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Italy and the history of preventive conservation

Simon Lambert


Italy is a point of reference for the conservation community worldwide, but it has yet to make a definitive leap towards preventive conservation. This paper examines some of the reasons to explain this, in the hope that this may be useful for other countries. After a brief look at the history of preventive conservation from Antiquity to the Second World War, two seldom-discussed Italian initiatives are presented: The Franceschini Commission (1964) and the Pilot plan for the programmed conservation of cultural heritage in Umbria (1976).

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Editor's notes

Università di Urbino – Contact : Bruno Zanardi

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1Preventive conservation encompasses “all measures and actions aimed at avoiding and minimizing future deterioration or loss” (ICOM-CC 2008). Contrary to conservation treatments that target single objects, preventive conservation focuses on entire collections and their surrounding environment. Above and beyond technical prescriptions for climate, light and handling, preventive conservation is a conceptual approach to conservation (Caple 1994) that implies a mental shift – a change in thinking from how to why things are conserved (de Guichen 1995). What determines this shift and why does country like Italy, that prides itself so much on its cultural heritage, currently lack a cultural heritage protection strategy that encompasses a holistic, long-term vision?

2 This paper examines two key moments in recent history when Italy was presented with opportunities to integrate preventive conservation into cultural heritage policy but did not succeed in doing so. These are the Franceschini Commission (1964) and the Pilot plan for the programmed conservation of cultural heritage in Umbria (1976). An historical overview of the development of preventive conservation is offered to contextualize these initiatives. Italy’s failed attempts can be instructive to other countries seeking to raise public awareness for the importance of long-term planning for cultural heritage protection and allocate resources effectively.

Tracing the origins of preventive conservation

3The desire to minimize deterioration and loss of cultural heritage is universal. This sentiment permeates through many European treatises from Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The highly codified artistic production techniques and instructions for maintenance indicate that these societies valued their contemporary artistic production and took great care in ensuring it would be transmitted to posterity. Over thousands of years, there is impressive continuity in prescriptions for the protection of buildings, sculptures and painted works from fire, insects, mould, earthquakes, rainwater and excessive humidity (Cagiano de Azevedo 1952; Koller 1994).

4Several examples from around the seventeenth century also reveal a preoccupation for protecting cultural heritage from the past from further damage. The well-documented conservation projects of Raphael’s frescoes in Rome (1659 and 1702), for instance, included preventive measures to stop water infiltration, reduce the accumulation of dust, and limit copyists from staining the paintings with their oil-drenched tracing papers (Zanardi 2007).

5Some conservation professionals also showed an awareness of the potential harm caused by treatments themselves. Nearly a century later Pietro Edwards, Director of the Restoration of the Public Pictures of Venice and the Rialto, warned painting restorers and inspectors to limit overly invasive interventions (Edwards 1777) and advocated for the creation of preventive care regiments focusing on entire collections (Edwards 1798).

6An early example of preventive conservation applied to collections can be found in Museographia, a guide to the museums, galleries and libraries of Europe written by Hamburg scholar and merchant Caspar F. Neickel. In his guide, the author gives instructions on how to avoid moisture problems by displaying objects in rooms with south-westerly orientation, how libraries should constantly monitor insect pests, and how to avoid damage to displays through careful design (Neickel 1727, 378, 247). He also lists 25 rules of conduct for museumgoers, reminiscent of modern collections care guidelines, which include instructions on object handling and theft prevention (Neickel 1727, 401-403).

7After more or less sporadic cases, a cohesive body of knowledge known as “housekeeping” emerged in sixteenth-century England. Housekeeping practices, which consisted in practical advice for the maintenance and management staff in estate homes, were handed down in diaries, manuals, letters and paintings. These guidelines included recommendations for controlling humidity, heat, light, insects, dust and damage from abrasion (Abey-Koch 2006).

8Cultural heritage protection has often materialized in planned activities that include regular monitoring and maintenance. A consciousness for the need to prevent the loss of cultural materials due to constant, cumulative damage has existed for thousands of years.

War and the immediacy of threats

9Although the concept of continuous prevention was arguably already engrained in everyday practice, it sometimes took total loss – or the threat of total loss – to awaken the need for highly structured preventive conservation activities. The progressive integration of scientific methods into the cultural heritage sector also provided new methods to those entrusted with the protection of collections.

