I wish to thank Maurizio Iaccarino Idelson, Gabriella Ventrella, Gloria Tranquilli, Roberta De Angelis, Carlo Serino, Pia Gottschaller, Leonardo Borgioli, Werner Schmid, Paola Borghese, Gianfranco Priori, Ornella Salvadori, Elisabetta Giani, Maria Bianca Paris, Anna Valeria Jervis, Daniela Korolija, Olivier Verheiden, Grazia De Cesare, Paolo Roma, Susana Martin Rey, Daniela Di Benedetto and, not least, Zoë Johnson, for the useful suggestions and the reading of the manuscript. I also wish to thank Marion Mecklenburg, for the useful suggestions and for his presence and influence on my professional life.
1The conservation of cultural and artistic heritage is based on knowledge and on the effort of preserving integrity and authenticity, both on the historical level and on that of perception. The scientific method, founded on hypotheses and theirverification, has progressively permeated the culture of conservation, guiding its evolution from traditional empiric restoration. The attention given to the matter of works of art has changed, as signified in Cesare Brandi’s definition “Restoration is the methodological moment of the recognition of the work of art” . Conservation has increasing significance within the collective approach to Cultural Heritage, appearing to be among the original and creative products of 20th century European culture.
2Within the present issue of CeROArt, I intend to use the terms “Science” and “Conscience” according to the etymology of “Knowledge” and “Awareness”. They are both rich in meanings, and for the term “science” some of the accessorial ones have become almost alternative to “knowledge”. The role that science has assumed in common sense, places it, at times, in fields that are closer to faith than rationality. The term “conscience” has an even larger number of assonances in fields that would lead us farther away from the subject of heritage conservation, which is to assure, through concrete means and actions, the transmission of artifacts to future generations. This operation is based on the intimate knowledge of heritage itself.
- 1 This is true in all human action fields, and for this reason the invention of writing made such an (...)
3Knowledge is a process in which the acquisition of information happens progressively, even though at a casual rate. For this reason the one who has a larger amount of information (and those who slowly produce it through research work) is in a position of advantage with respect to the one who has less1. This makes an extraordinary flywheel, and this disparity is at the base of the most fertile human relations; as is keeping one’s specific knowledge in a shared field of action. The interdependence between conservator, curator and conservation scientist has become so deep that their work acquires value and even meaning through the exchange of information.
- 2 Between the first, if not the first at all, Friedrich Rathgen became chemist in charge of the Roya (...)
4The first conservation scientists were men of science who occasionally lent their knowledge and instruments for the understanding of conservation related issues. This can still happen at times, especially in marginal situations, when for example a medical doctor offers to X-ray a painting. Robert Feller  wrote in 1952: “Is it not wise, then, to consider their [the scientists’] counsel in preserving material objects and in developing more durable substances? Leading museums of art all over the world now include technical advisers on their staffs.” If this statement sounds auspicious, even though many museums had already established stable relations with chemists2, it is because a specialist considered this collaboration still uncertain.
5Cesare Brandi had chemists and physicists in the staff of the newly founded Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (ICR), as he was aware of both the intrinsic importance of their work and of the need of integrating scientific culture in the humanistic background of the discipline that the ICR foundation had part in defining.
- 3 “I risultati di questo tipo di ricerche, orientate chiaramente in senso descrittivo o morfologico, (...)
- 4 The Conference on Comparative Lining Techniques, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, April 1974. (...)
6Giovanni Urbani, as director of ICR, promoted in 1973 a founding initiative for conservation science in Italy: “Problemi di Conservazione”. His intention, to orient the contribution from diagnostics to research, is still held true: “The results of this kind of research, which is clearly oriented to a descriptive or morphological aim, have very little interest […] An eminently technological applied research may fill these gaps […] on one side to deepen the knowledge of the properties of ancient materials in various states of conservation; on the other, to control the modifications that these undergo after traditional restoration treatments. The fact that research of this kind may be undertaken on the basis of methods and techniques that are largely known does not make it automatic, and therefore irrelevant to gathering the data. Given the novelty of the problems, it is rather to be expected that the known methods of investigation should undergo adaptations that may become substantial innovations”3. . An authentic expression of the spirit of the times, considering that the year after the Greenwich Conference4 conducted a broad discussion on the scientific revision of lining techniques , and only a few years later some of the most interesting studies on the mechanical behavior of canvas paintings where published [10; 8; 1]. In 1982 the International Institute for the conservation of Works of Art (IIC) organized the Conference on “science and Technology in the service of conservation”, where in the introduction N.S. Brommelle and G. Thomson declared that “The compilers of the programme have sought out scientists who are making notable contributions to the solution of conservator’s problems” .
- 5 “Las ciencias aplicadas consideran el conocimiento científico teniendo en cuenta sus aplicaciones (...)
