The Renaissance Restored, a recently published study, bears as its subtitle “Paintings Conservation and the Birth of Modern Art History in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” a qualifying phrase that sets it apart from a rapidly expanding bibliography on the subject of the care and preservation of art.1 The story it tells is of how Italian Renaissance art fared in the decades-long period when it was at the zenith of popular appeal and critical study. Italian Renaissance art was, in this charmed moment, the undisputed worldwide main event: for the scholars in academe, the dealers in their galleries, the curators in the museums, and the robber barons in their opulent salons. Classical, Far Eastern, ethnographic, and even contemporary art were regarded as undercards to the big show. The principal distinction of this carefully researched and dense account of the subject is that its author, Matthew Hayes, is a practicing paintings conservator. Rather more unusual is Hayes’s keen and abiding interest in his profession’s philosophical intent and historical evolution. This is not a “how-to” book, but rather a “why and when” one. Hayes would, undoubtedly, be the first to agree that this “profession” might, more suitably, be described simply as an “activity”; unlike “real” professions (architecture, medicine, law), conservation requires no license, certification, or other proof of competence or integrity.

Caring for paintings had been, since early modern times and even in antiquity, primarily the purview of other artists. The chronicler Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613–96) has left us perhaps the fullest account of such practice in the story of the Farnese Gallery in Rome, the masterwork executed by Annibale Carracci and his cousin Agostino at the turn of the seventeenth century. Not long after its completion, the great frescoed ceiling developed serious structural and adhesion problems. Duke Ranuccio II Farnese called on Carlo Maratta (1625–1713) to put things right. He was Rome’s foremost painter and the director of its fine arts academy (the Accademia di San Luca). Maratta’s intervention is still admired today for its prudent respect and technical innovation and, finally, its success. The good duke clearly cared about his art; some years later he again commissioned Maratta for an even more delicate undertaking: the restoration of Raphael’s severely weathered “Loggia of Psyche” at the Villa Farnesina at the foot of the Janiculum Hill, near the Tiber.

Caring for paintings had been, since early modern times and even in antiquity, primarily the purview of other artists. 

Hayes’s attention is firmly fixed on Italy and Italian Renaissance paintings, but he shifts the focus forward to examine how these works were regarded and cared for in the nineteenth century. This is a wise approach, for it was in Italy during this period that modern conservation strategies and techniques began to emerge. The Venetian Pietro Edwards (1744–1821) is a seminal figure in this regard. Having trained as a painter under Gaspare Diziani (1689–1767), Edwards was soon engaged in the preservation of the republic’s vast artistic patrimony. In 1778, he established what was, possibly, Europe’s first studio exclusively devoted to paintings conservation. Edwards also wrote extensively not only about the nuts and bolts of his craft, but also of its philosophical imperatives (his Privata Informazione Preliminare al Progetto di Restauro Generale is an unpublished restoration proposal consigned in the Venetian Senate and dating to 1777). Read today, these considerations appear astonishingly contemporary, from the scrupulous respect paid to original pictorial surfaces to the importance of “reversibility” of materials employed in any and all interventions.

The Renaissance Restored, fittingly, opens with a chapter devoted to Giotto, considered the “father” of Italian art ever since Vasari made that claim. The frescoes that the master and his school executed in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence became the object of intense scrutiny once they were discovered under a coat of seventeenth-century whitewash, almost by accident, in 1841. It was a timely event, for it was at this juncture that, particularly in England, the taste for everything “medieval” dominated popular as well as elite imagination. (Both the façade and bell tower of Santa Croce had not been completed by the early nineteenth century. A growing taste for Gothic art at the time prompted the undertaking of several ambitious projects: the completion of Santa Croce’s façade and bell tower as well as of the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo. The wealthy English expatriates John Temple Leader and Francis Joseph Sloan partly financed these building programs.)

Interestingly, both spaces at Santa Croce in which Giotto and his shop had labored—the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels—were still the purview of those families’ descendants. In agreement with the ecclesiastical authorities, the families chose Gaetano Bianchi (1819–92) for the restoration task. He was a young and enterprising painter/restorer who had already completed an impressive series of fresco projects in Florence and its environs.

What Bianchi found as he removed the whitewash was exhilarating but, at the same time, disheartening. The grand designs, with their sparse, judicious disposition of monumental figures, were interspersed with gaping losses that completely and irreparably marred the rhythmic and narrative integrity of the original compositions. Bianchi set to work on what became the most emblematic restoration project of the era—universally lauded on its completion and just as universally deplored a century later. This trajectory, from acceptance to rejection, marks the evolution of critical and scholarly response to the central issue of conservation: how to deal with losses and damages. These are the lacunae that testify to man’s interference, time’s attrition, and the imponderables of environment, historical moment, and pure chance; they must be addressed, if only in consideration of the aged nature of the original surfaces. Nineteenth-century historicism was the imperative behind this desire.

