The restoration of the Basilica Ulpia? Not exactly exciting

Much is being said these days about the completion of the work by which a small part of the colonnade of the Basilica Ulpia was "philologically" put back together. With less than exciting results. Bruno Zanardi's point of view.

Much is being said these days about the completion of the work by which a small part of the colonnade of the Basilica Ulpia that had been lying on the ground for centuries and centuries in the area of the Imperial Fora in Rome and the steps behind it have been “philologically” put back up. Let’s say right away that the aesthetic result is not exciting. But on the “beautiful,” as we know, quot capita tot sententiae. A saying that is less valid, however, on the historical, hence philological level. Both because that fragment of colonnade and those steps as we see them today never existed. And, above all, because of Temples, Forums, Honorary Columns, Theaters and whatever else ancient ruined on the ground is filled not only Rome but the whole of Italy. What do we do then? On the “Ulpian” example do we reconstruct them all as they never existed and thus throw into mockery the Italy of the Grand Tour, that of the Richardsons, as of Goethe or Forster to name a few? And, with them, do we also make a mockery of the Rome “quam magna fueris integra, fracta doces” of which Ildebert de Lavardin wrote more than a thousand years ago, or that of Poggio Bracciolini’s “De fortunae varietate urbis Romae et de ruina eiusdem descriptio,” and here we are in the around 1430s? Are we also reduced to writing that Apollodorus of Damascus was Trajan’s “archistar”? Questions I gladly pass on, first to the former mayor of Rome Marino who, at least so it is said, when faced with the huge sum of 1.5 million euros given to him by a Russian oligarch close friend of Putin started all this, then to theformer Minister Franceschini whose “ticketing economy” hovers on the horizon of the special “disneyland philological claim” just described, and questions I also extend to the current Mayor Gualtieri and the new Minister Sangiuliano.

Finally, for all of them and for the readers of "Finestre Sull’Arte I add a text from 1981 by Giovanni Urbani in which he also talks about the Colosseum, so that we can understand that already forty years ago there was someone who, completely unheeded, told us that the preservation of the historical and artistic heritage of Italy and Italians is a serious matter.

Trajan's Column and Basilica Ulpia (before restoration)
Trajan’s Column and Basilica Ulpia (before restoration)
Basilica Ulpia after restoration
Basilica Ulpia after restoration

The science and art of the conservation of cultural heritage, by Giovanni Urbani (1981)

(in G. Urbani, Intorno al restauro, Milan, Skira, 2000, pp. 43-48)

I believe that by assigning the theme “science and art of conservation” to my talk, the intention was to make me reflect on the nature of the relationships that, in the current state of conservation activity, exist between the three subjects who have a voice in the specific: the scientist, the historian, and the restoration technician.

I would say that these are rather good relationships, but they would be much better if each of the three subjects were freed once and for all from the doubt of playing an instrumental role in relation to the other two, that is, from the temptation to assign them this same role.

To give examples: I do not believe that archaeology has much to gain from the aforementioned “subsidiary sciences,” which are then nothing more than analytical or measuring instruments, such as thermoluminescence or carbon 14, devised for quite different needs and then found to be applicable to the archaeological field only by a lucky chance. On the other hand, the application to archaeology of these instruments may have benefited the makers of them, but substantial progress certainly did not come for the sciences in whose domain these instruments were conceived and made. More or less the same can be said of the generality of survey techniques applicable today in the field of our interest. Apart from the legitimate satisfaction that may accrue to the researchers who were the first to experiment with their new type of use, and of course apart from the benefit of the solutions thus brought to some of our problems, these are in each case one-way contributions, so to speak, that is to say not only do they not translate into advances in basic research in chemistry or physics, which it would perhaps be too much to expect, but neither do they succeed in determining the conditions for the birth of an autonomous scientific discipline, as we have long dreamed that conservative research could be.

With this, there is certainly no question of abandoning the game, but only of becoming aware of the limits of the contribution we can expect from the experimental sciences, as long as we can only assign to them an instrumental or subsidiary function.

On the level of working relations, from this situation comes a certain difficulty in dialogue between cultural heritage specialists and scientists.

Having agreed that the common goal is the material conservation of the work of art, the scientist is immediately asked not to be interested in the work of art as such, but in the pure aggregate of matter of which it is made. With the result that the scientist, having passed the gratifying moment of sitting in consultation around the famous and to him unusual object, has only to return to his laboratory to see if, on that particular aggregate of matter, it is possible to repeat the kind of experiences he is accustomed to, this time, however with the mental reservation that the knowledge that can be acquired does not, as is the rule in his work, exhaust the ultimate reality of the object of investigation, which instead remains reserved for the humanist’s reflections and the restorer’s manipulations.

