Endangered and awaiting recognition for eighteen years: the odyssey of restorers

The profession of restorers is at risk: declining in numbers, and waiting eighteen years for a qualification, restorers face a thousand difficulties, and their plight will have to be a priority for the next minister of cultural heritage.

“Restorers on the verge of extinction” was the title, last March 30, of an article by Monica Pieraccini published in the Florentine edition of La Nazione. The journalist reported how before the crisis, in Florence alone, there were at least four hundred restorers, today reduced to about a hundred, since many of them have changed professions (or have ended up in the grip of unemployment) due to the lack of work, mostly due to the fact that restoration is a sector in which there is no investment. And the results of this policy are obvious: beyond a few “spot” restorations, whose usefulness is often questioned, little is being done, and it is mainly the small heritage spread throughout the territory that suffers, often requiringprivate intervention to cope even with emergency situations.

For example, it is today’s news that ten young restorers graduated from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, one of Italy’s leading institutes of restoration, rescued two hundred and sixty works removed from the sites affected by the 2016 Central Italy earthquake and hospitalized at the Santo Chiodo depository in Spoleto: an intervention that was made possible thanks to a contribution of one hundred and thirty thousand euros allocated by a private entity, the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. And the difference between the 1997 post-earthquake interventions in Umbria and Marche and the current ones was also well summarized by Vittorio Emiliani in his recent article in Emergenza Cultura. Moreover, it is the numbers that certify how the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, in recent years, has shown a certain disinterest in minor heritage. And all this is paradoxical when one considers that the artistic heritage and restoration are used “as a showcase and for electoral campaigns,” as Marco Benati of the Fillea Cgil union in Florence pointed out in the aforementioned article.

Restauratrice all'opera nella basilica di Sant'Eustorgio a Milano. Ph. Credit Giovanni Dall'Orto
Restorer at work in the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan. Ph. Credit Giovanni Dall’Orto

Many restorers therefore have to contend with the precariousness of collaborative or fixed-term contracts, or with freelancing, juggling external consultancies and temporary assignments, often sporadic, since the whole sector is in trouble. To the investment crisis we must then add the thorny issue of recognition of the profession, a problem that the ministry, in recent times, has never shown any willingness to solve. And yet, this is no small knot, since the ministry itself, through two decrees (294 of 2000 and 420 of 2001) has identified the requirements of those who, in Italy, can be recognized as restorers of cultural heritage, thus demonstrating that restorers, in the overall economy of cultural heritage protection, play a critically important role. These are then requirements that were confirmed by Article 182 of the Cultural Heritage Code (Legislative Decree 42 of 2004), i.e., the fundamental law of the cultural heritage sector in Italy, and extended subsequently.

According to the law, a professional who wishes to be qualified as a restorer must prove to the ministry (which is responsible for making the appropriate verifications) that he or she has obtained a diploma from one of the restoration schools or has graduated from one of the university courses (or the Academies of Fine Arts) recognized by law, or, if he or she is a professional who was already working as a restorer before the decrees came into force, that he or she has regularly worked for at least eight years (if not in possession of a diploma, otherwise for four), and with direct responsibility in the technical management of the intervention, in the context of restorations certified by the bodies in charge of protection. Thus, in 2009, the aforementioned appropriate verifications are initiated, aimed at ensuring the recognition of the profession. In addition, following the delineation of the professional profile dome by Ministerial Decree 86 of 2009, the five-year university training course that was to train future restorers was also identified. In 2010, an amendment to the criteria caused the procedure to be postponed, which had to wait for “the parliamentary process necessary for the revision of Article 182 of the Code to be carried out”: moreover, the call for recognition of the qualification had expired one day before the suspension, and we can only imagine the frustration of those who had already submitted the application for recognition to the ministry.

Another three years passed, the amendment was passed, and the end of the procedure was set for June 30, 2015. This time, at least on the surface, there are no surprises: the notice is published, restorers send in their documentation (and a circular from the secretary general of the ministry, in May 2015, lets it be known that those who meet the legal requirements can still continue to carry out their work activities, pending the completion of the procedure), and in November 2015 the verification commission is appointed, which, to check the applications sent in by all applicants, has six months, extendable by an additional two months (a verification commission that, moreover, throughout the process will know no less than four changes). The extension clicks right on time, but the restorers’ odyssey has yet to end. In July, i.e., in the month in which the process is scheduled to be concluded, a one-year extension is triggered that postpones everything to June 2017: and the extension is triggered, moreover, when a partial list of qualified people had already been published, to allow graduates of the ministerial schools to participate in the great 2016 competition, the one for the recruitment of five hundred functionaries in the ministry’s bodies (eighty of them restorers). And that’s not all: June 30, the new deadline, is succeeded by a new six-month extension and everything is postponed until December 31. And if restorers thought that their ordeal would end with the Christmas holidays, they were sorely mistaken, since a new three-month extension came into effect on December 12 (the deadline is thus postponed to March 31), which, however, the director’s decree 220 of 2017 states, can be further extended.

This means that, in essence, at the moment there is no certain date for the end of the procedure that should ensure that restorers obtain their professional qualification. And this happens eighteen years after the identification of the necessary requirements to carry out the profession, and nine years after the publication of the notice that launched the recognition procedure. It has come to this point for several reasons: because the legislation identifying the requirements has been amended several times; because new degree programs have sprung up in the meantime, making it necessary to revise the criteria; and because the documentation produced by restorers (tens of thousands of documents) requires long timelines for it to be properly and meticulously evaluated (although, three years after the deadline for submitting applications, perhaps at the very least a date certain for restorers to complete the procedure could be guaranteed).

In the meantime, many restorers complain that there are squatters operating in the sector who do not meet the requirements outlined in the sector regulations, but continue to operate undisturbed, taking advantage of the current moment of lack of clarity. And this not only creates situations of unfair competition, but also poses serious risks to our historical and artistic heritage. Therefore, on the one hand, a question of respect for a category of professionals who have been promised recognition but have been delayed from year to year in the process, and on the other hand, care for the interests of protection, should make the new minister reflect on the fact that the qualification of restorers is an unpostponable priority, which will have to be discussed with extreme urgency. Not least because the qualification could form the basis of the revitalization of a profession that is at risk, but which is of fundamental importance for our country.

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