10The conservation community is well aware of the securing and evacuation of collections in the months leading up to the first air raids of the First World War, both at the British Museum (Caygill 1992) and at the National Gallery (Saunders 1992) (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 Objects from the British Museum in the London Underground, 1918

Fig. 1 Objects from the British Museum in the London Underground, 1918

Credits: from Caygill, 1992

11The resulting damage to the British Museum’s collection due to improper storage conditions, and the creation of its museum laboratory, eventually led to the migration of science to the museum world (Plenderleith 1978). Slowly, prevention and the study of deterioration mechanisms were added to the traditional activities of restoration workshops (Plenderleith and Philippot 1960).

12During the Second World War, the use of air raids was intensified and cultural heritage was intentionally pillaged and plundered. As threats changed, the British Museum’s collections were moved several times (Plenderleith 1978; Caygill 1992). At the National Gallery, staff had received special emergency training, allowing its entire collection to be evacuated just three days before war was declared (Saunders 1992). The works were later moved to underground climate-controlled slate quarries in Wales (Rawlins 1946).

Fig. 2 Paintings stored in the Manod quarry, Wales.

Fig. 2 Paintings stored in the Manod quarry, Wales.

Credits: from Saunders, 1992

13In Italy, a less-known operation of sizeable proportions was conducted to protect immovable and movable cultural heritage under the leadership of Education Minister Bottai of the Fascist regime. When the war erupted, it is said that the majority of Italy’s cultural heritage had been made “invulnerable” to damage (Lazzari 1942, vi.)

Fig. 3  Protection of the Antonine Column in Rome.

Fig. 3  Protection of the Antonine Column in Rome.

Credits: from Lazzari, 1942

Fig. 4 Protection of the Ara Pacis in Rome.

Fig. 4 Protection of the Ara Pacis in Rome.

Credits: from Lazzari, 1942

14Throughout the peninsula, historic buildings and monuments were protected structurally with scaffolding, supporting walls, buttresses and pilasters. Decorated surfaces were covered with sandbags, and other systems for the more fragile and delicate elements (Lazzari 1942). The Istituto Centrale del Restauro (ICR) in Rome, which opened in 1939, created a Technical Council responsible for verifying the suitability of environmental conditions for artworks throughout the war (Lazzari 1942). Movable works from the most important artistic centres were transferred to hundreds of repositories, far from any military target (Lambert 2008).

15With the experiences of the Wars, an important evidence base was emerging to justify increasing expenditure on protecting entire collections rather than repairing individual objects. In the face of urgent, catastrophic and generalized threats, Italy had planned and implemented an operation of singular proportions. After the war, the country’s challenges shifted to the protection of cultural heritage against the slow and continuous threats of degradation, abandonment and neglect.

The Franceschini Commission: Italy’s first opportunity

16In the sixties and seventies, Italy had several occasions to adopt preventive conservation, but those attempts failed at theimplementation stage. After the Second World War, economic prosperity in the Allied countries stimulated rapid industrial and technological growth and the expansion of the construction industry. Outcries of disapproval were felt in the international cultural heritage sector. The International Council of Museums (ICOM 1962, res 4) resolved to protect natural and cultural heritage from rapid industrialization and the “mechanical age.” Similarly, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) expressed its desire to protect built heritage from unbridled and disharmonious development (Gazzola 1964).

17Before the Second World War, Italy had been principally rural and economically underdeveloped. Afterwards, it became industrialized rapidly with the inflow of international funding for reconstruction. New infrastructures were developed, industry flourished and the population began to move out of historic city centres towards the newly constructed suburbs. This important socio-economic shift is thought to be responsible for initiating Italy’s slow urban deterioration and environmental neglect (Zanardi 1999).

18In response to the imminent threat of unregulated development in Italy, a public inquiry was opened in 1964. Commonly called the ‘Franceschini’ Commission after the minister who presided over it, this group was composed of 16 members of parliament and 11 experts in art history, archaeology, law and library science. The Commission was responsible for revising the current legislation, administrative framework and funding mechanisms for cultural heritage protection. Following an in-depth analysis of the situation, 84 declarations were produced. These were synthesized in nine recommendations for urgent action, clearly indicating of a growing desire for social change:

  • Establish a security service to protect cultural heritage.

  • Call for a moratorium on projects concerning areas of monumental, archaeological or environmental interest.

  • Begin a systematic inventory of Italy’s cultural heritage.

  • Make publicly accessible historic buildings now used by the State for administrative functions.

  • Eliminate unacceptable interventions/treatments on cultural heritage.

  • Establish headquarters for research, conservation, restoration and documentation institutes, and for the national scientific institutions.

  • Train scientific and technical staff responsible for the autonomous administration of cultural heritage.

  • Promote contemporary artistic production.

