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Degradation, Conservation, and Restoration of Works of Art: Historical Overview

Roger Marijnissen

Abstracts

This extract presents the preliminary reflections to the book  Degradation, preservation, restoration of the work of art, Brussels, Arcades, 1967.

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Editor's notes

Ce texte est initialement paru dans Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, edited by Nicholas Stanley Price, 
M. Kirby Talley Jr. and
Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro, Readings in Conservation Series, Getty Conservation Institute,
1996, 275-280. Il est reproduit dans la traduction originale de Garrett White, avec l'aimable autorisation du Getty Conservation Center. Nous les en remercions.

Full text

The Need for a History of Restoration

  • 1  M. STÜBEL, "Gemälderesraurationen im 18. Jahrhundert," Der Cicerone 18 (1926): 122-135; and "Gemäl (...)

1An overall history of the restoration of deteriorated works of art has yet to be written, The field, for that matter, has barely been explored. It was a full thirty years ago that Moritz Stübel argued that historical research into restoration would constitute a major contribution to all areas related to art in general1. He was addressing art historians in particular, since he was convinced that such research could be carried out only by them. He even suggested that a Corpus Restaurationum be published, but his appeal bore no fruit ....

2Existing literature deals with the concepts behind restoration and with formerly used techniques only occasionally, or else treats them as a side issue. Information on the subject is sometimes found in reports published on the occasion of a given treatment or, more frequently, as part of a polemic arising from the endless controversy surrounding the cleaning of paintings.

3Historians seem to be of the opinion that such historical research would encounter insurmountable difficulties. Stübel himself stressed the main obstacle, namely that archives do not have much to offer in this area.

4The relative rarity of archival data may be explained in a number of ways. In the past, it was not considered necessary to write a detailed report treatments carried out on a damaged work, and restorers were little inclined to allow their interventions to be officially recorded. They even seemed hostile to the idea, because the profession was traditionally thought to be a highly skilled craft. Their ambition essentially focused on the realization of a completely integrated restoration, that is to say, unapparent or even invisible. They sought to restore a work to its original state, and firmly believed they could do so. No one asked them to reconstruct a preliminary "material history" of the work in question, nor were they in any way prepared to carry out that sort of research ....

5In professional circles, historical investigation has always been viewed with skepticism and is given little credence. One nevertheless has the impression that archives contain no lack of interesting records and lists that have probably been neglected or overlooked by researchers due to a simple lack of curiosity. Public institutions have massive collections of art. Almost all the finest paintings and sculptures are now in museums or churches or other public buildings. Some of these works were commissioned by the institutions that still own them today, others were acquired long ago. Their conservation was therefore the object of written reports. True, such documents are sometimes basically administrative in nature, but often enough they also contain valuable information on successive treatments carried out on the work in question.

6The earliest manuals for restorers of works of art date back to the eighteenth century, and were usually no more th an a chapter or an appendix to a publication of a more general nature. Treatises, strictly speaking, did not appear until the nineteenth century. A systematic, comparative study of such publications should be undertaken ....

  • 2  Giovanni SECCO SUARDO, Manuale ragionato per la parte meccanica dell'arte del ristauratore dei dip (...)
  • 3  Gino PIVA, ed., L'arte del restauro: Il restauro dei dipinti nel sistema antico e moderno, seconda (...)

7One by Secco Suardo2 written partly in 1866 and partly in [1873, reprinted in] 1894, has just been adapted and republished.3 I can do no more than mention the existence of these manuals here, in order to stress their importance as primary sources for a history of the restoration of works of art. Obviously, the research project suggested above should be conducted simultaneously on two fronts -that of historical criticism on the one hand, and that of artisanal techniques on the other.

8Historical data on restoration treatments carried out on a work would enable a laboratory to date certain phenomena, contributing to a better understanding of the behavior of materials used for retouching and alterations, as well as the aging and decaying processes of these materials. Laboratories study the deterioration of materials by submitting samples to artificial -that is to say, accelerated-aging. Laboratory technicians would benefit highly from chronologically precise points of comparison .... It is obvious that historical data on the behavior of traditional materials could serve as an argument when assessing the desirability and attendant risk of employing a synthetic product in the place of a tried-and-tested natural one.

