Looking at restoration from the 1950s to the present. A conversation with Giorgio Torraca

A conversation, dating back to 2010, between Bruno Zanardi and Giorgio Torraca, a leading conservation expert known for his work on sites such as the Sistine Chapel and the Tower of Pisa: a still relevant look at the history of restoration in recent decades.

I telephone Giorgio Torraca in his studio a stone’s throw from Piazza Navona. I ask him to tell me about the volume Problems of Conservation, published in 1973 edited by Giovanni Urbani . Problems of Conservation can in fact be considered the starting point of the research work underlying the modern science of conservation, the one that still very much struggles to become a true autonomous discipline. I talk about it with him because already in his youth he was a personal friend of Urbani’s, to later become one of his most trusted scientific advisers - of Urbani and of the Central Institute for Restoration, - also contributing directly to the research work that flowed into Problems of Conservation. The result is a conversation that soon comes to touch on many historical themes of restoration, as well as many of today’s problems in the discipline. I transcribe the recording and try to organize the text somewhat. I send him the result of my work, so that he can modify it in the parts where he does not recognize himself, or supplement it where he feels it is insufficient. The confidence that binds us, we have known each other for almost forty years, means that in response I receive a text where not only have many of his answers been radically modified, but also cut away large slices of our conversation verbally, and even changed some of my questions. Thus begins a ballet via e mail of a large number of versions of the text, mostly originating from a language problem. He wants to keep the text in his Italian. He particularly likes the Anglo-Saxon use of short sentences and verbs declined in the present tense. For this reason the short look at the history of restoration from the 1950s to the present, the title he wanted to give to this conversation of ours, bears questions that are sometimes longer than the answers and has (almost) no verbs declined in the past tense or gerund. This contribution was published in The Bridge, 10 [Oct. 2011], pp. 1-25.

Giorgio Torraca
Giorgio Torraca

BZ. How was Problems of Conservation born?

GT. I think one would not really understand the genesis of that work without first talking about some antecedents. The first is the beginning of my collaboration, in 1953, with Giovanni Urbani and the Central Institute for Restoration, then known to everyone as “the Institute”; the acronym Icr appears only relatively recently following the international fashion for acronyms. With Urbani, however, we had already met several times during World War II at the home of Achille Battaglia, an anti-fascist, then of the Action Party and, later, a prominent member of the Republican Party. We met again-I still remember it-on Epiphany Day 1953 at the Carandini house, on their estate in Torre in Pietra, near Rome. When I told him that in the meantime I had graduated in chemistry and was working with a scholarship at the University, in the faculty of Engineering, Urbani immediately replied that at the Institute they had problems with chemistry, in particular solvents for cleaning, and he asked me if I could visit him once at their headquarters, in Piazza San Francesco da Paola, right next to San Pietro in Vincoli where the faculty of Engineering is located. From there my collaboration with him and with the Institute was born, opened by a phrase from Cesare Brandi during one of our conversations, “At the Institute we have now taken stock of restoration techniques for the next fifty years.”

"The Institute“ recently transformed into an unprecedented ”Istituto superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro. No one, I believe, would have replaced an acronym that has been known for more than half a century throughout the world as the symbol one of the not many cultural and scientific know how that Italy can boast. Instead, the ministerial reformers did. This to the indifference of the minister on duty and perhaps thinking, the usual reformers, that a bureaucratic act could turn them into as many Bottai, Santi Romano, Argan, Brandi or Urbani. Returning, however, to 1953 and Brandi’s optimistic, as well as naive, claim to have closed the game of restoration “for the next fifty years,” this claim can perhaps be explained by the fact that in that very year he had published in the “Bulletin” of the Icr the last chapter of the four that made up what he himself had declared to be the Theory of Restoration; chapters later merged more or less the same in the much more substantial volume edition of that work ten years later.

On the latter I cannot answer you. What is true, however, is that optimism has always characterized the tradition of the Institute: from the beginning until today. So much so that, after a few years, when by then I had become a periodic visitor to the laboratories and to the restorers’ rooms, Brandi proposed that I participate-with Urbani, Licia Vlad Borrelli, and Paolo Mora-in the editing of a restoration manual directed by him and that was to be printed by Giulio Einaudi.

Manual never published.

Neither published nor written, despite the fact that we had received from the publisher an advance of 100,000 lire each. An amount for that time not so small. I jotted down two or three parts of it, while the others did not even start: I would say wisely, considering that Einaudi never asked for the 100,000 liras back. However, the fact remains that, in the 1950s, there was an illusion at the Institute that it had solved the technical problems of restoration forever, so it was just a matter of illustrating the methods of operation in a manual.

Not only of having solved forever the technical problems, as if we were still in the nineteenth century of the manuals of Ulisse Forni and Secco Suardo, but also, returning to the Theory published in the “Bulletin” of the Icr, precisely the theoretical ones. What was the other antecedent?

The catastrophic flood of Florence on November 4, 1966, but also the exceptional “high water” that submerged the whole of Venice by two meters. Faced with a disaster that did not affect a single work of art, but the entire heritage of two cities, it became clear that the problem to be addressed was no longer that of cleaning or treating the gaps in a single painting, as restoration had been until then. Rather, it was a question of how to organize the conservation of an entire heritage of works that had always been exposed to an aggressive environment; with the added aggravating factor of air pollution, which had become an important factor in Italy only in the twentieth century, lagging far behind most of Europe.