Under these conditions, it is no wonder that, the kind of experience having been made and repeated a number of times, the scientist inclines less and less to a job from which he no longer expects it to produce substantial changes in the way the conservation of works of art is thought of and put into practice by historians and restorers.

In order to change this situation and make the scientist play more than just an instrumental and subsidiary role, it would clearly be necessary for him or her to be held responsible, like the historian and restorer, also for the ultimate reality of the work of art, that is, for the work of art as such and not only for its constituent materials.

This is certainly not to say that the scientist should turn into an art historian or restorer. Examples of such versatility, fortunately rare enough, have so far only landed in outcomes of a perhaps civilized but very unhelpful amateurism. Rather, the involvement of the scientist should take place on a plane that is at least common to the other two specialists, but which, strangely enough, does not so far seem to have garnered the attention it deserves from any of the parties involved.

I am referring to the concept of “state of conservation,” that is, to something that should nevertheless constitute the central moment of a reflection brought to bear on an activity that qualifies as conservation, and which nevertheless still turns out to be so little explored that it can only be translated into entirely subjective and unverifiable criteria of judgment, as precisely it is when one says of a work of art that its state of preservation is good, mediocre or bad.

Some might object that it is historians and restorers who are content with this kind of judgment, while the scientist who characterizes the chemical or physical state of certain samples of the materials that make up the work of art actually achieves precisely that objectivity and precision of judgment whose lack we lament. Yet, of the state of preservation of each product or artifact we can strictly speaking judge accurately only in relation to the particular function which product and artifact are called upon to perform, and which they perform more or less well precisely according to their state of material preservation. But then, if it is unquestionable that, at least from the point of view of our historical epoch, the primary function of the work of art is to stimulate our aesthetic sensibility, there is reason to fear that the scientist’s judgment on the state of preservation of the constituent materials of the work of art’art turns out to be completely unusable, not only by the historian and the restorer, but by the scientist himself who, having finished the examination of his samples, goes back in front of the work of art to verify whether the more or less advanced state of deterioration of the materials examined, is reflected in a greater or lesser ability of the work to perform its function of stimulating aesthetic sensibility.

There is a risk not only that the state of the material, as ascertained by laboratory means, finds no correspondence in the state of the work of art as ascertained de visu with aesthetic feeling, but even that an extreme degree of deterioration of the material, is matched by the maximum unfolding of the aesthetic potential of the work.

I give the example of a Renoir that should still be in the storerooms of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, lying flat, as I saw it almost thirty years ago, at the bottom of a large cardboard box that was opened with a thousand cautions and almost holding its breath, each time arousing in the viewer an aesthetic emotion that went far beyond that, albeit considerable, that any other Renoir would have aroused. And this was because, a decade earlier, the house of the Renoir’s owner had been practically destroyed by a fire, the flames of which, however, had judiciously avoided hitting the painting, which in any case, due to the great heat, had been practically reduced to ashes, nevertheless remaining as legible as Renoir. A Renoir indeed unique, given the circumstances, and therefore in a way admirable above average.

Question: what is the relationship in such a case between the artwork’s own functionality and the state of preservation of its materials? This is not a paradox but rather a rule, if we consider that we can ask the same question when faced with something far less rare and unusual such as a ruin. Let us take the case of the Colosseum: anyone is capable of judging that its state of preservation is very bad; however, no one would be able to tell us whether and to what extent our understanding of the Colosseum as a historical testimony and as a work of art is compromised by this poor state of preservation. One might even venture that, for the purposes of our historical and aesthetic understanding of the monument, it would be irrelevant if it suddenly lost two or ten of its arches, or perhaps collapsed entirely.

But if this is the case, what is the point of the ritual whereby, if as soon as the archaeologist notices that a stone of the Colosseum has come down, he turns to the chemist so that he can analyze its deterioration products, and to the restorer so that he can somehow reattach the stone to the part from which it came loose?

Let us make the assumption that the archaeologist is seriously determined to draw conclusions from the results of the analysis, with a view to an assignment to the restorer that is a little more challenging than simply re-gluing the stone, let us even say an assignment to restore the entire Colosseum. How will he relate the state of sulfation of the stone, and how many other research results will he be able to obtain from geologists, structural engineers, etc., to an overall restoration project that does not result in a simple superficial cosmetication of the monument, but achieves to slow down its natural deterioration process to a strictly defined extent?

