writing box, Naples, 1600, ivory and ebony on pinewood, inlay and etching
before the restoration….
Conservation and Restoration, a brief introduction
Conservation means to conserve works of art and handicraft in order to protect them from getting dusty, rusty, from breaking, from climatically stressful situations, from biological attacks, from being stolen and mistreated or destroyed. It concerns paintings, sculptures and objects made of the most disparate materials: paintings on canvas or wood; frescoes; sculptures in wood, stone or metal, furniture; objects in gold or silver, brass or iron; objects or works of art in ivory, bone, amber, horn, coral, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell; items made of textile, fabric, wax, porcelain or terracotta; works of art in paper; books; weapons made from wood, metals and decorative materials, and much more.
The English term “conservation” corresponds to the Italian “restauro”: to restore, replace, put back, bring to former place and condition (Oxford Concise Dictionary). The Italian use of the term “conservazione”, instead, implies the effort to avoid any replacing act while engaging only in maintenance work, i.e. dusting, cleaning, nurturing surfaces and removal of oxidation.
In a restoration workshop, the works and objects of ancient art are given back their integrity, whole appearance, structure and beauty through a respectful revitalization of the original that does not impose on it the restorer’s hand.
The modern executor of a restoration is usually an expert who is trained in restoration techniques as well as in the basic artistic techniques used to make the work. His/her training took place either in a workshop or a specialized school where they were taught philosophically based methods and principles of restoration congruent with the national guidelines and/or with those of public institutions, in the case of public property. They were also taught to follow through on these didactic principles in actual practice.
Throughout history, restoration has always been an interesting topic for collectors, museums and artists, and it has often been informed by wholly different principles. The Renaissance, for example, offers us thought provoking instances: a case of “adaptative” restoration is perfectly represented by Domenico Ghirlandaio’s project of a frame “in the antique manner” for Giotto’s “Baroncelli Incoronation”; while the cutting off parts of the Gioconda were considered a “normal procedure”, because she was supposed to fit into a certain frame. As far as historical “restorations” are concerned, one of its most triumphant instances is the restoration of the “Laocoon”. Discovered in 1506, the work’s missing parts were immediately perfectly remade in the manner of the ancient master. Restorations, thus, reveal themselves to be interpretations of their times subject to different philosophical imprints throughout the centuries. Famous artists of the early modern period were often asked to reconstruct and restore: the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s “Ganimede”, for example, is constructed on top of an antique roman marble sculpture. Generally, in this period, the “art restorer” was a painter or sculptor. In the 18th century, though, the figure of the painting restorer was finally recognized as such and thus distinguished from painters and other art creators.
Until the 19th century, restoration was based on empirical techniques, but at the beginning of the 20th century new approaches and disciplines were introduced to the field, such as chemistry, and most importantly, new philosophical orientations were taken into account as far as public properties were concerned.
In Italy, prior to its unification in 1861, the political division into counties gave rise to a few different philosophies and ways of handling works of art and their conservation. Fortunately unified standard guidelines, introduced in the early 20th century, began to espouse scientific findings to the modern principles devised by great art historians like Cesare Brandi (1906-1988)  and Ugo Procacci (1905-1991).
In tough times – WWII, or the Florentine Flood in 1966, or the latest earthquakes in Assisi (1997) and L’Aquila (2009) – these modern philosophical and methodological principles gave the restorers and art historians the support needed during the first interventions after the disaster. They also provided the basis for new solutions that blended theory and practice to applied sciences like physics and chemistry. It is art historians who further developed restoration and conservation guiding criteria and made them available to the restorers, the practical users of the theoretically found solutions. In the days of the Florentine Flood, for example, art historian Umberto Baldini (1921-2006) worked elbow-to-elbow alongside restorers to recover the international heritage from the water’s damages and preserve it for the future; also he updated Brandi’s philosophy principles adapting them to the modern conception of restoration.
New important restoration problems arose at the dawn of the industrialized 20th century: new painting and construction materials, glues and pigments; new artistic inventions; new installations, new artistic methodologies; new philosophical questions, such as “do modern artists want their works to be well conserved? Is this a question in their effort in creating?” “Many contemporary works of art are in difficult conservation situations: do we have the tools to restore them, are we supposed to conserve them…in the times of consumerism?” “What is worthwhile to be conserved?” etc.
Italy and Europe. Italy’s rich artistic patrimony not only makes it an important container but also an impressive promoter of anything concerned with conservation and restoration, and the creator of valid principles followed all over Europe. When differences of methodologies arise, they are usually due to the “personality” of the work of art itself or to the individual knowledge and capacities of the single restorers and conservators. Fortunately international programs, congresses, study groups and networks are a great means to discuss things and thus find similar directions.
As far as public property is concerned, there are effective guarantees in place that ensure the best quality and respectful restoration and conservation. This is partly due to the state employed specialists who work in the museums or to private restorers whose reliability is well proven.
Working in the private sector – either for private collections or for antique dealers – different restoration parameters come into play: the owner of a collection often asks for restorations to be executed according to his personal taste. For some the restoration must not be evident, while others prefer a less accurate restoration, and others still want their collection bright, neat and clean! Antique dealers want their objects to be attractive for their clients: without signs of damage, without missing parts, and yet everything must still keep its antique patina! The restorer must keep in mind common sense and respect for the object and thus in some cases clients must be “reeducated” to a correct restoration.
…after the restoration
Conclusion All historical periods are characterized by a particular way of restoring and every generation wants better results than the former one. Good faith, taste and differing points of view have dictated actions towards restoration over the centuries. Humankind is fortunate that our works of art have been resistant enough to go through so many differing philosophical approaches to restoration and conservation practices.
Bettina Schindler, Florence, 2003 reviewed in 2015
 Alessandro Conti “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art”, Mondadori, 2007
 Storia dell’Arte Italiana “Conservazione Falso Restauro”, vol. 10 Einaudi Editore 1967
 U. Baldini Teoria del restauro e unità di metodologia, Firenze, 1978-1981. U. Baldini Metodo e Scienza: operatività e ricerca nel restauro, Sansoni, 1982.