However, pitting, corrosion, falling parts, etc., in the Trajan Column are in the facts identical to those attested positively by the three calcinations suffered by the monument, one roughly in the mid-sixteenth century, another around 1650, the last in 1862. So as to suspect that the undeniable advancement of degradation in the open-air stones in the last century, rather than today’s pollution, is due to a synergy between the historical action of the normal meteoclimatic factors of alteration and inhomogeneities produced in the original material of the works by the introduction of restoration materials: especially surface consolidants and protective agents. This is yet another confirmation of the risks, if not damages, always and in any case related to restoration interventions. But sticking to the disasters in Florence and Venice, could it be that the focus of Brandian thought on aesthetic issues had so conditioned the restoration world as to remove the decisive importance of environmental problems?

I have not studied the 1972 Theory of Restoration and Restoration Chart , also written by Brandi, that well to get a clear idea of how much consideration was given to environmental factors of deterioration there. I have the impression that they were not entirely neglected, but that in any case the focus on intervention techniques prevailed there, including techniques that we would no longer want to use today, such as the detachment of wall paintings, and neglecting others that we consider important today, such as the conservative treatment of stone surfaces in architecture and archaeological artifacts. We must consider, however, that in the years between 1970 and 1980, conservation technology evolved significantly, and so it is not so strange that papers from those years neglect theoretical and technical approaches that are instead the focus of attention today.

Yet the same Theory of Restoration and Paper of ’72 are still gospel in ministerial rooms today, attesting once again to the cultural backwardness of the field. So much so that if it rained today as it did on that November 4, 1966, Florence and Venice would go underwater again. In any case, fatal year 1966 for our cultural heritage. The disasters of Florence and Venice are in fact preceded by the sudden collapse, on July 19, of a hundred condominiums and houses of building speculation built maliciously in the “Valley of the Temples” in Agrigento; an affair generally little remembered because by pure chance there were no deaths. In addition, 1966 is the year in which the “Franceschini Commission,” that is, the parliamentary commission that denounced the very serious crisis reached by the artistic heritage-environment relationship, closed its work. But also it is the year when for the first time action is taken - and it is Urbani who does it - on a group of works in strictly conservative terms, avoiding their restoration. Of course, I am referring to the famous “Boboli Lemon House.”

The history of the “Boboli Lemon House,” that is, of the intervention on panel paintings reached by the flood water, is rather complex, and individual contributions are not easily distinguished. Urbani, for example, was against the glazing of the boards with “Paraloid B72”: a synthetic polymer selected around 1960 as a promising fixative for wall paintings thanks to research conducted with Paolo Mora at the Institute and at the environmental testing laboratory of Selenia SpA, where I was then working. “Paraloid” had been shown in the Tarquinia tombs to adhere even on wet surfaces. The Florentine restorers, for their part, insisted on the need to proceed immediately with a transport of the paint film to a new support and needed to consolidate the surfaces immediately, veiling them. A proposal, theirs, justified by the fact that if the water-saturated wood had dried quickly it would have contracted and probably caused more or less large areas of the pictorial film to fall off.

What part did Urbani take in all this?

At first he thought of a semi-transport, that is, an operation that would remove part of the supporting wood, creating a kind of sandwich; and such an operation was in fact later performed at the Institute, experimentally and on a single panel. In any case, the clash between the two theses (“glazing and transport” versus “no glazing and semi-transfer”) fortunately for the painted boards was not compounded, and the operational decision ended up taking another direction. It was decided to set up an environment where the wood of the boards could undergo a slow and controlled process of dehumidification. Urbani took care of this solution to the problem by enlisting Gino Parolini, then Professor of Technical Physics at the Faculty of Engineering in Rome, as support for the operation. After examining various solutions, the very large “Limonaia” in the Boboli Gardens was chosen as the place to station the tables. The lemon plants were moved to the courtyard of the Pitti Palace, protected by plastic sheeting, while Professor Parolini designed the air conditioning system, which, by Giorgio Bassani’s decision, was paid for by Italia Nostra by dipping into all its monetary reserves. And I think it was at that very difficult time, as he was trying with available means to control the situation as the paintings arrived and the air conditioning system was put in place, that it became apparent to Urbani the importance of environmental factors in conservation and of action to prevent damage rather than to treat it.

Were I you, I would not underestimate the possibility that Urbani’s commitment to the implementation of the air conditioning system in the Boboli Lemon House arose from beliefs that preceded the 1966 flood. For example, those induced by years of uninterrupted tenure at Icr and which, in 1967, a year after Florence, made him write how it was only a pious intention “to pretend that one is not restoring as one has always restored: that is, altering or tampering.” In other words, I would not underestimate that the Icr’s commitment to intervene on almost the entire endowment of panels on the altars of the churches of Florence without restoring them, but only by acting in a preventive way on the environment, was born also, if not above all, to save them from the “tampering or alterations” inevitably connected with any restoration: maximums transportation. Nor should this make Urbani a mere technocrat intent on working on the highest technical-scientific and organizational systems of restoration. In fact, his thinking was based on a careful meditation on the relationship between man’s destiny and the destiny of the art of the past in a time, our own, that finds its main shaping force in modern technique. And it is needless to say how much Urbani’s meditation depended on German philosophical thought, and in particular on Heidegger whose work he was a very careful student of as early as the 1950s, like very few others then in Italy.