Bianchi set to work on what became the most emblematic restoration project of the era.

Bianchi was not only a skillful craftsman but also a gifted and fearless artist. He impersonated Giotto so successfully that, judged in the hard light of twentieth-century criticism, his interventions are still baffling for their stylistic accuracy and technical proficiency. But, in that same hard light, they were clearly no longer acceptable. In Italy, the writings of the philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) had had a profound effect on art history, aesthetics, and, eventually, conservation theory. Croce roundly condemned any and all manifestations—literary or artistic—that might be deemed imitative, hence, “anti-historical”: here is the flip side of nineteenth-century historicism. As a result, by 1963, Bianchi’s restorations were in the process of being erased by Leonetto Tintori (1908–2000) at the behest of Florence’s Soprintendenza dei Monumenti.Tintori had made his name in the field of fresco painting in the monumental Camposanto (Cemetery) in Pisa. That supreme example of Italian medieval architecture had suffered catastrophic damage during an Allied bombing raid in July 1944. An incendiary bomb caused the timbered roof to catch fire and collapse. The lead of the roof’s covering tiles melted, and, as it ran down the side walls, it horribly scarred the celebrated early fourteenth-century frescoes depicting The Last Judgment and The Triumph of Death. Tintori championed a rigorous “minimalist” approach to the restoration of losses: these would be left “neutral” with no attempt at pictorial reconstruction. And so it was in Santa Croce. Bianchi’s work was erased and the offending losses only minimally toned down, not pictorially reconstructed. The frescoes were back (more or less) to how they had appeared when first discovered.

Having offered, with his tale of Bianchi, a paradigmatic conservation story, Hayes skillfully retraces in chronological order the various installments of that story as it unfolded in Italy during the first half of the nineteenth century. In this period, the other principal figures were Antonio Marini (1788–1861) in Florence and Giuseppe Molteni (1799–1867) in Milan, two painters-turned-restorers who practiced both as freelance artisans and as employees of the Uffizi and the Brera Galleries respectively. Hayes inserts as sidebars concise biographical profiles of these men and the other principal actors in the story in the order they appear. A figure that merits attention, but who unfortunately is only briefly mentioned, is the nobleman Giovanni Secco Suardo (1798–1873), an inquisitive and cultured gentleman of leisure who, for years, haunted the painting and carpentry workshops of his native Bergamo. The city was an ancient and fertile ground for artisanal pursuits. There, he found, and diligently recorded, a mass of information on all manner of materials, recipes, and techniques for the restoration of paintings, often performed under the watchful eye of Giovanni Morelli (1816–91), a wealthy local collector, connoisseur, and author. Morelli is considered by many the first modern art historian for the influence his theories had on Bernard Berenson (1865–1959), the high priest of the new discipline. The book Secco Suardo published in 1866, Manuale Ragionato per la Parte Meccanica dell’Arte del Ristauratore dei Dipinti, is regarded as a classic and continues to be a fixture on many conservators’ bookshelves.

Inevitably, the horizon of restoration widened beyond Italy as the dispersal of its art increased during the second half of the nineteenth century. The principal destination was, at first, Great Britain. British milordi, aided by the unparalleled buying power of their currency, had been amassing great quantities of Italian art since the era of the Grand Tour, during the previous century. Another golden moment for the British aristocracy came with the dispersal of the Duke of Orléans’ vast collection during the French Revolution. A consortium of English grandees eagerly purchased the duke’s great poesie by Titian and other masterworks, selling on what was deemed less prestigious. This artistic patrimony remained exclusively private until, gradually, it began to appear, in piecemeal fashion, exhibited in various London public venues. The enormously wide interest these viewings generated in the first two decades of the nineteenth century stimulated a general and intense desire for a permanent public national collection.

Enter Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865)—after 1850 “Sir Charles”—to whom Hayes rightly devotes an entire chapter. Trained as an artist at the Royal Academy, Eastlake traveled extensively on the Continent, studying and painting diligently. He was no dilettante like many of his compatriots, but, despite this, his paintings can only be described as uninspired in conception and middling in execution. His real talent emerged somewhat later as a scholar and administrator. In the former capacity, he translated Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre and published a two-volume treatise on the materials and techniques of painting from the antique to the contemporary: a minutely researched and masterly compendium on the subject that continues to be serviceable to this day.