9... Art history reflects mankind's great intellectual and spiritual quest.

10It is more than likely that the history of the restoration of art objects will also, in its own way, mirror this very quest. Such a history may even reveal the way humanity behaves toward a cultural heritage now disseminated throughout the world.

11The "scientific" approach to the conservation and restoration of works of art is a relatively recent phenomenon. Rigorous laboratory methods contrast sharply with the empirical and sometimes hazy methods employed by traditional craftspeople. The incompatibility is such that it overshadows, in a way, everything that remains relevant or valid in artisanal methods.

The Origins of Conservation and Restoration

  • 4  M. CAGIANO DE AZEVEDO, "Conservazione e restaura pressa i Grecie i Romani", Bollettino d'Arte I, n (...)
  • 5  Alois RIEGL, "Der moderne Denkmalkultus," 1903; reprinted in Cesammelte Aufsätze (Augsburg-Vienna: (...)
  • 6  ORDERS OF PARLIAMENT, 1645, cf. Richard REDGRAVE and Samuel REDGRAVE, A Century of British Painter (...)

12At what precise moment did people start to conserve and restore works of art? Posed thus, the question seems to be largely irrelevant. The simple maintenance of a work of art already constitutes in itself an operation of conservation. It goes without saying that the regular maintenance of historie buildings and works of art has been carried out since time immemorial. The few passages by ancient authors on the subject are in no way extraordinary,4 for what could be more normal than the repair of a decaying or damaged object? But the attitude that reigned in those days concerning the care or treatment accorded an object is a far cry from the meaning that is given today to the term conservation. Riegl feels that the origin of Denkmalpflege (the conservation or protection of monuments) dates back to the Italian Renaissance, when people began protecting vestiges of the Classical period5. If the Renaissance represented both the end of a period of abandonment of ancient monuments and the beginning of a taste for collections of rare works, does this new behavior in itself constitute proof of the emergence of a new attitude dictated by a spirit of conservation? Riegl himself admits that Denkmalpflege as understood by the Renaissance did not yet correspond to today's meaning of the term. It is worth recalling that the Iconoclast movement occurred at a time when the Renaissance spirit had weil and truly penetrated the southern Netherlands. It might be argued that a period of conflict should not be cited as a counterexample, since disorder reigned at every level in 1566. One need merely consider another example, then, and point to the decrees that ordered the destruction of works of art in the mid-seventeenth century6.

  • 7 M. NEUSSER, "Die Antikenergânzungen der Florentiner Manieristen," Wiener Jahrbuchfür Kunstgeschicht (...)
  • 8   I quote a very judicious comment by M. NEUSSER, "Die Antikenergänzungen der Florentiner Manierist (...)

13All those familiar with art history know that Renaissance sculptors worked on fragments of ancient statues7. Could this really be described as restoration? ... The sculptor made no concessions to the original object8.

  • 9  As far as the restoration of works of art is concerned, the Renaissance has nothing to offer to co (...)

14Classical sculpture merely supplied him with an example or ideal to follow­his interest in things antique was essentially one of admiration. The attitude of the restorer-artist toward the crumbling work was like that of a conqueror. Despite his admiration, he lacked the fundamental respect that dictates, above all, preservation of evidence of the past. He did not yet have the atti­tude of a historian, a paleographer, an archaeologist, a Bollandist, or even a learned person. He had not yet realized that a work of art is also a histori­cal document9.

  • 10  Cf. Jacques GUILLERME, L'atelier du temps: Essai sur l'altération des peintures (Paris: Hermann, 1 (...)

15Riegl is right to claim that the distinction between the artistic value of an early work of art and its historical value began to emerge during the Renaissance, yet one should be careful of taking an overly narrow view of the period when this new idea first appeared. Other circumstances, furthermore, confirm that this interest in classical antiquity was in no way determined by a real need to preserve cultural testimony of the past. As proof, one need only study the attitude taken toward an enormous artistic heritage of more recent times. The fourth provincial Council of Milan, for instance, urged bishops to renovate (renovari) pious images. Those that were too badly damaged were to be burned and the ashes buried under the church floor to avoid profaning them10. This demonstrates that, in the second half of the sixteenth century, the clergy considered pious images primarily -indeed, exclusively- as ob­jects of worship. It is worth stressing again that this attitude was prevalent in the middle of the sixteenth century, at a time when the Renaissance spirit flourished throughout Europe, and in Italy in particular.