Urbani had an international cultural openness based on study experiences conducted outside Italy, in France and the USA. An openness that the rest of the Italian restoration world lacked. What you then tell me about the philosophical basis of his culture also explains why his way of expressing himself, verbally or in writing, often appeared rather obscure, so much so that those who worked with him, myself included, often did not understand him. But to stay in the realm of conservation of works of art in relation to the environment, in the Anglo-Saxon world the idea that the most important thing was good maintenance was already well established. In short, these were not new concepts. Nor did any of us, Urbani for one, think we had invented extraordinary things.

In fact. Without going to the many historical records -- to mention just one, as early as 1730 John Bottari hurled insults at those who neglected the maintenance of works of art -- in 1931 Point II of the Athens Charter recommended that, over any other type of intervention, precedence be given to “regular and permanent maintenance.” But from then to now I know of no institution that has put that recommendation into action. But what were the other intermediate steps in the camono leading to Problems of Conservation?

Although the subject matter is not the same, I think it had a certain weight, again from the point of view of a critical stance towards traditional restoration, the coordination of the international working group on the lining of paintings within the framework of the ICOM Conservation Committee; there Urbani was very active in the development of cold and vacuum lining methods that considerably reduce the defects of hot techniques. But also an important step was the “Ferrara box.”

To wit.

In 1965, so a year before the flood in Florence, the then superintendent in Bologna and Ferrara, Cesare Gnudi, came to ask for help from the Institute and what was then called “The International Centre for Conservation,” “Rome Centre” for short, then, since 1978, Iccrom, where I had just started working as a scientific assistant. The problem was the exterior sculptures of the Romanesque cathedrals in the Po Valley, which had begun to fall apart at the seams. Urbani also involved Marcello Paribeni, Professor of Technical Physics at the Faculty of Engineering in Rome, in the undertaking. The study focused on the Prothyrum of Ferrara Cathedral and the facade of San Petronio in Bologna. Restorers, particularly Paolo Mora and Ottorino Nonfarmale, also made significant contributions to this working group.

Urbani, however, told me that the definitive opening of Icr to the subject of stones was the work of Pasquale Rotondi, a figure of Icr’s director who is unjustly little talked about and whom he, on the other hand, held in high esteem.

Urbani had a very good relationship with Rotondi, whose open-mindedness, balance and kindness made him, in my opinion, an excellent director of the Institute. And he also admired Paribeni, who brought him expertise on the environmental factors of deterioration, that is, on the importance of changes in humidity and temperature in the deterioration of materials in works of art. The problem was not easy especially because of the extremely deteriorating conditions of the sculptures in Ferrara, and we did not know how to deal with it. After a while we came to two conclusions. One, that environmental thermal factors, not just air pollution, had been of decisive importance in the degradation of the sculptures; the other, that we could not trust any restoration method in use at that time. So we made a rather unusual proposal for intervention.

What was that?

Since the sculptures on the prothyrum were much more damaged than those on the side parts of the facade because they were more directly exposed to temperature changes, we suggested thermally insulating theentire band of bas-reliefs of the prothyrum by placing around it a box filled with polystyrene balls; this was to shelter it from acid dews and to “keep it warm,” that is, to avoid temperature changes and winter frost, while waiting for new and more reliable restoration techniques to be tested. The novelty was that instead of putting hands on the endangered object, thought was first given to its surroundings. And one has to admire the foresight of Gnudi, who as superintendent took full responsibility for the operation, accepting an unusual and somewhat risky proposal. He thinks that many important people in the field thought that we would find the sculptures pulverized when they reopened. Nevertheless, the box was assembled and remained there for about ten years. When it was opened it was seen that the situation was exactly the same as ten years earlier.

While for the cleaning of the stones?

The majority of historians viewed the cleaning of the stones in an entirely negative light; a prejudice justified by the methods in use at the time, but also by the commonplace of patinas, of “signs of time” that would be erased. For the restoration of the stones there was then a pause of a few years. Pause that, if it let the damage of environmental origin increase a little more, allowed for a better clarification of the relationship between the environment and the artifact to be preserved, and for finding effective restoration techniques. Some had already been used for years for the restoration of wall paintings, such as pack cleaning, while others were introduced specifically for stone such as water mist, and consolidation with grout and microstucco. Some specific methods were developed later, such as surface consolidation by micro-injections of hydraulic mortars that was introduced by Iccrom research, with Paolo Mora, in the 1980s.

Nor do I think it should be forgotten, as a pioneering intervention, the restoration of Tino da Camaino’s lintel in Siena Cathedral carried out in 1966 by Icr at the hands of Paolo Mora, perhaps the first in the history of outdoor stone restoration. Abandoning the memoir, however, is this where we come to Problems of Conservation?

No, there is yet another precedent. The study conducted by Urbani for Isvet, an Eni company that is no longer there, on the effects of pollution on the artistic heritage. And I think that the great project of scientific and technological research applied to the problem of conservation of artistic heritage elaborated later by Urbani was born precisely from the fact that this last work led us to summarize, to bring to a global scale, the experiences made in previous years. It is at this point that Problems of Conservation comes. A response to Urbani’s almost fixed idea that industry’s experience and capacity for realization could be of fundamental importance in addressing the problems of heritage conservation. The volume Problems of Conversation is the result of a group of mini-projects developed with the participation of several industrial laboratories that are presented framed within an overall scheme consisting of a group of articles written by conservation specialists.

