Conservation and Restoration


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Conservation comprises a range of activities aimed at preserving or restoring objects, including paintings and sculptures. Conceptually, preservation and restoration are easy to distinguish: to preserve is to keep an object in its present condition - more realistically, to slow down its deterioration - whereas to restore is to return an object to a condition it used to be in (Muñoz-Viñas 2005, 15–23). However, it is not always easy to distinguish preservation and restoration in practice, since one and the same activity (for example, cleaning or relining a painting) may have both a preservative and a restorative aim.

An object can be preserved by controlling the humidity, light, and temperature in its environment, but restoration always requires changing the object itself. Therefore, restorations are more likely to give rise to controversy. Among the most well- known controversies is the National Gallery’s cleaning of paintings, including Velázquez’ Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver, between 1936 and 1946. The cleaning was heavily criticized by prominent art historians such as Cesare Brandi (Brandi 1949) and Ernst H. Gombrich (Gombrich 1962; see also Gombrich 1960, 49–52). In a similar vein, art historian James Beck and artist Michael Daley have taken aim at the more recent cleaning of masterpieces such as Jacopo della Quercia’s Ilaria del Carretto and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes and his David (Beck and Daley 1994). Interestingly, they open their book on the subject by noting that restoration is not a purely technical matter that can be left to the "faceless specialist in the favored white coat", because "we are really dealing with a field that has divergent philosophical positions and approaches" (Ibid., ix; my italics).

The word "philosophical" is well- chosen. Underlying the controversies are often philosophical disagreements, for example, regarding the aim(s) and permissible means of restoration. More specifically, the disagreements may concern such questions as the following: Should restoration return the original appearance of the object, that is, roughly speaking, the appearance around the time of completion of the work? If not, then which appearance is to be returned? And can the restorer recreate this appearance by any means necessary? In what follows, these questions will be addressed in terms of the ethical (Section 1) and the metaphysical (Section 2) issues they raise.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to the Philosophies of Painting and Sculpture
EditorsNoël CARROLL, Jonathan GILMORE
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)9781138233812
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 30 Jun 2023


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