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Luciano Freire: between tradition and novelty

Maria da Conceição Lopes Casanova


This paper addresses the problematic concerning the restoration of early paintings (primitivos Portugueses) by Luciano Freire, and his role in the Portuguese conservation setting during the first half of the twentieth century. It seeks to describe the national conservation context, with reference to the international scene, highlighting the dominance of humanistic culture, the delay of scientific knowledge, but at the same time, the early functioning of the interdisciplinary team.

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Introduction: The Saint Vincent Panels and Luciano Freire

1The Saint Vincent Panels, a masterpiece of Portuguese painting of the fifteenth century, is a product of the early period of Portuguese painting (so called Primitivos Portugueses), painted from 1450 to 1550 under Flemish influence. They were discovered in the Saint Vincent Convent at the end of the nineteenth century. The panels, portraying prominent figures of Portuguese society of the fifteenth century, were studied by different specialists, leading to an extensive debate among art historians over time. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the art historians Joaquim de Vasconcelos (1849-1936) and José de Figueiredo (1872-1937), who expressed opposing views, examined the panels. The latter attributed the panels to Nuno Gonçalves, a painter active during the reign of King Afonso V, and their provenance to the altar of Saint Vicente in the Lisbon Cathedral. The artist-restorer Luciano Martins Freire (1864-1935), chosen and invited by Figueiredo to restore the panels (Figueiredo 1910), contributed to the findings and attribution. More recent studies, including graphological identification of a signature and date that was discovered and dendrochronological examination of the wood panels, confirmed Nuno Gonçalves as the painter, and reset the painting date to the forties  instead of the seventies  (Almeida and Alburquerque 2000).

2Luciano Freire, a painter by profession and vocation, who completed his Fine Arts Degree in 1886, and taught from 1896, was appointed the secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1900. In 1910, he became a member of the Commission for the Inventory and Improvement of Ancient Paintings, which included such prominent personalities as Macedo, Ortigão, Pessanha and Figueiredo. In 1911, he was appointed director of the Car Museum (Carvalho 2007). Despite these official functions, he spent his life mainly as an artist-restorer, an activity which he saw not as a business or a way to make a living, but as a mission. Together with the persons already mentioned, he formed part of the group of intellectuals that contributed to the cultural environment of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century at the so-called city of Saint Francis (Proença 1924), located in the Franciscan Convent thathoused significant heritage institutions, such as the National Library, the Academy of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Contemporary Art and studiosof notable painters, such as Freire’s studio (Fig. 1). The place was characterized by some authors as an institutional strategic centre of the genesis of conservation for Portuguese heritage (Custódio 2005).

Fig. 1. Luciano Freire

Fig. 1. Luciano Freire

Luciano Freire in his studio, Academy of Fine Arts at the S. Francisco Convent

Credits: Archives of Laboratório José de Figueiredo, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.

3In 1909, the restoration work on the Saint Vincent Panels started, and was finalized in 1910, when the work by Freire was presented to the public. This was the year of the creation of the already mentioned Commission of Ancient Paintings. The panels were found to be in a very poor condition, revealing improper earlier restoration procedures, similar to a large part of early Portuguese painting. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, several Portuguese authors referred to the loss of cultural heritage due to vandalism or neglect. Some of them reported in particular the effects of improper restoration (Holstein 1872: 11; Vasconcelos 1879: 157-8; Ortigão 1896: 17, 95; Vieira 1923: 10-11).

4Luciano Freire recorded three main previous restorations undertaken on the Saint Vincent Panels: a first intervention done a few decades after the painting of the panels, by a painter educated in the school of early Portuguese painting (Primitivos Portugueses); a second phase of restoration done by an artist-restorer in the seventeen century, probably due to damage caused by the earthquake of 1579 and the darkening of varnish (large areas of repair and repainting were observed, fortunately, on top of the varnish layers); a third repairing operation took place in the early nineteenth century, when large areas were over-painted by a craftsman, at a time when the paintings were undervalued due to their condition (darkening  of repainted areas and varnish) and a general lack of historical awareness. According to Figueiredo, Freire kept the patina and removed all of these restorations, except the oldest, which correspond to the first restoration (Figueiredo 1910) (Fig. 2 and 3).