Problems of Conservation also made evident the complete unpreparedness of the administration of cultural heritage to shift its scope from restoration to conservation. Suffice it to recall that while in those years--the 1970s, but also the 1980s--everyone was filling their mouths with “the notion of cultural property” claiming it the great methodological novelty of preservation in our time, Urbani wrote: “But however effective may be the underlying needs that have presided over the evolution from the concept of work of art to that of ’cultural good,’ it is time to realize that, having missed the meeting point with the environmental issue, the dilation of the concept has corresponded only to an ever more of content, good perhaps for the growth of a bureaucracy, but certainly not for that of a ”culture of conservation“ up to the technical-scientific problems posed by the reality of things.”

I would say that Problems of Conservation was above all “the manifesto” of a broader vision of the problem of heritage conservation. The volume was conceived by Urbani more as the start of a vast research project than as an end point. My only collaboration on the project are two chapters in the first part. It was Urbani who carried out the entire project with his maniacal precision, taking care of the smallest details, also using his personal contacts with Eni, and friendship relations with the Agnelli family and with the then Minister for Scientific Research Matteo Matteotti. In this way he was able to activate a series of lines of research conceived as explorations outside the narrow world of restoration and intended, in his intentions, to open up a broad spectrum of collaborations to address the complex problems of conservation. However, there was not the financial means to support such an ambitious program. More importantly, there was no structure in the Ministry and the Institute capable of directing it. Problems of Conservation nevertheless remains a useful volume, particularly for young researchers, because even today (2007), thirty-four years after its publication, it is a good starting point in many fields of research.

After that?

Having Urbani attempted to implement a mechanism that in its novelty and complexity bypassed ministerial competencies, he was immediately faced with indifference, if not outright opposition, from the bureaucratic apparatus. However, this did not happen only for technical-administrative or, more generally, cultural reasons. There were probably also personal, character-related reasons. For example, many did not forgive Urbani’s familiarity with the highest levels of Italian intellectual and social society.

A fraternal friend of Raffaele La Capria rather than of Ennio Flaiano or Goffredo Parise, on personal terms with Henry Kissinger as with Max Frisch or Audrey Hepburn, at home in the two magazines of reference for the chosen cultural and civil society of those years, “Il Punto” and “Il Mondo,” the first critic of’contemporary art at the Spoleto Festival where he organized in 1958 a brand new exhibition on young American artists, but shows in the background skepticism, so much so that he refused to exhibit a work by Rauschenberg, The bed, now exhibited at Moma as a masterpiece of pop art, Giorgio Agamben who in 1969 dedicated to him in print his debut book L’uomo senza contenuto...

And also able to convince Susanna Agnelli to celebrate the release of Problems of Conservation with a big party at his Roman home above Palazzo Corsini on the slope of the Janiculum Hill. What’s more, Urbani was tall, slouching, very elegant in his suits cut by Caraceni, moreover an educated man, witty, rather caustic in his judgments of others. In short, there was really enough to make the ministerial bureaucracy dislike him. So that when in 1973 he became director of Icr, the same year as the release of Problems of Conservation, that bureaucracy opened a kind of war against him. A war mainly conducted on administrative miseries, therefore lost at the start by Urbani, instead very far from those customs.

The real opposition, however, was political in nature. What they did not want to get through was his project of radical reform of conservation activities. A project of a man well aware of the work that the state had entrusted to him, Urbani was in fact first and foremost a statesman, which became true in his Pilot Plan for the programmed conservation of the cultural heritage in Umbria, which came out in 1976, three years after Problems of Conservation.

I still remember the very cold attack of the newspaper “l’Unità” on that Plan. The thesis of the newspaper, then the official organ of the Italian Communist Party, was that the capitalists, in the case of the Agnelli Foundation and ENI, with the “Umbrian Plan” were laying the groundwork for appropriating the entire cultural heritage of the Italian people.

An ideological and demagogical thesis expressed in an article by the archaeologist Mario Torelli, a university professor; in yet another confirmation of how the cultural backwardness of the public administration on the subject of protection is inevitably the child of that of the University. I remind you of a passage from it, exemplary for its ignorance and vulgarity: “The project [the Umbrian Plan], which has been revealed in the two cyclostyled volumes [actually three offset printed volumes] that compose it to be of very low cultural level and largely uninformed, is a precise attack on the proposals put forward by the forces of the left, and in particular by our [Italian Communist] party, for a more democratic management of the cultural heritage [...]. In essence [it] entrusts technocratic forces [Eni] with the management of protection: the operation represents a crude maneuver, devoid of any cultural foundation, to hand over entire slices of the public operating space to private groups in the name of a crude managerial ideology.” Thus Mario Torelli, moreover today (2007) a member of the Higher Council of Cultural Heritage, to reiterate what he had just said about the improvisation and amateurism that govern the field of protection.

I then had a discussion with Andrea Carandini, at that time politically close to the Communist Party. I challenged him on how that attack was completely wrong. That the Umbrian Plan was instead a project aimed at moving away from the logic of restoration and into that of preventive conservation of the cultural heritage through both the control of environmental risks and the exercise of planned maintenance. Andrea seemed quite convinced and may even have intervened in “l’Unità,” at least judging by the fact that the newspaper has since ceased its controversies. The plan however had no practical effect.

