Fifteen Blows with a Sledgehammer
The Restoration of the Pieta
by Mac Carey
(all rights reserved)

The Square

Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2

The Pieta








































































It was a quiet Holy Saturday along the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, just as it was a quiet day all across Vatican City. All quiet mornings seem to have a static to them, something that grabs you by the ear and whispers something unintelligible. And this one was no exception, with the anniversary of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles and the descent of the sandaled feet of tourists upon the marble steps of the basilica.

But like all quiet mornings, peace wasn't meant to last. The quiet was shattered by the few deft strokes of a madman, who with hammer in hand, reached out and clipped the nose off of a somber, mourning Mary. The Vatican guards quickly descended, and closed the area off. The man was dragged away, the media was alerted, and tourists leaned angrily over the barricades, demanding to know what had happened, meanwhile unbeknownst to them the molecular remains of a masterpiece mingled in their nasal cavity.

The madman's name was Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian born artist. The statue was the Pičta, Michelangelo's spiritual magnum opus depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Christ. Toth, who claimed that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, said that he was offended by the work because Mary looked nothing like his mother. Ironically, only a few weeks before the attack, the Vatican had begun completion of an unbreakable screen that would have separated the public from the front of the Pičta.

At the time of the Laszlo Toth restoration, chemical restoration was in its infant stage. English restorers were experimenting with translucent plastic pastes mixed using powdered milk glass. The left eye of the Pičta proved to be the most difficult, with restorers making at least twenty attempts with the mold. Not much was known about the aging of certain plastic glues, so the final mold was applied with reversible adhesive in case a better paste should be invented in the future.

This May will witness the 35th anniversary of the attack on the Pičta. And in that time, the world of art restoration has witnessed a barrage of changes that has revolutionized the ways in which it works. Technological developments have blurred the line between restoration and artistic intervention. Technological and chemical developments, like the use of lasers to clean sculptures, are making some cry that science has invaded into art's most sacred sanctuaries.


Don Williams stands in a room filled with machinery buzzing with life. Over his head are large vacuum tubes that wrap themselves around the ceiling. The room is part workshop, part laboratory, as if Dr. No had taken up furniture making and created a lair a little outside of the nation's capital. Williams is the Senior Furniture Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Materials Research and Education. The Center concentrates on restoration of the many pieces of artwork, both on display and in storage, that belong to the Smithsonian Museums.

William's very workshop is a symbol of the changing world of art restoration. Along the long tables are classic furniture maker tools like lathes and hasps, but down the hall rooms appear more like laboratories, with lines of microscopes and computers. The Center's goal is to marry state of the art technology with the care of priceless works of art. There are more than 140 million pieces in the trusteeship of the 18 museums and galleries that make up the Smithsonian Museums. There is no one rule for how, what, and when the Smithsonian restores. "That's a complicated issue that there's no easy answer to. Thus far is has not been standardized. A lot of it has to do with what is urgent, or important. It also depends on the treatment needed, and whether we have the time and the space and all those things. It all depends on who needs what and who's interested in providing what," says Williams.

Williams is familiar with both the developments and the controversy of restoration. And he has seen the complexity of the decision making process firsthand. " It's like having a piece of silver that's tarnished. The question is, do I leave the tarnish on or do I take the tarnish off? Well, it depends, is the tarnish actively contributing to the active deterioration of the object? Then yeah. Does the tarnish misrepresent the object, does it make people misread. Maybe yes. Is the tarnish historically significant? Maybe yes. But it depends."

Many view technology as increasing the threat of invasion restoration. The Pičta's own repair was minimalist by comparison to the complicated, tech-laden techniques used in today's restorative undertakings. The Pičta was repaired with relatively primitive materials. The statue had been shipped over the Atlantic for the 1964 New York World's Fair, and a plaster cast was made. The cast was used to duplicate the destroyed nose and eye. The new pieces were made from a basic powdered marble and polyester resin. Carnauba wax, an easily molded wax found in Brazil was used to fill in the cracks between the new pieces and the old. Nowadays everything from synthetic polymer materials, computers, and lasers are used to bring the piece back to whatever the restorer sees as the "fixed" form.