Fig. 2. Detail of the central figure of Saint Vincent Panels

Fig. 2. Detail of the central figure of Saint Vincent Panels

Before Freire's restoration, photograph taken before 1909.

Credits : Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.

Fig. 3. Detail of the central figure of Saint Vincent Panels

Fig. 3. Detail of the central figure of Saint Vincent Panels

After Freire’s restoration, photograph taken after 1909.

Credits reserved to Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.

Portuguese ideas about conservation at the turn of the century

5In his Historical and Technical Dictionary of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Engraving, the art teacher and sculptor Assis Rodrigues (1801-1877) defined restoration as ‘the act of repair, returning the artwork to its original appearance,’ while the term ‘retouch’ meant to ‘amend, improve.’ For him, the perfect restoration was mimetic, one that ‘leaves doubt whether it [the artwork] was restored or not, even in intelligent people’ (Rodrigues 1875: 326-27). This understanding of the restoration process as the recovering of the original appearance was also expressed by the curator Manuel Macedo (1839-1921), the author of the only restoration manual ever published in Portugal. This textbook closely follows the ideas diffused in Europe and expressed in similar works, such as the manuals of Bonnardot (1858), Horsin-Déon (1851) and particularly Ris-Paquot (1879). The authors shared the same concept of ‘restorer’, which maintained that the person performing the work, as an artist, should never replace the original author, (Macedo 1885, 6), but rather should renounce his own creativity (Ris-Paquot 1873: 49) and be a ‘slave of the master’ who conceived the work (Horsin-Déon 1851: 115), fully respecting the original visual form of the artwork. Similarly to Ris-Paquot, Macedo believed that the ‘restoration craft’ is divided into two distinct activities, the ‘restoration’ and the ‘retouching’. The latter, being artistic, must be applied by a ‘complete and talented painter’. Following Viollet-le-Duc’s theory, the restorer had to assimilate ‘the styles of a variety of different schools and (...) the special and personal ways of many painters’ and also imitate the ‘touch, brushstroke, the way of putting the ink, how to see, to feel, to interpret either the form or the color of each of the artists’ (place reference here). However, Macedo also showed the influences of Italian theorists, such as Camillo Boito and Luca Beltrami. Convinced that a bad restorer retouches too much, he wrote, ‘There are cases where restoration is detrimental; - a good restorer should know to stop in time’ (Macedo 1885: 4-6).

6The ideas of Camillo Boito were mainly spread by the art historian Gabriel Pereira (1847-1911) who criticized excessive cleaning and defended minimal intervention and conservation as opposed to restoration. Pereira also was a fervent advocate of photographic documentation prior to intervention (Pereira 1895).

7John Ruskin, the British theorist who negated any beneficial effect of the restoration process, also had followers in Portugal. The writer and historian Joaquim da Costa Cascaes (1815-1898) and the art historian Marquês de Sousa Holstein (1838-1878) highlighted the value of ruins as opposed to architectural restoration (Cascaes 1854: 210-12; Holstein 1875). At the turn of the twentieth century, the engineer and historian Lino d’Assumpção (1844-1902), defined the word ‘restoration’ as ‘defilement that has been done in Art’ in his Dictionary of Terms of Architecture (Assumpção 1895). Furthermore, when referring to the issue of cleaning paintings, the writer and historian Lopes Vieira (1878-1946) concluded – in the 1920s − that restoration removed the authenticity of the artwork. He also noted that the word ‘restoration’ is ‘discredited everywhere’, since ‘the most serious attacks’ have been made to cultural heritage under its umbrella (Vieira 1923:10-11). Nevertheless, his belief that the restoration process coincided with the recovering of original form and his idea of the restorer was in line with previous authors. Vieira does not write about retouching, but values ‘the repairman who sacrifices his personality, faced with the personality of the master that he must serve’ (Vieira 1923: 10-13). Nearly two decades later, Burnay (1884-1951) reflected precisely the same ideas in his concern for the ‘religious respect of the original work of the author’  and the identification of the restoration process as an art (Burnay 1945: 67-8). He said, ‘The art of restoring, especially paintings, being among the most difficult, is above all the most thankless, since when carried out with art and mastery, it is absorbed by the original whole’ (Burnay 1945: 70).  