However, I do not consider the non-implementation of the “Umbrian Plan” to be the outcome of the bilious utterances of a dilettante on the loose like Torelli. Rather, I believe that Urbani’s problems arose when, as early as the late 1960s, he dared to touch the issue of environmental protection with his projects. And he dares to touch it not in the usual abstract and demagogic, hence harmless, way of environmentalists, but rather, first by pointing out as a solution to the problem the implementation of a policy of conservation of the totality of the artistic heritage in the totality of the environment, then by defining in every possible technical-scientific and organizational detail that policy. Here his problems arose. From having drawn up coherent and rational working projects--the Umbrian Plan was its ripe fruit--with which to achieve a harmonious coexistence between the conservation of the artistic heritage, the environment, scientific research and the new in the economy that civil society cannot but continue to realize. Projects whose concreteness represented a concrete danger for the entire system of protection and before that for politics, which is still unable to realize a new and different program of economic development of the country. A program that, particularly in Italy, cannot but be hinged on the theme of the environment. Hence their lack of implementation.

A concrete danger to the whole system of protection, however, seems to me an exaggeration.

I don’t think so. They were in fact a danger for politicians, who would have found themselves in possession of a series of instruments that would have allowed them to prevent in a simple and rational way the robbery of the territory by building speculation: that which they have historically always favored, whatever party they belong to. They were a danger to the superintendents who saw themselves obliged to divest themselves of the easy role of the omnipotent official who just says yes or no (with all that that entails), and instead take on the role of those who plan and organize, in harmony with private owners, regions and local authorities, the positive and well-reasoned actions to be conducted for the conservation of the artistic heritage in relation to the environment. They were a danger to the university, which was forced to radically change the now inadequate training courses for conservation experts (art historians, archaeologists, architects), promoting degree courses-in Urbani’s words-to train new and different experts “in the theory and practice of public choices regarding problems of compatibility between development and preservation, capable of asserting, in ”environmental impact assessment,“ as in those of territorial and/or landscape plans, the reasons of history and culture.” Finally, they were a danger to the movements and associations committed to landscape and environmental conservation and to the journalists who cover those issues, all of whom were forced to abandon the easy ideological dilettantism of their usual battles and instead measure themselves against the harsh reality of the technical-scientific and organizational skills needed to solve the problem.

I think you have a late Romantic conception of the figure of Urbani, that is, you see him as the superman in solitary struggle against a deaf and hostile society. Although it is true that Urbani had some character of that superman, in my opinion the issue was simpler. I think that politicians, though not all of them, general managers and superintendents simply did not understand Urbani’s projects, who, for that matter, made no particular effort to make himself understood by them. I will tell you a typical fact about his relationship with political power. In 1982, then Minister of Cultural Heritage Vincenzo Scotti took Urbani by car to Assisi to assess with him the damage caused by yet another, but not serious, earthquake in Umbria. When the visit was over, in variation to the program, Scotti asked Urbani to accompany him to Gubbio, also an earthquake town; but he sharply refused because he had a dinner engagement in Rome, where he returned in the ministry’s very slow car, while Scotti traveled to Gubbio with a friend in a sports car. Typical of Urbani to behave exactly the opposite of what any of his colleagues, the director of a state institution, would have done when offered the chance to have an influential minister at his disposal for almost a full day.

But in 1982. When for many years Urbani had had concrete evidence of the hostility toward his work from politicians. What makes it easy to understand the reasons for Urbani’s flight to Rome. To avoid the nightmare of an entire day spent with those who belonged-not so much Scotti, but generally-to that “political class manifestly unaware or heedless of the most recent doctrinal advances in the theory and practice of public decision-making. Matter now clearly subject to the principle that progress and development depend not only on the mechanistic dynamics of traditional economic forces, but also, to an ultimately prevailing extent, on the consideration of what benefits man,” as Urbani himself wrote.

I believe that, in reality, little the ministers had to do with the difficulties of implementing Urbani’s plans, such as the one in Umbria. Ministers say and promise, but then it is the bureaucratic apparatus that decides, and that apparatus, we just said, was rather hostile to his proposals. After all, Urbani’s stormy early resignation was determined by the fact that his administrative director, one Nicoletti, was going to the seaside when he should have been at the Institute working instead. Urbani wrote official notes of protest to the Ministry, and the Ministry instructed that same administrative director, a powerful union member, to respond to the remarks of his superior, that is, Urbani. This was, however, a cretinous matter that he should have completely disregarded. It was not an act of personal hostility, but just a typical example of the organized self-defense of a public administration whose officials have always been accustomed to being automatically rated “excellent” by their superiors, even if they are incompetent and completely disinterested in their work.

Speaking of automatic career advancements think that today (2007) sits on the Higher Council of Cultural Heritage the superintendent who, as Massimo Ferretti told me, in 1983 responded with horns and superstitious gestures to the young official who asked him to host in the superintendency headquarters the last and usually useless public act of civilization of protection produced by Urbani before he resigned early from the direction of the ’Icr: the exhibition on “Protecting Monumental Heritage from Earthquake Risk.” In any case, is it in the clash with the ministerial bureaucracy that, in your opinion, Urbani erred?

Definitely yes. In fact, it is not that Triches or Sisinni and the other director generals or fellow superintendents had different ideas from Urbani’s on how the problems of protection, conservation and restoration should be approached. They simply did not have any.

Ideas that Urbani, on the other hand, had very clear. This quote from one of his texts from 1978, twenty-nine years ago, suffices: “If one wants to give a concrete solution to the problem of conservation, and more generally to the entire problem of the protection of cultural heritage, one must surrender to the evidence that no solution is possible until one identifies with the utmost precision the real terms in which the problem itself arises, giving up once and for all the belief that since art, as Benedetto Croce said, ’everyone knows what it is,’ protection is not an affair of practical intellect, but of aesthetics and perhaps of philosophy of law. After decades of restoration oriented on aesthetic goals and therefore, by definition, capable only of occasional and non-normative results, the situation today is that, in the poor state of the generality of things to be preserved, we have techniques in the majority lacking in effectiveness, if not counterproductive to the specific end, a few dozen good restorers for the whole country, and a body of management (architects, archaeologists and art historians) largely unaware of this state of affairs. Toward which, moreover, the totally uninformed expectations of an ever-increasing number of young people fleeing from higher studies are now beginning to turn.”

