its prescriptions for the cleanliness of the place of worship and of its furniture, the devotional correctness and efficacity of its images, and the requirement for their correction should they be “badly made”, even in a figurative sense), must appear responsible for many of the present ills, in the form of repaintings, arbitrary reductions and changes in context. Exhibitions of restored works are never without some example of a fourteenth- century panel, or fifteenth-century fresco, sometimes even a more recent canvas, which has been freed from devotionally inspired overpainting. It is only recently that an attitude has developed towards these repaintings (rifacimenti), which recognizes that they have, nevertheless, some historical significance. Before removing them, questions are beginning to be asked, as to whether their removal is really compensated for by the improved legibility of what is presumed to be the original work.
There are few works that have suffered a devotional restoration without their strictly figurative elements being in any way interfered with, and it is these elements that specifically concern the art historian. It is also true, however, that it is thanks to their life as devotional objects that some of the works of the Early Masters have survived, although cut down, repainted, inserted within Baroque stucco work, and for a period of about 300 years having at most a purely documentary interest.
Devotional adaptations and modernizations often proceeded along the same lines as those carried out in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but with a different purpose, in that now one was acting with the respect owed to paintings which were fully recognized as works of art; it goes without saying that these works would belong to the modern manner, or to the period immediately preceding it. There coexisted, therefore, up to the rediscovery of the Early Masters, two differing spheres of interest towards what we consider now, without distinction, works of art.
The devotional interest is primarily directed to the iconography, which is what characterizes the worship of images. These were to be considered not as objects, but as “symbols of objects”; as cardinal Paleotti tells us, “so that they take on the condition of that which they represent”:42 it is neither the painting nor the sculpture which is conserved, but the image, which could, at a pinch, survive in the form of a copy, bound to its original only by the iconographic elements related to its worship. The antiquity of the work, as demonstrated by the old panel, the signs of age or the style of the painting, were of marginal interest; documentation perhaps, secondary to the iconographic legibility which remained the main focus, although it might well contribute to what we would call, in our language, the aura of the image.
In the other sphere, we find such works as Raphael’s frescos, Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi or Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, around which an area of respect was taking shape, encompassing non-intervention or interventions justified by serious reasons of suitability or conservation; an area, in other words, which would slowly develop into that of restoration. Obviously, the two areas were not mutually exclusive: even in an intervention on a devotional image, workmanship required that the painter’s alterations should not be a blot on the original, and that his work be in keeping with the style of the older work. On a work of recognized figurative worth, it could happen that an intervention became necessary in order to correct an “error”, as was the case with Tintoretto’s Annunciation in San Mattia in Bologna, in which the Christ child was painted out; he had been represented on his way towards his mother as though already made incarnate, an error formally condemned by Pope Benedict XIV.43
The tradition discrediting restorations on paintings, already in evidence in Vasari, was well to the fore in Gaspare Celio’s notes on the paintings of Rome published in 1638, where we can detect the continuation of this tradition which, at least in the written word, insisted on the negative aspects of restoration. In a few instances, his observations were due to the coarseness and incompetence of the interventions, but the controversy easily extended to restoration in general: the paintings by Pellegrino da Modena in San Giacomo degli Spagnoli were ruined under the pretext of renovating them, “which is the gravest mistake”; the chiaroscuri at the base of the Stanze della Segnatura “were” by Perino del Vaga, “as one can still see in a few small areas, although they have been restored”; and it is “injurious in the extreme” to refresh frescos as was done in the apse of Sant’Onofrio. A small chamber painted in fresco by Raphael and Giulio Romano in the Villa Lante on the Janiculum “was retouched, that is – ruined”; Cesura’s Deposition in Trinita dei Monti “was badly ruined, nothing remains but the composition”. He alluded also to the restoration carried out by 37 Carlo Saraceni on the altarpiece by Giulio Romano in Santa Maria dell’Anima, specifying that “it was ruined by the river when it flooded, under Clement VIII , and afterwards they did not make good the damage, but ruined that which the river had not touched”. As a borderline case of tampering, the mutilation of the pudenda of Michelangelo’s Christ at the Minerva by a religious maniac (“despite the fact that it was covered by a cloth”) was cited. Celio’s distrust of restorations reached the point where, when talking about paintings which have been cleaned, he would refer to them in the past tense, as though irretrievably lost. But none of these works, with the exception of the apse of San Onofrio and a tempera panel of Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata in San Pietro in Montorio (present whereabouts are unknown) pre-dated the modern manner. As it seems highly unlikely that hurried jobs were not also carried out on older paintings, Celio serves as witness (also because of his links as an artist with Padre Valeriano, and the Counter-Reformation problems surrounding the image) to the fact that two distinct areas had come into being: that of works of art (which did not preclude them also fulfilling the function of devotional images), and that of old images, which were of no figurative interest, and were subjected to the practices associated 35, 36 with the transmission of devotional images.