8Another important aspect of the thought of these authors is that in addition to the recovery of the original appearance they emphasized the need to achieve the harmony of whole during the restoration process of paintings. This ideal, already at this time suggests the concept of unity and harmony of whole defended by Bonelli and Brandi, but the vision of the restorer according to the Portuguese authors distances them from Italian avant-garde. Both Vieira and Burnay considered the missing areas acceptable in sculpture, but not in paintings, which justified the need for illusory reintegration and retouching (Vieira 1923: 20-1). Burnay, in theory, agreed with discernible reintegration and conservation procedures, but opined that ‘museum displays will become unbearable for public viewing’if such practices are applied (Burnay 1945: 67). In Portugal, the ideal of revealing the original state of artwork in association with the ambition to re-establish the unity and harmony of the whole artwork validated reconstruction.Thus, in Portugal, we did not witness a radical break with mimetic restoration, nor was discernible retouching advocated.There was a tendency towards continuity in search of the ideal harmony, which does not allow us to depart from the restoration model that predominated in the previous century.These are probably the reasons why, in our country, the figure of the artist-restorer remained unchanged until the mid-twentieth century. Another important aspect that contributed to this situation was the absence in Portugal of scientists and scientific knowledge applied to the conservation of heritage. The curator and historian Reis Santos (1898-1967), with experience abroad, drew attention to the Portuguese empirical approach and to the need to apply scientific means (Santos 1939: 44-5). But we had to wait until the thirties to see the application of radiography and until the seventies for the conduction of analyses of materials in state conservation laboratories (Casanova 2012: 58-9).

Freire’s theory and praxis and the precocity of teamwork

9Several authors, who recently studied Luciano Freire, recognized him to be a point of reference in the evolution of restoration theory and practice nationwide.  For Simões Rodrigues, he was the first Portuguese conservation master and with him the era ends during which the restoration of the supposed ‘original appearance’ was practiced in nineteenth century (Rodrigues 2007). João Cruz believes that it was this artist-restorer who, in an attempt to adopt the Anglo-Saxon model, started documenting his work through photographic records and keeping evidence of the work process in the artworks (namely recording stratigraphic layers of the varnishes during the cleaning process) (Cruz 2007). Victor Serrão defended that it was in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the activity of restorers such as Luciano Freire that restoration process like artistic recreation, carried out by recognized artists in previous centuries, stopped.According to him figures like Freire discarded the ‘utilitarian restoration’, a practice used to correct and update the narrative in line with current ideologies more than to extend the physical conservation of the artwork (Serrão 2006).However, despite pointing out Freire’s expertise, Alves also emphasizes his lack of scientific knowledge (Alves 2004).  

10Freire was already a polemic figure in his time. In the thirties, Reis Santos criticized the overall state of Portugal’s heritage and museums. According to him, figures like Figueiredo and Freire were far from blameless; he accusedthe latter of secrecy (Santos 1939: 32-40). Addressing the problem of cleaning old retouched paintings, Santos emphasized the need of using scientific tools in conservation, namely raking light and X-rays, and concluded, ‘restorers should seek their assistance and rely less on their own eyes, knowledge and practical experience’ (Santos 1939: 44-5). Reis referred here to Freire, who operated on empirical grounds. However, Vieira contradicted Reis' views. Praising the work undertaken by Figueiredo and Freire on the Saint Vincent Panels, he suggests that, in this case, the word ‘restoration’ be replaced by ‘reintegration’, and stated, ‘With this expression, I wish to clearly state that the personality of the painter in no way interfered with the treatment of the paintings’. Obviously, ‘only a painter could do similar work, of such a responsibility and extreme sensitivity’; nonetheless ‘the action of the painter holding the palette is one of extreme humility and great humbleness’ (Vieira 1923: 8-11).Thus, although proposing a new terminology in line with conservation in twentieth century Europe, Vieira kept the idea of ​​the restorer that previously circulated among the Portuguese intellectuals.