  • Raise public awareness on the importance of respecting cultural heritage through a national campaign [author’s translation] (CITVPSAAP 1967, 133-139).

19As a direct result of the third recommendation, the Central Office for Cataloguing and Documentation (Ufficio Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione) was established in 1969. Two further Commissions followed: the ‘Papaldo’ I (1968) and II (1970). Their aim was to extract from the Franceschini Commission’s declarations and recommendations all that could be transformed and implemented into legislation. Regrettably, nothing ever materialized from this work and the recommendations were never again examined by Parliament (Condemi 1993).

20Conservation historian Bruno Zanardi (1999) has argued that the Franceschini and Papaldo commissions were inconclusive for three main reasons. First, the real estate investment lobby, firmly anchored within government, intentionally obstructed the work of the commissions. Second, Italian bureaucracy was notoriously slow and ineffective. Third, in 1968 the priority in Europe shifted towards addressing the violence, revolutions and democratization of universities.

21Though rarely mentioned, the economic implications of these recommendations may have been considerable, as it called for significant increases in funding allocations for culture (Urbani 1977). Regrettably, it would be several years before the idea of holistic cultural heritage protection would be taken up again.

Giovanni Urbani: Italy’s second opportunity

From specific to holistic

22Although the work of the Franceschini, Papaldo I and Papaldo II commissions was inconclusive, on some level there was a growing public awareness of the precarious relationship between natural and cultural heritage. In 1966, the floods in Florence and Venice were a violent reminder of this fragility (UNESCO 1967). That same year, a massive landslide occurred in Agrigento, Sicily, showing the severe consequences of unregulated urban expansion in the Valley of the Temples (Erbani 2006). In the early seventies, the time was ripe in Italy to examine once again what could be done concretely to address these issues and prevent future disasters.

23In a radio interview, Giovanni Urbani, art historian, conservator and future Director of the ICR (1973-1983), expressed his view that the essence of the problem of conservation in Italy lied in the ability to merge the protection of nature and culture in one single plan (Urbani 1971). Urbani believed that like works of art, which lose their meaning when de-contextualized from art history as a whole, the protection of cultural heritage should be tackled globally and integrated with the protection of natural heritage.

24Though Urbani was himself a trained conservator, he was highly sceptical of the aims of his profession. He once observed that from 1967 to 1976, public expenditure on ‘restoration’ (i.e. single-object treatments of aesthetic nature) had increased ten-fold, with no observable improvement in the overall condition of Italy’s cultural heritage (Urbani 1977, 113).

25Urbani advocated something radically different from treatment-oriented conservation: preventive conservation. He argued that science had an important role to play in conservation (Urbani 1973), but only if it was applied to large samples (i.e. collections) – and not individual objects (Urbani 1968). By merging the conservation of nature with that of cultural heritage, and guiding decisions using a strong scientific evidence base, he could give his integrated vision of conservation a tangible form.

‘Programmed conservation’ and the Pilot plan for Umbria

26It has been said – though the same applies to other countries – that Italian cultural heritage is a unique case because of the importance of the context in which it was produced, of the extent of its geographical distribution, of its stratification and continuity over millennia, and of its sheer quantity (Zanardi 1999; Settis 2005). In 1976, Urbani presented the Italian Ministry of Culture with the Pilot plan for the programmed conservation of cultural heritage in Umbria (ICR 1976), a project strongly rooted in this specificity.

27Once implemented, this plan would give Italy a deeper understanding of the vulnerability of its movable and immovable cultural heritage and its exposure to several deterioration factors: geological, seismic and meteorological risk, air pollution, and depopulation. It would allow the Ministry of Culture to make systematic, evidence-based conservation decisions within a forward planning framework.

Fig. 5 Map from the Pilot Plan showing the distribution of seismic events from year 0 to 1969.

Fig. 5 Map from the Pilot Plan showing the distribution of seismic events from year 0 to 1969.

Credits: from ICR 1976

28As a first step, data would be gathered in the region of Umbria, where the new tools for risk management and training would be tested. Afterwards, a plan for the entire country would be developed, taking into account the cultural specificity of each region (Urbani 1976).

29Around this time, the term ‘preventive conservation’ had emerged in the museum sector (Thomson 1977; G. de Guichen, pers. comm.). Instead, Urbani used the term ‘programmed conservation,’ presumably because the tool he sought to develop would help target maintenance activities at specific time intervals. According to Urbani himself, programmed conservation was a “technique” that included “all periodic measures taken to maintain and lower the rate of deterioration of ancient materials as much as possible” [author’s translation] (Urbani 1976, 109). While Brandi’s (1963) ‘preventive restoration’ had been a theoretical abstraction (Lambert 2008), Urbani’s programmed conservation depended on concrete actions and measurable results.