Exactly. It was enough, therefore, for him with a little patience to explain those ideas of his to general managers and fellow superintendents in a simple way, to convince them progressively, perhaps by going out to dinner with them a few times, being called by them, pretending to enjoy listening to some ministerial gossip on the phone, and they would certainly take his projects into consideration, perhaps thinking in the end that they had invented them. I myself heard the almighty Director General Sisinni say, meeting Urbani at a dinner, “I love you very much Professor Urbani, even though I know you don’t love me.” And it was true. Sisinni would have greatly desired Urbani’s approval, but he did nothing to hide his dislike from him. But it would have been enough to wait. General managers pass, those who know things do not. Instead, his nerves snapped and he resigned.

Speaking of Sisinni, one of the last times I saw Urbani laughing - and to tears - was when I declaimed to him some parts of that singular repertoire of unintentional gags that is I miei beni, the book in which precisely Sisinni declared eternal love for our country’s cultural assets, affirming them to be “his.” Urbani himself had asked me to read him some passages from it because he was intrigued by a positive review that came out in those days in the “Corriere della Sera” written by one Such Quintavalle, a university professor among those most responsible for setting up those real scams for the younger generations that are the degree courses in cultural heritage. Soon, however, his oh-so-open hilarity turned to bitterness: “Just think that this grotesque concentration of banalities is the nonexistent thinking on protection, conservation and restoration of the person who is called by everyone the ’technical director general.’ What future can our artistic heritage ever have left in hands like these? And in those of politicians, university professors, superintendents, journalists and whatever others mistake a provincial amateur for a professional in this our so difficult area of expertise.” But let us leave Sisinni to his fate and return to Problems of Conservation.

A fairly central theme of that work was how to give exact content to the notion of “conservation status.” An interest obviously common to all of us who worked with Urbani, but especially his own. In those years he kept insisting that the measure of the state of conservation had to be the starting point for a science of conservation that wanted to call itself such.

In fact, Urbani wrote that “restorations and conservation interventions, in the absence of a precise definition of the concept of state of conservation, are in fact operated blindly.” But although this is very true, nothing has been done between then and now to compensate for this umpteenth defect in the field.

Not much. However, my view of the problem has since changed quite a bit, complicating it. Works of art are in fact time-traveling objects, so their state of preservation is not a static measure, based on data measured today, but should be a measure of a dynamic nature: that of the speed with which the object is transforming. But we can realize a measure of this “dynamic” state of preservation only if we have measuring points in the past as well. Therefore, it becomes essential to know the history of the object to be preserved, always well considering that for a work of art--like anything else: a mountain, a tree or any living thing,--the speed of decay is never constant. Which means that in order to establish the speed of the inevitable decay of a given object one would have to be able to trace its “lifeline,” that is, to know the succession of small and large catastrophes interspersed with periods of slow evolution that have characterized its existence, and then compare this data with its current condition. The “heaviness” of the conservation intervention should be adjusted to the greater or lesser rate of decay - I stress - at the time of the intervention itself. A ruined structure may in fact have suffered severe damage, i.e., “catastrophe,” in the past, but may today have reached a stable condition and therefore be in a good state of preservation. Conversely, a building that has not had serious trouble in the past may instead have ongoing progressive structural deterioration that is not appreciable to the eye, and thus be in a poor state of preservation.

Do you remember when Urbani fell in love with the “catastrophe theory” elaborated in the early 1970s by René Thom and had the volume in which that theory was expounded translated by a mathematician who at one time was roaming around Icr, Antonio Pedrini? A translation that Urbani later gave to Einaudi, publisher in 1980 in Italy of that volume under the title Structural Stability and Morphogenesis?

However, the interest in how to connect Thom’s theoretical principles with cultural heritage conservation was Urbani’s alone. It was in fact too complex an approach to the problem of conservation, too high level. Completely out of reach not only of ministers, undersecretaries, directors-general and his fellow superintendents, but also of us collaborators. Going back to what I was saying earlier, I am convinced of how, when the previous conservation history of the artifact under consideration is little known (as is almost always the case), the only way to lay the groundwork for measuring the dynamic aspect of conservation status is to establish a starting point. After that, to establish the speed of the inevitable deterioration of that object, the same measurements should be repeated after a few years to compare them with the first ones. Of paramount importance then becomes, not only the investigations, but also the preservation of their results; which requires a turnaround, since, today, the records of investigations and restorations lie mostly abandoned to themselves in some dusty shelves of superintendencies, when they have not disappeared altogether.

However, I am not aware that superintendents have begun to have these kinds of measurements conducted before proceeding with a restoration. And indeed, it still seems to me entirely relevant what Urbani wrote in 1973, in the introduction to Problems of Conservation, about the role played by research in this area: “The contribution of the experimental sciences to the study and restoration of cultural heritage has so far consisted mainly in the application of the main methods of chemical analysis to the examination of certain materials (pigments, paints, metal alloys, etc.) and as far as instrumental aids are concerned, in the use of X-rays, special lights and appropriate microscopy techniques for the exploration of internal layers or surface features not otherwise observable. The results of this kind of research, clearly oriented in a descriptive sense, are of very modest significance from the point of view of chemistry and physics.”