16It is impossible to calculate the number of works of art lost or de­stroyed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Works of the highest order were treated with casual contempt. Style and taste were changing, and old-fashioned works of art no longer held any interest. Numerous master­pieces underwent scandalous tribulations ....

  • 11  WINDSOR CASTLE, ROYAL COLLECTIONS. Cf. Musée de Beaux-Arts, Ghent, Juste de Gand, Berruguete et la (...)
  • 12  Andre LEJARD, Les tapisseries de l'Apocalypse de la cathédrale d'Angers, accompagnées du texte de (...)

17. . . Many masterpieces escaped destruction only because they had been forgotten. Others were, in certain cases, treated with a lack of respect bordering on vandalism. A panel by Joos van Ghent, A Humanist's Lesson, was used as a tabletop in Florence11. The trials suffered by Jean Baudolf and Nicolas Bataille's famous Apocalypse tapestries in Angers can only be described as unbelievable12. That no one in 1782 wanted to buy 792 square meters of tapestry is hardly surprising. But the indifference that allowed these magnificent tapes tries to be used for the most utilitarian and prosaic purposes defies comprehension. Some sections were used to mask cracks in a wall; others hung in the greenhouse of Saint Serge Abbey to protect orange trees from the cold; some were used as packing cloth and bedside rugs; and pieces were even put up in the bishop's stables to prevent horses from scrap­ing themselves on the swinging bail. Still other fragments served to protect the floor when ceilings were being repainted. Whatever the case, this appears to be a highly significant example. It immediately demonstrates that historical consciousness had not yet been completely awakened at that point, and it also reveals that fourteenth-century style was not at all appreciated in the eighteenth century. It could even be said that eighteenth-century taste was incompatible with the austere aesthetic of these medieval tapestries. Nevertheless, it can hardly be ignored that this series immediately presents itself as a monumental achievement of the Gothic period, if only by its scope. Now, the eighteenth century was a highly cultivated period, particularly in France, so how can one explain the fact that the tapes tries did not even spark sufficient interest to be conserved in proper conditions? Such negligence cannot be blamed on a single person, because the destitution lasted for more than fifty years! Under the circumstances, there is only one valid explanation: total indifference, both in terms of past heritage and of future generations. No one seems to have thought that there might possibly be future interest in this magnificent series.

  • 13  A coppersmith bought five Gobelins in Paris, in 1852, to be burnt to recover the gold thread. See (...)

18Proper historical criticism precludes a judgment on eighteenth-century civilization based on the fate it reserved for the Apocalypse of Angers. Historians must be very careful of generalizations when drawing conclusions. It might be pointed out that similar cases occurred in the nineteenth century13. Some might add that countless medieval monuments survived the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Cathedrals, for instance, come to mind. I think it would be highly rewarding to conduct an in-depth study on this question, for it would seem that many Romanesque and Gothic buildings survived mainly for practical and financial reasons, and not at all because they represented the cultural heritage of a remarkable past.

19By way of conclusion, I shall just say that there are good reasons for believing that a sense of responsibility toward artistic heritage emerged only very slowly.

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Notes

1  M. STÜBEL, "Gemälderesraurationen im 18. Jahrhundert," Der Cicerone 18 (1926): 122-135; and "Gemälderestaurationen und ihre Geschichte," Museumskunde 9, no. 2-3 (1937): 51-60.

2  Giovanni SECCO SUARDO, Manuale ragionato per la parte meccanica dell'arte del ristauratore dei dipinti, 2 vols. (Milan: Tipografia di P. Agnelli, 1866-1873).

3  Gino PIVA, ed., L'arte del restauro: Il restauro dei dipinti nel sistema antico e moderno, seconda le opere de Secco-Suardo e del Prof R. Mancia (Milan: U. Hoepli, 1961).