11In fact, by analysing Luciano Freire’s texts we cannot say that he totally ruled out the concept of reconstruction (Freire 2007: 18, 20, 35); although recognising the importance of documentation he did not document all his interventions ( Freire 2007: 25, 47, 51) and he did not use the most advanced scientific tools available at the time. But we can say that recovering the original painting, what he called the ‘pristine beauty’, was indeed one of his main concerns (Freire 2007: 14, 25). Such an approach is not surprising if we consider the national trends already cited here. Nevertheless, in the documents he left us, it is also evident that he is aware of the difficulty, and even the  impossibility, of restoring artwork to its original state (Freire 2007: 12),  a fact that only a restorer of his intellectual grasp and experience would be able to gauge.

12Freire’s critical attitude and intellectual approach, reflected in his systematic analysis and remarkable perception, also contributed towards the progress of art history in Portugal, namely with the study of the already mentioned Primitivos Portugueses. The great novelty introduced by this artist-restorer was to understand conservation eminently to be a critical and an intellectual process that necessarily involved teamwork, contributing also to new achievements in the field of art history. Thus, it is not surprising to see the empathy that seemed to exist between the art historian and curator Figueiredo and the artist-restorer Freire (Fig. 4), since they both understood the complementary role of each other, founding interdisciplinary teamwork early on.

Fig. 4. José de Figueiredo and Luciano Freire

Fig. 4. José de Figueiredo and Luciano Freire

Restoration studio, Academy of Fine Arts at the S. Francisco Convent.

Credits: Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.

13The art historian Vasconcelos, having carried out studies on the Saint Vincent Panels prior to Figueiredo, confirmed the importance of teamwork. He clearly states, ‘my study lacked the detailed technical analysis of the painting processes, which only an eminent restorer, like Mr. Luciano Freire, could have attempted and risked’ (Vasconcelos 19--: 5). Thus, he does not attribute the discoveries to Figueiredo but to Freire, adding,  ‘He gave us an essential, in-depth, technical analysis of the composition of the panels, which served to address the national problem’. Vieira  also referred to Freire’s work as ‘a sort of monastic devotion, requiring a distant and intellectual seclusion’, very typical of his ‘researcher and professor-like mentality’ (Vieira 1926: 10, 26). Following the same approach, Diogo Macedo later characterized him as a person with ‘earnest concerns typical of a researcher, to the point of becoming a scholar on art issues’ (Macedo 1954: 15).

14Freire’s stance also represents the defense of true interdisciplinary teamwork where different participants regard each other as peers. This was only possible due to the fact that the participants, the artist-restorer and historian, held a similar status. They worked together and formed a team because they shared responsibility and commitment to a single purpose and they could expect mutual accountability. Freire was regarded by his contemporaries as a researcher who had developed a high level of knowledge. At the time in most places, conservation decision-making was often hierarchical, rather than collaborative, with art historians at the top, wielding greater influence than restorers at the bottom. In this case, definitely, an egalitarian position is observed.

