The trials and tribulations of art restoration

As Geoffrey Chaucer once said: “It is nought good a selpyng hound to wake”. Or, as it is known in the modern day: “Let sleeping dogs lie”. One can see his point: while inaction rules out any possibility of improvement, it at least stops the present situation from deteriorating. As an Ancient History student, however, I am often inclined to disagree. There are so few artefacts available to us from the past that one cannot help but wish to preserve what little we have as best we can.

Recent events, however, seem to suggest otherwise. This article is inspired by the terrible, almost terrifying, “restoration” of a fresco known as Ecce Homo located in the Santuario de Misericordia church of Borja, Spain. Admittedly, this restoration attempt by the amateur art restorer Cecilia Gimenez is quite hilarious to look at; while the 1930 original painting depicts a suffering Jesus, the new artwork shows what appears to be a half-man, half-orangutan with two jet-black eyes and no other distinguishable features. While initially a cause for local outrage, this tragic “restoration” attempt has actually benefited Gimenez and the local area as tourists flocked to see for themselves the newly comic painting. In 2015, 3 years after the incident, Andrew Flack wrote an opera titled “Behold the Man” in honour of Cecilia Gimenez. It seems that for now, the crisis caused by Gimenez’s unfortunate mistake has passed.

One cannot help but feel, however, that the only reason Gimenez’s mishap was forgiven was due to the limited value of the original painting. While of local and religious importance, the original fresco was only painted in 1930 and was not of any distinguished historical or artistic significance. What if had been, say, a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo? Surely the narrative would have been much different.

Art restoration is never simple.

Indeed, there have been several unintended destructions of historical pieces of artwork that have almost broken this history student’s heart. Most famously, the beard of Tutankhamen. Even those with little or no interest in Ancient History are likely to know of the timeless golden mask of Tutankhamen. It is an undoubtedly priceless artefact and the only one of its kind in the world. This mask, located in the Cairo Museum at the time, was dropped on the floor whilst being moved around the museum, causing its beard to fall off. To make things worse, the 8 curators responsible made a slapdash attempt at sticking the beard back on with a material called ‘epoxy’, described by one curator as a “very irreversible material”, before realising they had put the beard on at the wrong angle and attempting to scrape the glue off again. To this historian and dozens other Egyptologists’ chagrin, this left very noticeable scratches near Tutankhamen’s beard, as though the historical pharaoh had received a bad facial-hair wax. Fortunately, professional restorers in Germany succeeded in restoring the beard to its original state after two months of careful work, despite some scratches still remaining.

While in cases listed above the restorers have a clear goal in mind — to preserve the historical piece of art — sometimes, they are also faced with moral dilemmas. The Vasari controversy provides an excellent example. Giorgio Vasari was an artist commissioned by the Medici family; oligarchs who had overthrown the Florentine Republic. Nevertheless, Vasari still remained a huge fan of the unrivalled genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, (an artist commissioned by the Florentine Republic prior to the overthrow) as evidenced by his passionate descriptions of Da Vinci’s work in his journal.

The preservation of artwork still remains a minefield of unfortunate, high profile mistakes.

Since many other artists were mesmerised by Da Vinci’s talent at the time, Vasari’s admiration seems quite ordinary. What is extra-ordinary, however, are the words “Cerca, trove” that Vasari inscribed into a small corner of one of his murals. Italian engineer Maurizio Seracini believed that this was a clue left behind by Vasari indicating that he had hidden something behind his painting. Recent analysis has provided evidence to suggest that there is indeed a painting behind Vasari’s masterpiece, and even more excitingly, the traces of red and brown paint discovered are consistent with other Da Vinci paintings. This led many to claim that Da Vinci’s “The Battle of Anghiari”, a masterpiece described by Vasari in his journal and long-considered lost, may lay behind the mysterious mural. It is possible that when the Medici family ordered the destruction of Da Vinci’s work, given that it depicts the Republic in a favourable light, Vasari desperately attempted to salvage it by building a wall on top and painting over it. However, given that Vasari’s work is a masterpiece in its own right, debate is ongoing as to whether the painting is actually a Da Vinci or not, and if so, whether the Vasari painting should be destroyed.

As these examples prove, art restoration is never simple. It is undoubtedly, however, an incredibly necessary process. The only reason many masterpieces like the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David still exist for us to admire today is precisely because of the tireless efforts by hundreds of art historians and restorers. Nevertheless, the preservation of artwork still remains a minefield of unfortunate, high-profile mistakes and controversies. Should we strive to continue preservation, or just let sleeping dogs lie? The debate continues.

Image credit: Darwln via Wikipedia Commons