We cannot evade the problem by telling ourselves that such a decision on the part of the archaeologist of any archaeologist is a highly unlikely eventuality due to lack of funds, inertia of administrations and the like. Rather, let us recognize that it is the kind of relationship we have with the monuments of the past, that is, the relationship based, as I have already said, on historical knowledge and aesthetic enjoyment, that makes us, if not satisfied with the poor state of the Colosseum, at least incapable of planning and implementing its effective conservation. For this would undoubtedly involve substantial changes in the Colosseum’s current appearance and use, changes not required, and indeed perhaps dreaded as “distorting,” by the kind of historical-aesthetic consideration in which we hold the art of the past. Yet, on what does it depend if on the part of everyone, including archaeologists and art historians, the need to ensure the “material preservation” of the art of the past is felt more and more strongly?

We cannot think that this is a categorical imperative, without relation to what the art of the past represents in our conception of human history. Rather, let us say that in our conception of human history, at a time when man is beginning to feel the terrible historical novelty of the exhaustion of his living environment, certain values that, like precisely the art of the past, testify to the possibility that human making is integrative and non-destructive of the beauty of the world, begin to take on, alongside the cognate one of objects of study or aesthetic enjoyment, the new dimension of anthropogenic environmental components, equally necessary, for the well-being of the species, of the ecological balance between natural environmental components.

If this is the case, as I believe it is, then it is well understandable that, even if it has no relevance on the level of historical understanding or aesthetic enjoyment, the poor state of our monuments arouses in us the same apprehension and desire for recovery that we feel in the face of devastated nature. Just as it is well understandable that, in the face of the degradation of our cities, it becomes intolerable to us that to “pull the sprint” of the increasingly rapid process of deterioration of the urban environment, it seems to be precisely the monuments, namely those values in which, on the other hand, we are instead recognizing the prime conditions for an urban life on a human scale. A recognition that, with all evidence, can no longer limit itself to taking note of the monument, so to speak, at a distance, that is, as an object of study or aesthetic contemplation, but must attempt to bring it back into the dimension of an object of actual experience; in other words: in the dimension of a product still open to human making, on which, that is, by necessarily new and different actions, we can regain and repeat the experience of the only form of activity that has never devastated the world: creative activity.

In other times, when the experience of creative activity pervaded almost every aspect of the life of the community, and therefore took shape not only in the great artistic monument, but in the entire organism of the city, the preservation of the creative product could be enacted as a vital process: by the spontaneous substitution of new creative products for those worn out by time or otherwise out of use.

The preservation that we can implement unfortunately cannot rely on this capacity for self-regeneration, that is, it cannot be made explicit by the creation of new works of art, but only by the indefinite maintenance of existing ones. We are with all evidence in the obvious. But it should be equally obvious that we thus assign ourselves a task that is strictly inexecutable or at any rate finite, since it is an indefectible law of thermodynamics that nothing can be preserved unchanged indefinitely. The choice is then between two different processes of change: that which is in the force of things anyway, and which sooner or later will necessarily have to end with the disappearance of what we would have liked to preserve; or a change that is the product of a finally effective preservation, that is, one capable of repeating the creative experience of the past not in terms of artistic making, which are permanently precluded to us, but in terms of scientific imagination and technical innovation.

Let us again make the case of the Colosseum. The improbable decision to attempt its restoration would today, however, be thwarted by two insuperable obstacles: our inability to report in objective terms on its state of preservation, and thus the incongruity of an intervention, of any kind of intervention, that would claim to repair an undefined state of preservation.

All leads, then, to believe that if science has a service to render to restoration, that service is to make clear what should be meant by state of preservation. If the speed at which galaxies recede millions of light-years away is measurable, as is, at the other extreme, the half-life of a material’s radioactivity, we see no reason why the speed at which the Colosseum deteriorates, the pace held by formlessness to prevail over form, should not be. Anomalous measure as much as any other, because to be referred “somehow” to what in the work is not subject to rational calculation: artistic quality. In fact, it is easy to imagine, again in the case of the Colosseum, how little this quality would be affected by the loss of even tons of material, and instead the devastating effect of a crack, however slight, opening on a statue by Michelangelo (with the added variant of the entity of the offense: whether it was caused to a face or drapery...).

However, it is also to be considered whether these conceptual difficulties are enough to nullify the hypothesis of a measure carried on state of preservation and speed of degradation, now that science has just begun to confront formlessness and chaos. Therefore, we say that the solution to the conservation problem must be sought within this new field of theoretical speculation. An enterprise that as far as creative imagination is concerned would be no less than that of the art of the past, thus finally conserved in the only way that matters: as the matrix of a renewed experience of creative making, and no longer only as an object of study and aesthetic contemplation. An object that certainly cannot be abolished or reformed by scientific innovation, but to which it would perhaps succeed in adding what study and contemplation are unable to ensure: the material integration of the past into the becoming of man and the cares imposed on him by his being in the world.

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