It was Baglione, an artists’ biographer (a category which is now indissolubly linked to the philosophy of the respect owed to the work of art) who would recount with complete equanimity the activities of Father Biagio Bietti, illuminator, preparer of blue pigments, painter: “If by chance a badly painted sacred image fell into his hands … he would repaint it with the utmost zeal; and for greater reverence, he would endow it with the better grace of art and devotion (buona grazia d’arte e devozione)”. Although of a later date, the restora- 38, 39 tion of Beato Angelico’s canvas painting of the Virgin and Child in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, helps us greatly to understand with what iconographic adjustments and embellishments father Bietti might have sought the “greater artistic grace and devotion” mentioned by Baglione.
In the light of the problem of correcting images which were “badly done”, it is noticeable that of the Early Masters which have reached to us, those which are stylistically the most expressive, and have the strongest tendencies to a profane gothicism, those furthest removed from Giotto’s regularity, are also those that have had the lowest survival rate. To what extent did the unseemliness of the best of the Bolognese fourteenth-century school, for instance, or the overtly wordly fantasies of the Lombard Gothic, contribute in putting them outside the laws of propriety and decorum required of images during the Counter-Reformation? And did their evident “deformities”, in the context of seemliness (“ conve- nientia”), lead to their destruction at every possible opportunity: every time the renovation of a building was allowed, or a modernization to prevailing taste, or the visit of a particularly zealous bishop? In Italy, there had not been one particular moment of general or immediate purging; rather, the selection had occurred over a period of time, mingled with all the changes in taste of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If you were now to travel across the Marche or Emilia Romagna, you would quickly come to realize how many of the medieval churches – in the name of cleanliness, seemliness, newness of decor – had already been renovated with the complete destruction of their wall paintings, by the first half of the nineteenth century.
Where the contrasting positions of the Catholics and Protestants had more direct religious and political implications, in the Netherlands for instance, you see a more systematic campaign of correction of images.46 The problems of the conservation of these images and their use by the Catholics are dealt with very lucidly in the treatise De Historia Sanctarum Imaginum et Picturarum pro vero eorum usu contra abusus by Giovanni Molano, published in Louvain in 1594, a veritable “summa” which places itself against the arguments of the Protestants, who were against images or even iconoclasts. In the context of the conservation of images (seen as “books for the simple-minded”), any suggestion of lack of clarity had to be avoided, for instance if through neglect there were losses, or accrued dirt. On this problem, Molano shows his knowledge of religious culture by quoting Athanasius and Saint Jerome, and even the pagans who set the example for the care with which paintings should be conserved.
As far as reckless or unskilled cleanings undertaken in the name of the cleanliness of the place of worship (remember the monks and the sacristans mentioned by Celio), Molano used as a deterrent the incident of Marcus Junius who had ruined a panel by Aristides through poor cleaning, and with this anecdote from Pliny, endowed the discussion with nobility, at the same time removing it from the realms of possible contemporary controversy. As a positive example, he cited the restoration that he saw as a child of a Crucifixion in the beguinage of Diest (“full of art and pity”), carried out in such a way that “it was in no way different after the restoration than before”, except for the fact of having regained its original appearance. With this, he once more picked up the old theme that we find in the fathers of the Church, which refers to the return to a primitive state which is better than the present. The painting is returned to a condition which is nearer to that in which it was left by its artist-creator, no different to man himself, who will “better” in direct proportion to how near he is brought to the state of Grace he was in, before Original Sin.