4  M. CAGIANO DE AZEVEDO, "Conservazione e restaura pressa i Grecie i Romani", Bollettino d'Arte I, no. 9-10 (1952): 53-60; and his "Restaurierung und Konservierung von Kunstwerken," Das Atlantisbuch der Kunst: Eine Enzyklopedie der Bildenden Künste (Zurich: Atlantis-Verlag, 1952): 708-34.

5  Alois RIEGL, "Der moderne Denkmalkultus," 1903; reprinted in Cesammelte Aufsätze (Augsburg-Vienna: B. Filser, 1929), 144-93 [see also Riegl, Reading 6, pages 69-83].

6  ORDERS OF PARLIAMENT, 1645, cf. Richard REDGRAVE and Samuel REDGRAVE, A Century of British Painters (London: Phaidon, 1947), 9; C. PHILIPS, The Picture Gallery of Charles I, The Portfolio Artistic Monographs 25 (London: Seeley Macmillan,1906), 47.

7 M. NEUSSER, "Die Antikenergânzungen der Florentiner Manieristen," Wiener Jahrbuchfür Kunstgeschichte 6 (20): 27-42; HeinzLWENDORF, Antikenstudimn und Antikenkopie: Vorarbeiten zu einer Darstellung ihrer, especially appendix B (Leipzig: Akademie-Verlag, 1953), 55-61; M. CAGIANO DE AZEVEDO, "Restaurierung und Konservierung von Kunsrwerken," 711- 12.

8   I quote a very judicious comment by M. NEUSSER, "Die Antikenergänzungen der Florentiner Manieristen," on the restoration by Benvenuto Cellini in 1546 of a "Ganymede" in the Bargello collection: "Der Künstler benutzt den antiken Torso in erster Linie as Schaustück um daran sein raffiniertes und vielseitiges Kënnen zu demonstrieren" [The artist uses the antique torso in the first place as a schaustück with which ta demonstrate his refined and many-sided talents].

9  As far as the restoration of works of art is concerned, the Renaissance has nothing to offer to compare with the critical-philological editions of texts by humanist scholars.

10  Cf. Jacques GUILLERME, L'atelier du temps: Essai sur l'altération des peintures (Paris: Hermann, 1964), 127, note 2.

11  WINDSOR CASTLE, ROYAL COLLECTIONS. Cf. Musée de Beaux-Arts, Ghent, Juste de Gand, Berruguete et la cour d'Urbino, exhibition catalogue 20 (1957).

12  Andre LEJARD, Les tapisseries de l'Apocalypse de la cathédrale d'Angers, accompagnées du texte de l'Apocalypse de St.-Jean dans la traduction de Le Maistre de Sacy (Paris: A. Michel, 1942).

13  A coppersmith bought five Gobelins in Paris, in 1852, to be burnt to recover the gold thread. See A. ]OUBIN, Journal de Eugène Delacroix 1 (1936-1938): 447.

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References

Electronic reference

Roger Marijnissen, « Degradation, Conservation, and Restoration of Works of Art: Historical Overview », CeROArt [Online], HS | Juin 2015, Online since 31 May 2015, connection on 14 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/4785

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About the author

Roger Marijnissen

Diplômé en histoire de l’art de l’Université de Gand, R. Marijnissen a entrepris un doctorat sous la direction de Paul Coremans. Sa thèse, défendue en 1966, fit l’objet d’une publication l’année suivante sous le titre Dégradation, conservation et restauration de l'œuvre d'art. De 1958 à 1988, il occupa le poste de chef du département de Conservation à l’Institut royal du Patrimoine artistique de Bruxelles. Il réalisa études et traitements de restauration sur les œuvres les plus prestigieuses : L’Agneau mystique de Van Eyck, les deux grands triptyques de Rubens, La Descente de la Croix et l’Elévation de la Croix ainsi que des œuvres de Bruegel, ou encore des retables sculptés sur bois (Geel, Lombeek, Melbourne). Membre de la “Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten” depuis 1970, il a participé à de multiples missions, conférences et colloques internationaux, ainsi que publié nombre d’ouvrages de référence.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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