Critics say that these techniques take away the individuality of the artwork. "There's a lot of dispute in terms of intent, in terms of, the fabric of the object. How closely does something have to aesthetically reflect a desired outcome, physically and morphologically? Do you reupholster furniture in the traditional manner or do you make it something distinct from the original manner because that's better for the preservation of the object?" Williams says, and goes on to explain his own take on what it is art restorers do and their relationship to the artist, " We want to reflect the artist's intent, not to manifest the artist's intent. I don't know. I wasn't there."

Even Dr. Nazzareno Gabrielli, head of the Vatican's museum science laboratories and contributor to the Pičta restoration, said, "This is work for good artisans rather than artists." He added, in regards to repair and restoration that it was "technically no more difficult to restore the work of a genius than a moderate sculptor." It is this idea that incenses critics of modern restoration, who claim that these scientists are taking liberties with artist's work that they have no right to make. Moreover, they do not appreciate the extent of the damage that they are doing precisely because they are not artists.

"They use science. It's scientific, but the choice of putting something on is really a choice of an artist, and science cannot tell you what to do." says James Beck, president of ArtWatch International, a watchdog organization that describes its mission as "the care and integrity of artwork around the world." ArtWatch International was co-founded by Beck to protect works of art from what the organization sees as destructive intervention on the part of museum's and restorers. Beck is also professor of art history at Columbia University and has done many high profile protests against restorations of famous works of art. He was nearly jailed in Italy for criticizing the cleaning of a tomb in Lucca, under a criminal defamation law that could have carried a three-year jail sentence. Among Beck's critiques of the art restoration industry is that is has become just that, an industry, one that is now more focused on profit and high turn-around rather than sensitivity and painstaking work.

Technical progress has left financiers and art restorers in the even hazier area of determining what the artist's original intentions were. "Lasers are one of the most recent developments. They [art restorers] use lasers to clean surfaces. They say, 'well lasers are safe because we use lasers on the eye and after all, the eye is the most sensitive organ. What kind of danger can happen? We can use it on a painting or sculpture.' but with a laser it depends on how long you keep it in one place its not necessarily infallible, it's a matter of millimeters, milliseconds." Beck explains.

But those in the field of art restoration often dismiss those who voice these complaints for their lack of actual hands-on experience with artwork. "I think an awful lot of the whole issue of restoration, especially in terms of cleaning and presentation is romantic rather than rational," counters Williams. "I would suggest that esthetes are the least likely people in the world to understand how objects are made."

ArtWatch International's most famous protest, and perhaps the most divisive restoration in recent history was the twelve year, multi-million dollar restoration of the Sistine Chapel that the Vatican began in 1980. Debate erupted when workers began to clean the frescoes on the ceilings with bleaching chemical. Those who supported the cleaning claimed that what was being removed was only layers of caked-on dirt that had accumulated over the years, and proclaimed that the paintings were being revealed to the glory that Michelangelo had originally intended. Those who opposed the cleanings said that the cleaners were intervening in on what Michelangelo had intended, and that the "layers of dirt" were actually a gum-based patina that Michelangelo himself had applied to enhance the chiaroscuro, or depth, of the paintings.

Patina is loosely defined as the outer covering of a painting, but where this outer covering ends is a topic for debate. What some commonly call the patina, others just call dirt. Don Williams dismisses these claims of intentional patina, "We have romantic visions of how things are supposed to look because we see these aged and degraded surfaces that have developed patina. But basically patina is a deterioration. I'm not saying that that is a valid or invalid preference, but it is a preference. And it is nothing more than a preference."

Often to avoid these controversies, museums will conduct cleanings in secret. Like the cleanings of the Sistine Chapel, the Pičta restoration in '72 was done in secrecy with little public access. Immediately after the attack Pope Paul VI announced that under no circumstances should the statue be removed from St. Peter's Basilica. For eight months Deoclecio de Campos, the Brazilian layman who was appointed head of the restoration by the Pope, along with his ten member team turned the sacred halls of St. Peter's Basilica into a temporary laboratory. A job that was feared to take as long as three years lasted only through the summer and the fall until Christmas, and was universally hailed as a success. The 6,700 lb. statue hadn't suffered any internal cracks and one would need a microscope to detect any changes on the Virgin Mary's face.