30The Pilot plan had three main objectives:

  • To evaluate the effects of selected agents of deterioration on the condition of cultural heritage in Umbria.

  • To define the techniques to be used for documentation and treatments, and establish cultural heritage maintenance programmes.

  • To describe the nature and dimensions of a regional hub where monitoring and treatment programmes would be defined [author’s translation] (Urbani 1976, 105).

31In a preliminary phase, data had already been collected in Umbria to understand the composition and regional distribution of cultural heritage and of the selected agents of deterioration. Inventory forms for various types of heritage were developed and several regional maps indicating the location and concentration of the agents were produced (Urbani 1976) (Figure 5).

32Training was a central element of the project. Urbani firmly believed that instead of training restorers, Italy should train technicians capable of delivering programmed conservation to a variety of materials and types of cultural heritage (Urbani 1977). For this purpose, didactic manuals called ‘DIMOS’ (Course on the maintenance of wall paintings, mosaics and stucco) were published from 1978 to 1979 (ICR 1979). In Italy, the DIMOS manuals (now out of print) are still used today by several art conservation programmes.

33In a distant future, after programmed conservation had been integrated into government policy, Urbani believed that Italy would need new and innovative legislation for the protection of cultural heritage. He was convinced that the Ministry of Cultural Heritage should also increase its regional presence by decentralizing its power and initiate collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Education and with regional government (Zanardi 2006). Unfortunately, none of this would ever happen.

The failure of the Pilot plan

34In the months following the publication of Urbani’s Pilot plan a controversy emerged, of which Perrotta (2004) has provided an overview. It appears the ICR was criticized severely for having assigned to the private sector work that should have remained in the public sector. In short, the Pilot plan grew out of collaboration with TECNECO, a subsidiary of ENI (Italy’s energy provider). Further disapproval came from the Republican party (then in power) who claimed that with his plan Urbani sought to override the role of regional government. This caused great upheaval in the Umbrian Superintendencies, who opposed the project categorically. Roberto Abbondanza, then regional inspector for cultural heritage in Umbria, commented in national newspapers that his role was being usurped and that the Pilot plan should be entirely re-written. Furthermore, the Communist party claimed that Urbani was making ENI profit from the correction of its mistakes because the project focused on deterioration associated with industrial pollution. The Communist party also accused the project of being antidemocratic by promoting the privatization of cultural heritage management.

35Zanardi (1999, 224), a student of Urbani’s at ICR, believes this controversy over the Pilot plan was fuelled intentionally by ministerial bureaucracy, by superintendents and by university professors who were unqualified to comment on the technical and scientific content of the project. This occurred, he argues, because they all stood to lose their managerial control if the plan were ever implemented.

36Giorgio Torraca (2004), a close friend and colleague of Urbani, explains that Urbani despised obstacles, and although he was a public servant himself, Urbani had never accepted the principles of Italian public administration. Although the collaboration with TECNECO had initially been suggested to Urbani by Social-democratic minister Matteotti, also a friend of Urbani, working with them meant bypassing the usual bureaucratic channels and exposing the project to oppositions. After a series of quarrels with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage about these and other issues, Urbani eventually resigned from his post as Director of the ICR in 1983.

37One of the few concrete results of the Pilot plan came several years later. The Italian Risk Map project began in 1987 under the direction of Pio Baldi, an architect employed at the ICR. It focused on a single aspect of the Pilot plan: the mapping of cultural heritage distribution and the intensity of agents of deterioration. Urbani, though he was not consulted on the project, looked favourably upon it:

38A map like this allows work to be organized based on something that is defined, analyzed, and time-bound. Today, superintendents do not have any of this. And no one ever speaks of maintenance. From the technical point of view, a real strategy for cultural heritage protection could emerge from this [author’s translation] (Urbani 1990).

39It has long been said that the Risk Map would be a tool used for conservation management nationwide (ICR 1987; Bartoli, Palazzo and Urbisci 2003; Accardo 2004). Yet, 20 years later, it has yet to fully deliver on its promises.


40As was the case at the time of the Franceschini Commmission, building without planning permissions and speculation in the construction industry are still important problems today (Tosatti 2003; GIU 2010), which continue to have a negative impact on cultural heritage conservation in Italy (Deliperi 2010).