If today things are still largely as Urbani pointed out in 1973, thirty-four years ago, it is because the interest of art historians, but basically also of archaeologists and architects, is mainly directed toward investigations with aesthetic purposes, or to the study of original execution techniques. These are all investigations that from the point of view of conservation are of minor importance. And it is for this reason that when, in 1978, the “Environmental Protection Agency” asked me to give the keynote address at a conference on the conservation of stone materials held in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian Institution, in front of a rather surprised audience I explained how little science had contributed up to that time to the problem of conservation. Not much had changed in the meantime. So much so that when, in 1999, “Conservation,” the Newsletter of the Getty Conservation Instute, asked me to write a piece on the scientist’s position in conservation I went so far as to express doubt as to whether “Conservation Science” was really a science, since its results are rather uncontrollable.

Plus those “descriptive” analyses, when well done, inevitably identify the original along with everything else that has been put on top of it over centuries of maintenance and restoration. Their results therefore risk being a compendium of merceology each time, rather than an exact description of the original techniques of execution. And this makes it so that in order to horize sensibly within the complex topic of original execution techniques far more useful than chemical-physical investigations are direct observations of the subject matter conducted by an expert eye and, above all, the comparison between those observations and what historical technical treatises say on the subject.

The fact is that in these cases technology and technique completely trump science; and that the idea of entrusting “pure” science and not materials science with research into original execution techniques is off the mark.

Having come to the end of this long conversation, compared to the experience of Problems of Conservation, how do things stand today in the field of applied research on cultural heritage?

It is still very limited. The Italian academic and scientific system is very closed. Projects often do not address the real problems of conservation, but theoretical details that are not very important. An example is the funds of the last major CNR project dedicated to cultural heritage, often dispersed in work on unpromising lines of research; and this is because of an excessive prevalence of pure science, precisely theory, over technology.

Such as?

Acrylic resins are still a reliable protective for indoor use while outdoors they have a rather short service life. The current trend is to replace them with silicones, which in the case of marbles, however, seem to be an even worse solution. Fluopolymers, the latest in conservation, age better but attract dust, and on white marble they do not seem acceptable. Well, to address this problem at CNR, they started from scratch, commissioning a university laboratory to fabricate a molecule that could form protective layers that are more water-repellent and more resistant to aging.

And what happened?

The researchers put fluorine into the molecule of an acrylic monomer instead of hydrogen, which in theory is a good idea, and then synthesized some polymers. With one problem: that for now it is not known how those polymers work on a stone in real cases, nor is it known what might happen at the interface between the protective layer and the stone, for example in a polluted environment. Nor is it known whether it attracts dust, which was the shortcoming of commercial fluopolymers. If, instead, the preparation of the polymer had instead been entrusted to an industry that had always been active in the field of synthesis and commercialization of polymers, or had searched the market to see if there were already promising molecules, and had focused funds on technological tests of functionality and resistance today we might have much more knowledge and probably a better product than we have today. And this was basically the methodological indication given by Urbani in Problems of Conservation in 1973, when he proposed research models entrusted to the most competent industries. New ideas are often proposed, but the way to test them in the reality of conservation work in my opinion is not the right one. Today, for example, we have before us the novelty of nano-calcium.

To wit.

Nano-limes are hydrated lime particles around a millionth of a millimeter in size, prepared in Florence by Professor Dei. They are so small that they can enter all the pores and the tiniest cracks of a decohesive material, pictorial layer of fresco, plaster or stone, and thus consolidate it. The problem is to evaluate their consolidating power and possible limits of use, that is, to understand in which cases their use is promising and in which not. It would then be a case of investing some means in a technological research project. But such a project does not exist today, while many restorers have procured nano-calcics, since they are already on the market, and are each trying them in their own way.

Which is one of the risks in restoration. A new product that becomes fashionable.

And so, because it’s in fashion, it’s being used everywhere without having an idea of its characteristics of use and the results you get in a long time. Nor is this new. In fact, the history of modern restoration is littered with wild experimentation with new fashionable materials, which was followed, when the limitations or consequences of misapplications began to appear, by a switch to materials of a later fashion. This was the case in the past with silicates, fluosilicates, acrylic resins and other products, for reasons that really depended not on the real merits and flaws of these materials, but on how they were used.

Which marks another failure of the institutional duties of Icr, the place where restoration materials should be tested and then validated for the entire country?

The Icr does not seem to think that monitoring the technologies used in Italy and creating regulations is one of its institutional tasks. Its scientists cannot attend meetings of Uni-Cultural Heritage working groups because there are no funds for missions. In Italy today, fashions in restoration materials have a regional character, so that very often a technology much loved in one region is, for that very reason, detested in another. Staying with lime consolidation, however, this is nothing new. In fact, it was talked about as early as the 19th century in England, and in the 20th century it was highly valued by English restorers but considered ineffective by English chemists. The novelty of nano-lime is not only in the tiny particle size suspended in a solvent instead of water, but also in the larger amount of lime contained in a volume of liquid: a dry residue three times greater than that obtained from a saturated solution of lime in water. Which gives hope for a more effective consolidating action than traditional “lime water.” However, dispassionate experimentation would be needed.