The fully repaired statue was revealed to foreign newsmen in January of 1973, a month after announcement of its completion. The restorers did not inform the press that they had cleaned the statue along with repairing the damage until reporters noticed that the sculpture was significantly lighter than before. de Campos said "Old fashioned soap and water." He went on to defend his choices by saying, "Some people make a big deal about the marble patina. But patina is one thing and soap another."

It is this secrecy that raises more than a few eyebrows. And the Vatican is far from alone in this practice. "They're all done that way," explains James Beck, " Some of the museums have as many as 60 employees." And though the museums may be public, the financing is a private matter. Private, anonymous, financiers in Belgium supported the high profile cleaning of the 500 year old sculpture of David in Florence in 2003. These financiers most often want to avoid controversy, and it is civil servants appointed by the government who are left to deal with the sticky public relations. In Europe it is the appointed superintendent of art in the region. Beck explains that often those conducting the cleanings are not doing it in secret to shield from the public, because they don't feel that they're doing anything wrong. " If you were to point out the difference in the Pičta, they would say, look how we made it clean."

In older photos of the Pičta, Mary's face is noticeably more shadowed, creating an increased sense of depth around the eyes in particular. At the same time, it is doubtful that Michelangelo intended for these shadows to become more pronounced, it was most likely a lucky development as time passed and dirt collected. However therein lies the rub, it is impossible to tell what Michelangelo really wanted, and whether or not he knew how the marble would age and what environment it would remain in. And claiming to know what one of the great masters intended is a heavy burden to undertake indeed.

Objectivity in a world built upon of the temperamental and tenuous foundations of subjectivity is hard to come by. Modern conditions are being applied to historical pieces. Often, in the case of the Pičta and the Sistine Chapel, the artist is a renowned master and legend, and to pretend to know what his intentions were, or to overrule one of his calls is considered blasphemy.

Technology aside, our masterpieces are aging, and the predominance of restoration is probably only going to become stronger as the decades go on and we become more anxious as the cracks and wrinkles become harder to ignore. Perhaps the obsession with technological developments has distracted us from the relentless drumming of the slow march of time. " They're all going back to dirt. "Ashes to ashes dust to dust" isn't just a homily. It is a fact of life, it's going back to dirt," says Williams.

So what role do modern art restorers play in this drama? Are they translators, interpreters, or protectors? "A colleague of mine once said that our task is to help people consume objects as efficiently as possible." Williams explained. "If you take most artifacts a perfect environment for them would be total darkness, total absence of oxygen, and roughly 35 degrees Fahrenheit. That will preserve objects for an unbelievably long time. But it doesn't allow them to be appreciated, enjoyed."

For all we endow our great masters with, can we expect even them to have anticipated or understood this? Did Michelangelo ever take a break from the chapel ceiling, and, leaning back on his swing, think of how scientists would approach his work 500 years later, post-industrial age, post-information revolution? Could even Da Vinci have anticipated the computer age and all that it would bring with it? People rarely lived past 50 years old in those days, would a painting have been expected to survive past its centennial birthday? Or was it ever intended to? Then, is it our responsibility to do what. we can with these new technologies? But what if we, in our non-Great Masters infallibility, make an irreversible mistake? Some claim this has already happened to Da Vinci's Last Supper, whose colors are now, post-cleaning, noticeably faded. Does anyone want a Mona Lisa so shiny you can see yourself in it? Or a Prozac-prescribed, Munch's Scream, reinterpreted to send a positive message of fortitude? It is easy to play guessing games all day with these masters and their intentions, but at the end of the day they are still guesses.

It is really a game of perception. An argument with no answer, and that likely will remain unanswerable, as long as scientists are there creating new ways for us to live in the world around us, and as long as there are artists showing us news ways to see worlds, the one around us and elsewhere. Whether the two must remain at cross-purposes remains to be seen. It is unlikely that they will find common ground as long as the doors of perception remain wide open.

By Mac Carey

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