15But despite the precocity of the interdisciplinary approach introduced by this team that led to important developments in Portuguese art history based on material studies, the event was not followed by the emergence of the conservation specialist figure, something already in place in other European countries. On the contrary, it seems to us that the success of this short-lived team can be partially explained by its emblematic role, being formed by an art historian and an artist-restorer that holds the high social status of old times (Serrão 2006), still in the Portugal during first decades of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the scientist is excluded from this partnership.Indeed, looking back at the Portuguese ideas about conservation at the turn of the century and examining Freire’s manuscripts, we realize that the application of the natural and exact sciences to conservation is non-existent at the time in Portugal.In fact, the figure of the artist-restorer, deeply rooted in Portugal since old times, remained unchanged until at least the mid-twentieth century (Casanova 2012: 53). It was a painter, Abel Moura,in collaboration with several other artists,who assumed leadership of the first government agency for the conservation of national heritage, created in 1965, the Instituto José de Figueiredo (IJF), named after the aforementioned art historian (Fig.5).

Fig. 5. José de Figueiredo

Fig. 5. José de Figueiredo

José de Figueiredo during a visit to Mainini Institute, 1933 / Louvre Museum.

Credits: archives of Laboratório José de Figueiredo, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.


16In the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, Portuguese intellectuals were aware of the trends in conservation and restoration that spread in Europe. They shared some of the ideas and thoughts, although sometimes revealing a mixture of values and influences that were antagonistic. The conflict between looking for the original (form and appearance) and achieving the harmony of the whole artwork during the conservation process resulted in mimetic reconstruction. In the first half of the twentieth century, the conception of the restorer as an artist also reinforced this ideal of restoration, not radically different from the approaches of the previous century. The impact of the humanities on Portuguese socio-cultural environment and the lack of weight of scientific culture in the heritage circles in Portugal in the early twentieth century is certainly another reason for the dominance of the artist-restorer.

17Based on Bergeon’s statement that no interdisciplinary work is real without equality of status and mutual respect (Bergeon 1997: 21), it seems that two main reasons contributed to the foundation of interdisciplinary teamwork early on in Portugal: 1) the high status of the artist, which remained so for a long time; and 2) the late onset of the scientist in the conservation field. This delayed the emergence of the specialist conservator in the state conservation services. But, on the other hand, we witness the precocious emergence of interdisciplinary teamwork. In fact, this is the novelty introduced by Luciano Freire and José de Figueiredo: these two men based their opinions and intervention decisions on critical judgments, founded on the opinion of the interdisciplinary team that, although small, worked to perfection, since the parties had a mutual respect and similar status.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Luciano Freire
Caption Luciano Freire in his studio, Academy of Fine Arts at the S. Francisco Convent
Credits Credits: Archives of Laboratório José de Figueiredo, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.
File image/jpeg, 44k
Title Fig. 2. Detail of the central figure of Saint Vincent Panels
Caption Before Freire's restoration, photograph taken before 1909.
Credits Credits : Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.
File image/jpeg, 48k
Title Fig. 3. Detail of the central figure of Saint Vincent Panels
Caption After Freire’s restoration, photograph taken after 1909.
Credits Credits reserved to Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.
File image/jpeg, 48k
Title Fig. 4. José de Figueiredo and Luciano Freire
Caption Restoration studio, Academy of Fine Arts at the S. Francisco Convent.
Credits Credits: Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.
File image/jpeg, 60k
Title Fig. 5. José de Figueiredo
Caption José de Figueiredo during a visit to Mainini Institute, 1933 / Louvre Museum.
Credits Credits: archives of Laboratório José de Figueiredo, Direção-Geral do Património Cultural.
File image/jpeg, 35k
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Electronic reference

Maria da Conceição Lopes Casanova, “Luciano Freire: between tradition and novelty ”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 28 October 2013, connection on 04 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Maria da Conceição Lopes Casanova

Maria Casanova has the PhD in Conservation and Restoration / Theory, History and Techniques from the New University of Lisbon (2012), a post-graduation in Conservation Studies from the Camberwell College of Arts (1989) and an Art History Degree from Oporto University (1983). Currently, she is director of the Management Directorate at Tropical Research Institute and invited assistant professor of the Conservation Courses at New University. Instituto de Investigação Cientifica Tropical, Rua da Junqueira, nº86, 1ºAndar, 1300- 344 Lisboa, Portugal; 2 Departamento de Conservação e Restauro, Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2829-516 Caparica, Portugal.

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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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