As a public servant in England, he became the ultimate establishment macher, being named the first director of London’s National Gallery in 1855. Not surprisingly, the conservation of the gallery’s collection remained—after acquisitions—an abiding and compelling priority for Eastlake. Hayes quotes extensively from Eastlake’s writings. What emerges most clearly from these is Eastlake’s utter commitment to the work of art’s integrity and appearance. More than with historical significance or attribution, Eastlake was concerned above all with aesthetics. “Harmony” is a recurring word. He knew, of course, that virtually all paintings are finished by an application of a resin varnish for protection and color saturation. Over time the darkening of these resin varnishes through oxidation is inevitable. Their eventual removal is one of the critical procedures performed by the restorer—and therein resides the vexed issue of cleaning. If this intervention has disturbed the imagined harmony of the image, can that picture, or should it, be recreated by toning (by using transparent glazes)? If so, to what extent? Or, better yet, why not simply leave paintings covered with their time-induced patina? Reynolds and Hogarth had already vigorously debated the issue in the eighteenth century, and the dialogue continued unabated with Eastlake. It is still very much with us.

What emerges most clearly from these is Eastlake’s utter commitment to the work of art’s integrity and appearance. 

The final chapter of The Renaissance Restored examines how Italian pictures fared in Germany, a country that achieved national unity only in 1871. Apart from smaller, princely collections such as at Pommersfelden, the only historically significant gallery was the Pinakothek in Munich. Clearly, nationalist pride required the creation of a significant national collection in the new capital of Berlin. In this sense, the birth of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum was somewhat similar to the creation of London’s National Gallery thirty years prior: great art bequeathed or purchased in a flurry of patriotic enthusiasm. By cruel paradox, the unimaginably vast Medici patrimony, comprising paintings, sculptures, jewels, and real estate (read: the collections of the Uffizi, Pitti, Bargello, Poggio Imperiale, etc.) might well have been shipped off to Düsseldorf in the mid-eighteenth century. It was all inherited by Anna Maria Luisa (1667–1743), the sister of Gian Gastone (1671–1737), the last Grand Duke of Tuscany. Being childless, Maria Luisa’s properties would have, by hereditary right, devolved to her husband’s family, the Margraves of Saxony. Well aware of the danger of Florence losing the Medici collections, the “Electress of Saxony” stipulated the historic and unprecedented Patto di Famiglia (donation) of her entire Medici dowry to the city of Florence in 1737. She lived the last years of her life vigorously defending her decision against incessant protestations and threats from her German in-laws. The courageous and principled Maria Luisa still awaits dedication of a monument to her memory in Florence.

Although Italian Renaissance paintings remain an object of attention, the practitioners caring for them, and the specialists studying them, in London as in Berlin, are no longer Italian. We meet the remarkable father-son Hausers of Berlin, restorers responsible for a rapidly growing group of Italian Renaissance paintings arriving in Germany thanks to the expertise of scholars such as Max Friedländer and the insatiable acquisitiveness of Wilhelm Bode, the founder and first director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. Bode, a brilliant connoisseur of Renaissance sculpture, became a veritable czar of the arts in the newly united German nation, even assuming the title of Geheimrat (State Councilor). Hayes includes a photograph, taken circa 1904, of Alois Hauser Jr., Friedländer, and Bode in a gallery of the Altes Museum, just prior to the construction on the “Museumsinsel” of the splendid new Kaiser Friedrich (now appropriately renamed Bode) Museum. The three are shown casually posing beneath a large Italian altarpiece with Hauser still wearing his studio smock. What is striking is that the conservator enjoys a coequal status with his “superiors,” a sure sign that the craft was moving upmarket as a profession.

At this point, to complete the panorama of the Italian Renaissance art diaspora, it might have been appropriate for Hayes to add a word about those dealers who provided the source for much of the material. They were enterprising, self-taught, and often unscrupulous but never lacking for acumen or courage; they became the essential transfer channel. By far the most active and successful of these operators was the Florentine Stefano Bardini (1836–1922). He, as well as his younger and lesser colleague Luigi Grassi (1858–1937), employed scores of restorers, woodworkers, and gilders, some as full-time, in-house artisans. (Luigi Grassi, my grandfather, completed his training at Rome’s Accademia di San Luca and was, by Italian custom, allowed to be styled “Professor.” With his qualification as a trained painter, he began a career as paintings conservator at the Uffizi’s Gabinetto del Restauro in 1887.) Photographers, framers, and specialized shipping agents completed these art-world équipes. Bardini was aided also by amazingly fortunate timing. In 1860, Italy had just achieved unity, the final event of the nation’s Risorgimento (Rebirth). Rome, the self-evident capital, was, however, still part of the Vatican and was not wrested from the papacy for another ten years; a refurbished Florence would have to do. During that decade, vast areas of the medieval center of Florence, including the ancient ghetto as well as the encircling sixteenth-century walls, were demolished to make way for a more modern cityscape, one suitable to the status of the city as the newly minted national capital. In miniature, it was what Haussmann had accomplished in Second Empire Paris.