41In a country with such a strong bureaucratic tradition, which is often difficult to reconcile with the requirements of the private sector, one is left to wonder whether the fate of the Pilot plan could have been different if Urbani had put aside his personal convictions and played by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage’s rules. Admittedly, it is probable that without TECNECO’s support, this document would never have been published at all.

42Though anecdotal evidence and controversies may help to contextualize the events leading up to the failure of the Pilot plan, the economic and moral dimensions should be further emphasised. In 1976, annual public expenditure on restoration for publicly and privately owned monuments, galleries and archaeological sites was approximately 35 billion lire (Urbani 1977). Implementing the Pilot plan, would have cost only about 1.4 billion lire (excluding staff time), or 4 % of this amount (ICR 1976). This raises a question that is central to the very notion of preventive conservation. How much money was Italian public administration willing to invest in 1976, for benefits that would be reaped by future generations? Contrary to restoration, preventive conservation has no visible results, so adopting it requires a significant mental shift.

43Michalski (2008, 755) recently used the concept of social discount rate (SDR) to investigate conservation decision making. As he paraphrased it, SDR is “the interest that people are willing to pay (…) to get something now ‘on credit.’”When applied to the two major initiatives discussed in this paper, Italy was operating on a high SDR. In other words, by failing to invest then on achieving long-term conservation objectives, it has actually magnified the losses for which that generation is now accountable. It is worthwhile noting that at present, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MiBAC) still focuses on single-work restoration projects with high visibility and marketability, as displayed prominently on its website.

44One of the few (if not the only) successfully implemented national conservation action plans is the oft-cited Deltaplan in the Netherlands. Instead of originating from conservation professionals, the impetus for this plan came from a 1987 report issued by the Court of Audit, highlighting how public funds were being misspent to care for the nation’s collections. To develop the plan, the concerned institutions were consulted systematically, establishing a two-way exchange between them and central government (Talley 1999). Valuable lessons can be learnt from this on the importance of stakeholder consultations to ensure the buy-in process for preventive conservation and on the importance of making a strong financial case to justify its implementation.


45History has shown that although the concept of continuous preventive conservation may be intrinsic to many societies, large-scale strategies are often adopted in times of emergency, or in the aftermath of disasters to avoid the repetition of errors in planning. In the late sixties and seventies, Italy seemed to be ideally positioned to launch a national preventive conservation strategy for cultural heritage, but failed at both attempts.

46In Italy, most cultural heritage matters are governed by the State and prevention and maintenance are legally inscribed in the Italian Code of Cultural Heritage and Landscape (MiBAC 2004, art. 29). Though structures are in place to facilitate the implementation of a national cultural heritage protection strategy, these laws have not yet materialized into an action plan. If a stitch in time really does save nine, preventive conservation is the most long-term cost-effective solution for Italy. This is especially true, now that public spending on the protection and promotion of cultural heritage in Italy has been reduced by 35 % since 2007 (MiBAC 2009, 27).

47Recently, Roberto Cecchi, Director General of historic, artistic and ethno-anthropological heritage for the Italian Ministry of Culture and Activities, commented on Rome’s crumbling archaeological sites in the New York Times: “We must set down methods and rules. We must start to think ahead, not just respond when crises happen” (Kimmelman 2010). A formal commitment from central government is now needed to initiate this mental shift – sooner rather than later.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 Objects from the British Museum in the London Underground, 1918
Credits Credits: from Caygill, 1992
File image/jpeg, 124k
Title Fig. 2 Paintings stored in the Manod quarry, Wales.
Credits Credits: from Saunders, 1992
File image/jpeg, 112k
Title Fig. 3  Protection of the Antonine Column in Rome.
Credits Credits: from Lazzari, 1942
File image/jpeg, 108k
Title Fig. 4 Protection of the Ara Pacis in Rome.
Credits Credits: from Lazzari, 1942
File image/jpeg, 220k
Title Fig. 5 Map from the Pilot Plan showing the distribution of seismic events from year 0 to 1969.
Credits Credits: from ICR 1976
File image/jpeg, 152k
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Electronic reference

Simon Lambert, “Italy and the history of preventive conservation”CeROArt [Online], EGG 1 | 2010, Online since 18 November 2010, connection on 08 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Simon Lambert

Simon Lambert received his MSc in the Care of Collections (Cardiff University, United Kindgom) with a dissertation on the carbon footprint of museum loans. He has a BA in Art History and Italian literature (McGill University, Canada) and a Laurea in Paintings Conservation (University of Urbino, Italy). Simon is currently engaged as a consultant for the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome (ICCROM). Contact:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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