From an Italian perspective, Molano represents a text of religious culture which was surely read and assimilated, as it was written in Latin; but it was only from a distance that the great upheaval of Protestant iconoclasm, with all its repercussions not only for conservation but also in the approach to images as works of art, was followed. During the wars of religion in the sixteenth century, many paintings which were recognized as having the status of works of art were removed from churches and installed in public palaces (as symbols of local prestige), or acquired by the middle classes for their homes: for the first time an altarpiece (or a portion of it) was transformed into an object forming part of the decoration, or part of an art collection (quadro da collezione). The rescue operations occurring in these circumstances allow us to find the names of all the greatest artists of northern Europe of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Dtirer’s Deposition in the church of the preachers in Ntirnberg was bought by Hans Ebner for his private house; in Antwerp, the Tryptych of Saint John by Quentyn Metsys was bought by Martin de Vos and then by the municipality; in 1566 Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece was brought to the Town Hall in order to protect it from the Calvinists. In some of Europe’s most cultured towns, such as Basle, not only Holbein’s paintings of religious subjects, but also older works the quality of which was evidently recognized, such as Konrad Witz’s Saint Leonard Altarpiece, survived the Reformation.
The “idols” were mostly represented by statues, and these survived only rarely. Notwithstanding the rescue operations, the losses must have been immense for paintings too, especially amongst the older works: one need only consider the rarity of Dutch paintings pre-dating the sixteenth century. The memory of this was still fresh when Van Mander was compiling the list of all the works that were either destroyed by the iconoclasts or removed from churches during the wars of religion. Bewailing the ignorance of the destroyers, but nevertheless with an outlook of religious tolerance, he abstained from a discussion of the prime motives that led to the violence against these works of art.
Baldinucci, who used Van Mander for his entries on Flemish and Dutch painters in the Notizie, provides an amusing contrast, written as it is by a personage tied to the court of the extremely devout Cosimo III, proposing a veritable catalogue of the misfortunes of the arts (arti del disegno) amongst the heretics. Divine intervention, the miracle, becomes de rigueur: when Anne Boleyn throws a portrait of Thomas More by Holbein out of the window, Divine providence intervenes to save it. Or else, during the fire in the Pardo in 1608, a canvas by Titian, filled with satyrs and shepherds, has the obvious fate (had it been an object of devotion), but that it should escape destruction by the flames was completely abnormal, as it was described as “very profane”.
Although perhaps marginal to the Counter-Reformation, it would be difficult to exclude the problem of lascivious figures, which is certainly not new, and is linked primarily to the kind of enjoyment derived from these images. As Baldinucci himself reminds us, the nudity in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Inclination on the ceiling of the gallery in Casa Buonarroti was painted over (and with great skill) by Volterrano, because of the “chaste eyes” of Leonardo Buonarroti’s numerous children. Had the children not had ease of access to the room dedicated to the fasti michelangioleschi, the nudes could have been left uncovered without incurring any problems.
Although Ottonelli and Berrettini in their treatise fulminate against the paintings which make of the galleries and the studies of many gentlemen “rooms belonging to the Emperor Heliogabus … rather than to a modest and Christian knight or Prince”, in general their presence could be justified within certain limits. Mancini, who was a doctor, mentioned that the sight of such images was beneficial to married couples when engaged in procreation: it sufficed that such images should not be exhibited to the sight of “children, unmarried girls, nor to outsiders or the scrupulous”.
The cause of the many repaintings on particularly profane nudes was to be found in events in the owners’ lives or in individual circumstances, rather than in the history of ideas. The most ancient repainting on Bronzino’s famous Allegory, now in the National Gallery in London (which was removed [during cleaning] in 1958), probably dated from when the painting was given to Frangois I of France, a clear distinction being made between the contemplation of a nude figure and that of details which were too overtly descriptive. At other times, it was a figure which in itself did not appear to be unseemly in any way that found itself altered, such as the portrait of Florence’s Barbera (a famous courtesan) included by Borghini in the works of Puligo, which was transformed by Giovambatista Deti from being a singer into a Saint Lucy, repainting the attributes “to the satisfaction of his lady”. Or else it was simply a portrait to which one wished to give a different subject matter, that of a saint or an allegorical figure, as happened in the case of the famous Raphael in the Galleria.