Bardini eagerly swept up the thousands of tons of columns, arches, lintels, and every other imaginable architectural and sculptural element left in the destruction’s wake. At least two generations of architects, among them Stanford White, mined Bardini’s immense reservoir of props to satisfy the demand for Renaissance-style palaces in Northern Europe, New York, San Simeon, and Addison Mizner’s Florida. Bardini himself used the leftovers to build a huge pretend palace next to his home on Piazza dei Mozzi. Here he placed the pride of his own collections comprising sculpture, paintings, works of art, and a unique gathering of antique musical instruments, as well as allegedly one of the few great seventeenth-century Ardabil carpets to survive almost intact. I was fortunate, in my youth, to have befriended Ugo Bardini (1892–1965), Stefano’s adopted son. He was a shy, somewhat introverted, yet impeccably mannered gentleman who, on occasion, would share some family lore. One unforgettable story was how his father had acquired the so-called Ardabil: apparently, Stefano had purchased a sculpture at a grand Tuscan country house. After closing the deal, he asked the estate’s bailiff to kindly throw in an old blanket, fearing that the piece might suffer damage as it rattled about in the back of his horse-drawn buggy. The “old blanket” turned out to be the famed carpet.

Another rather more harrowing story Ugo recounted was how, when he was a young man, trecento panels were brought into the courtyard of his father’s palace. The paintings were invariably dark and opaque with ancient varnishes and over-painting. A gallery workman would, thereupon, slather the surfaces with caustic soda: a deadly, corrosive, water-borne solvent. To complete the “cleanings,” the precious and delicate images would then be scraped with spatulas and sponges, with results that can only be imagined.

The identities of the legions of restorers who worked, mainly in the wings, in the thriving art trade in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century have, by and large, been forgotten. Apart from Secco Suardo in Bergamo and his contemporary Ulisse Forni in Florence, little is known of their workshops and techniques. Each jealously guarded his own “secrets,” almost never leaving a written report and even more rarely photographic documentation. No doubt, some of this information has survived, dispersed in family archives and trade records. It is a fertile field for research that might yield surprisingly valuable insights into the nineteenth-century history of conservation to complement the rich account presented by Hayes.

The identities of the legions of restorers who worked, mainly in the wings, in the thriving art trade in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century have, by and large, been forgotten.

Inevitably, by the end of the Second World War, the star of the Italian Renaissance had begun to fade. Scholars and collectors were now looking at Mannerism, the Baroque, and settecento art. Florence no longer held its unchallenged status as the locus of all that mattered. The denizens of the Florentine arts establishment—Berenson, Roberto Longhi, Harold Acton, and the legions of distinguished colleagues and upper-crust admirers who paid them homage—were progressively exiting stage right. Florence was reverting to the status of a mid-sized provincial city, known principally for the unending hordes of tourists clogging its streets. The art galleries that had long been obligatory stops for the wealthy and well-informed—Stefano Bardini, Luigi Grassi & Sons, Luigi Bellini—were either shuttered or on life support.

A sure sign of the eclipse was the declining market for Italian Renaissance art. In 1941, two warehouses full of paintings, sculpture, and furniture that had never made it to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon were crammed into the entire fifth floor of Gimbel’s department store on Thirty-fourth Street and sold at bargain prices. For the next twenty years the only buyers for this material at New York sales were Italian dealers. Bits and pieces of the Italian Renaissance were returning to their origin to begin life anew in more modest settings. This was a decidedly melancholy coda to a story that had contained numerous vibrant chapters throughout its hundred-year run. Unfortunately, there is no sign that an Italian Renaissance revival is on the horizon. We should not be fooled by the astronomical value and incessant chatter attached to Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, a repellent and much-damaged image that I have described in these pages as “slug-like.” That was simply the result of astute marketing of the ultimate art brand: Hermès never did it better. It’s fair to guess that a genuine reassessment of the Italian Renaissance may not occur for at least another generation.

Editor’s note: For a discussion of modern art conservation, see Marco Grassi’s review of On Contemporary Theory of Conservation by Salvador Muñoz Viñas.

1The Renaissance Restored: Paintings Conservation and the Birth of Modern Art History in Nineteenth-Century Europe, by Matthew Hayes; Getty Publications, 208 pages, $65.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 6, on page 61
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