8 March 2018




This post wouldn’t exist without Sherlock Holmes – technically, the American adaptation of London’s detective. Most viewers are familiar with the BBC’s version of Sherlock Holmes (surprisingly called Sherlock), and not the less critically acclaimed series on CBS, Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock versus Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary. The two actors co-starred in a stage production of "Frankenstein" in which they alternated in the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature before starring in their Sherlock series. Source.
But what does Elementary have to do with conservation? Everything, my dear Watson. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers, although the upcoming scene is a flashback so it doesn’t reveal a major plot point. So during a flashback, we see how Sherlock meets Irene Adler.


While on a case, Sherlock consults Irene, a conservator, as to whether a Turner painting is a forgery (spoiler: it is). Sherlock identifies a painting in Adler’s studio that she claims to be a copy of one she restored for a museum (surprise, it’s actually the original). The museum wanted Adler to repair damage caused by shelling in WWI by filing down the paint, an act she argued “compromised what the artist had intended”. So she made a restored copy to return to the museum and kept the original in its damaged state.

This scene stuck with me. What is the line between damage and history? I’ve written in my previous posts about the responsibility conservators have to the object’s well-being, but Irene makes an intriguing point. What constitutes damage? And what is the effect aesthetic has on conservation?

What do museum professionals do in the face of uncertainty? Research.

Case #1: Saint Andrea Corsini (1630) by Giovan Francesco Barbieri looks, well, a little morbid – but for a good reason?

Detail from Saint Andrea Corsini that shows a bullet hole. The Corsini was as prominent as the Medici family - their family crest is at the top of the Trevi Fountain. Source.
This portrait of Saint Andrea Corsini has two bullet holes as badges of honour. During WWII German soldiers attempted to steal the painting for the F├╝hrermuseum from the Corsini family in Italy in 1944. Princess Elena Corsini feared this would happen, so she had hidden smaller works from the family collection in an empty crypt. Larger works were packed in a truck and driven to Villa Le Corti, where she hid them behind a false wall, except for this painting, which she hung on the wall in the hope that her ancestor would protect the artworks. German soldiers noticed the still-wet plaster but in the face of advancing Allied troops, couldn’t examine it further and shot the painting in frustration.

After the war, the Corsini family decided not to restore the work to serve as a reminder of the ravages of the war on both humanity and art.

Case #2: The Sistine Chapel is clean, but was that Michelangelo’s intention?

The Sistine Chapel ceiling post-restoration. Source.
The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Vegetation from the image above, pre-restoration. Source.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Sistine Chapel underwent a cleaning to remove centuries of dust and candle soot. Critics feared that the cleaning process might damage the masterpieces, while some argued that visible age was part of the art. After the cleaning, people marvelled at the brighter colours and declared that the Michelangelo’s “true” masterpiece was revealed. But the cleaning, while removing dirt, had lifted away certain details and shadows (some to the extent of removing pupils from the eyes of figures). Any details that were added on top of the fresco, whether by Michelangelo or other artists, were removed.

Detail from Daniel. On the unrestored fresco, the red underpainting shows through the black a secco wash adding luminesce to the shadows. The form under the garment is achieved by the black wash which was removed during the restoration. Source.
While the colours were brighter, critics argued that the compositions were flatter and modelling on figures seemed cruder as shadows Michelangelo had intentionally painted were accidentally removed. As Michael Daley of ArtWatch noted, restorers removed layers of varnish Michelangelo had deliberately applied in order to harmonize and tone down his colours. Moreover, stripping these varnishes exposed the fresco surfaces to atmospheric pollution.

Now what?

We have an example from each group of thought. The Corsini family thought like Adler, that the painting’s damage added to its aesthetic: that its physical change enhanced the work’s intended meaning. In contrast, the Sistine Chapel restoration removed what was perceived as dirt and damage to reveal stunningly bright colours. But both actions have consequences. Saint Andrea Corsini will forever be known as the painting with a bullet through the head of a saint. The Sistine Chapel sacrificed arguable intention darkening varnishes and overpainting on the fresco.

If these posts have proven anything, it’s that conservation is much more complex than wiping off dust and rust. It’s knowing how to care for an object, and more importantly, when to. It’s knowing the difference between help and harm. But most importantly, it’s recognizing the consequences, permanent or impermanent, of our actions. Sometimes the hardest choice is not action but passivity. And sometimes it’s vice versa.

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