A new fashion may also be considered, again to stay with the consolidation of wall paintings with inorganic materials, the use of barium hydroxide. A nineteenth-century consolidation technique revived in Florence at the time of the 1966 flood and widely used since then, particularly in Tuscany. A technique, however, opposed by Urbani because it irreversibly modifies the very chemical-physical structure of the frescoed plaster, and it really is an unacceptable modification, first and foremost in theory. But also a technique whose mechanism I never quite understood. Let us say very quickly that ammonium carbonate is called upon to solve an almost universal form of alteration of fresco wall paintings, the transformation into calcium sulfate of part of the constituent calcium carbonate of plaster and paint film. Ammonium carbonate is used to produce a chemical reaction that turns the newly formed calcium sulfate crystals back into calcium carbonate, with a reduction in volume of the former compensated for by the input of barium. Many problems. First, it is obvious how impossible it is to estimate exactly the amounts of sulfates present in a plaster to begin with, so it is equally impossible to determine the exact amount of reactant and consolidant: ammonium carbonate and barium hydroxide. Which, in fact, means working blindly. Moreover, an equal reaction, thus an equal volume reduction of sulfates, should be ensured in all restorations, given the universal use of ammonium carbonate: not to then use barium, but to clean the frescoes. But this is never noted in restoration reports. Finally, for repairing the surface deohesion of the color-without here examining the use of organic consolidants such as Paraloid B72, -is it not the same thing to use instead of barium hydroxide another inorganic consolidant such as ethyl silicate, i.e., now, nano-calcics? Substances, ethyl silicate and nano-limes, infinitely easier to apply than barium hydroxide, because there is never a risk of producing irreversible bleaching on the paint film, a risk that exists in barium, nor does it it becomes necessary to keep ammonium carbonate compresses on the frescoed plaster overnight-what I myself have seen happen on paintings by Beato Angelico, not Pietro Sparapane da Norcia! - so as to increase its porosity so that, afterwards, it can be better soaked in barium hydroxide. An operation, the last one, carried out without taking into account that, by acting in this way: a) an evidently oversized consolidation is obtained, because the porosity of the plaster thus treated becomes greater than it was at the beginning; b) unavoidable and serious effects are created on the pictorial film, because ammonium carbonate is a substance that creates complexes with metal ions: those present in many pigments; and this is even more true when you keep it for a very long time, the 12 hours of one night, for example, in direct contact with the color.

Your question is too complex to answer in one conversation. I hope you don’t make similar ones to your Urbino students on exams. I prefer to evade to the general problem of surface consolidation rather than go into the details of the Barium-Paraloid feud. Since the 19th century there has been a continuous challenge between inorganic methods of consolidation (silicates, fluosilicates, barytes, lime) and organic methods (linseed oil, kerosene, waxes, shellac). There are points for and against each of these categories of materials. I would summarize the issue as follows: a) inorganics do not age, but the consolidated material remains brittle, and if the crack to be filled is too large (above 0.03 mm says George Wheeler, I would increase it a little) consolidation does not occur; b) organics age, may change color, become difficult to solubilize, and lose water repellency, but improve the mechanical properties of the material and can re-adhere detached flakes. In general, my impression is that there have been successes and failures in both fields for reasons that should be better studied. In the history of the conservation of wall paintings, organic surface consolidants (fixatives) have always been used, with rare exceptions, until World War II, then experimentation with inorganic methods such as the sodium aluminate method in the Vatican Museums began. For stones today we alternate inorganic materials (ethyl silicate) with partially organic (silanes) or totally organic (acrylic and epoxy adhesives) depending on the type of problem. For wall paintings the problem is more difficult, partly because the original technique is not always known. The most recent research shows that in certain epochs the use of finishes with organic binders of fresco painting is more common than previously thought. Even for the Roman wall painting of Pompeii and Herculaneum, doubts have re-emerged that seemed to have been resolved; and note that those paintings were always protected with wax or kerosene with results that seem good to me. But controversy in the end is useful, however, provided it prompts someone to study deeper to find data to fire at the enemy. If you only shoot words it is difficult for them to improve knowledge.

Studying more deeply what you called “the Barium-Paraloid feud” would be one of the institutional tasks of the Icr, as usual however unfulfilled. Although an Icr chemist and physicist, Giuseppina Vigliano and Giorgio Accardo, expressed many doubts of the use of barium years ago in one of their books, writing: “It goes without saying that, both the treatment with ammonium carbonate and that with barium hydroxide must be dosed according to the amount of gypsum present [in the fresco] and its dislocation in the structure [of the plaster. Because], if the transformation of the sulfate is not quantitative, either because of lack of diffusion of the solution or insufficient concentration of the barium ions, there will remain in the solid structure soluble salts (the ammonium sulfate that has not reacted) that are more harmful than the starting gypsum.” That said, what do the new researchers look like?

Let’s say that there are beginning to be a number of figures born within conservation, so no longer the hit-and-run scientist who comes from outside: the breed still well alive among academics of those who do three four routine analyses that they then publish with great pomposity. Unfortunately, as is the case with architects, art historians and archaeologists, graduates in this field find work with increasing difficulty; and this despite the fact that they are often people of good quality. The fact is that, unfortunately, in Italy you do not get a researcher position if you are the best, but if you are related to someone. With the result that it is often the very best who leave the country. For example, a young chemistry graduate who had specialized in conservation is now in the United States, where she has won the competition for the position of director of the scientific laboratory of theArt Institute of Chicago: a laboratory that she is creating with an endowment of a few million dollars. Having to deal only with museum works there is a bit wasted, whereas here we miss her.

Over here, the director of the Uffizi science laboratories - an institutional role

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