7Conservation science, intended as diagnostics and research, implies the use of instruments, methods and techniques that were developed for other disciplines. This falls within the definition of “Applied sciences”, and “The Applied Sciences use scientific knowledge for the applications to human needs, for the solution of practical problems and technological development.”5 . On the basis of this consideration one can understand how, in the field of diagnostics, many conservators are able to make and interpret cross sections, X-ray and near-IR imagery with reasonable or good standards: it is a matter of experience, of gaining information about the instruments and the possible results they can provide. Moreover, the conservator already possesses the in depth knowledge of artic techniques necessary for their correct interpretation.
- 6 In Italy Conservation Scientist’s training profile is not yet completely defined, even though some (...)
- 7 “interpretation will be based on insufficient data and be strongly influenced by the analyst's pre (...)
8Principally based on the use and application of the diagnostic techniques to conservation, the profile of the conservation scientist is not yet completely defined. The problem of the initial training6, and even more those of continuing education and of advanced-level exchange of experiences between professionals, are often even worse for conservation scientists than for conservators. At times conservation scientists complain about a lessening of their original competences as scientists, in a process that makes them more similar to conservators without having their training or functions. Giorgio Torraca questioned whether conservation science could really be defined as “science”, since in the majority of cases its statements are based on insufficient proofs7 and non-verifiable theories .
9The use of statistics on data obtained from information gathered from one or more samples or artifacts, can prove useful for improving data reliability. Physical and mathematical modeling can be even more useful. The most authentic and irreplaceable contribution that conservation scientists can bring to the knowledge of heritage and to the improvement of the conservation techniques is in the different point of view that derives from the prevalence of natural sciences in their formation. Their approach to a work of art is less straightforward (so as not to say intimate and confidential), and passes through a different understanding of the constituent materials and of their interactions. When this different point of view is conjugated with a deep understanding of conservation issues, it has lead to studies that had a relevant influence on conservation strategies. Two well-known cases are the studies on the mechanical interactions between constituent materials of paintings , which led to better understanding of failure mechanisms due to environmental changes, and alternative approaches to cleaning methods .
10The appropriate application of conservation science leads to a better understanding of cultural materials and their response to the environment and to conservation treatments, which should be constantly kept in mind, in order to have conservators, conservation scientists and curators make the best use of this possibility.
11Scientific method, on which modern sciences are based, consists in questioning every step, demonstrating that it is logically correlated to the previous one. More precisely, the method consists of hypothesis verification in the attempt to demonstrate its contrary. Karl Popper affirms that a theory is verifiable (and thus scientific) if it allows building tests that may invalidate it. “No amount of experiments may demonstrate that I am right; one single experiment will be able to demonstrate I am wrong”, wrote Albert Einstein8. This implies a rigorous approach, which has nevertheless the advantage of allowing to support one’s statements or interpretations of reality with the conscience of having done everything that was necessary in order to consider them correct (and this is the second meaning I would use for this term). This is indeed a toilsome procedure, but has nonetheless demonstrated capable of enabling the accumulation of shared thought and progress.
12The other pillar of scientific method is that statements should be founded on proofs which must be reproducible for anyone interested in verifying them, or to base other hypotheses on similar experiments. The practical and instrumental process that is used for verification is an important element of the original proposal of a scientist, and takes part in the evolution of scientific thought on a specific subject. Scientific method is integrated in all academic disciplines, and its advantages are made even more evident by the attention placed on the method that leads to a specific conclusion or result. What could ever be closer to a discipline like conservation, in which the process is the main and most creative part of achieving the result?
13Conservation has assumed the principle of reproducibility, despite the uniqueness of every single piece of heritage, through the careful documentation of each step of the conservation process. Documentation has now become a tool, that conservators hand to present and future colleagues, for the knowledge of the artifact, its conservation history and - why not? - for learning from other people’s experiences. The principle of doubt and verification is harder to use, as it requires the quantification of the parameters implied in the choices within the conservation process, and those that would be necessary to verify them. It is nevertheless traceable in the use of practical procedures that advance through working hypotheses that are questioned along the process. Conservators doubt their acquired practices more and more frequently and therefore look to use well-targeted research projects for the purpose of experimental verification of their intuitions or operational doubts.
14In general, research is triggered by the need for the solution to problems that are new or perceived as urgent. In conservation more than in other fields, the distinction between “pure” and “applied” research appears of limited relevance, as the majority of research works concern the operational needs that arise from the infinite variability or individuality of the investigated subjects. Projects aiming at the systematization of knowledge in a specific domain, or to create links between different fields, though not always definable as “pure research”, have the great merit of providing a broader comprehension.
- 9 “The development of the conservation as a distinct field came about through the evolution of an ex (...)
15The figure of the restorer evolved, from the artist-craftsman who lent his skills to restoration, up to today’s professional with a specific, well-defined and rigorous formation. Galileo Galilei saw craftsmen and industry as the main sources of innovation and scientific progress, because those who are confronted with the need to find practical solutions to complex problems are accustomed to critical reasoning and doubt. Conservator’s profession is rooted in the best European tradition, and shares its general approach and evolution. As a matter of fact, the much more useful and recognized medical profession, rooted in the same common ground, has been endowed with a scientific and academic approach only with the great microbiological discoveries in the second half of the 19th century. The precise definition of the conservator, and its international standardization9 , are among the innovations of the second half of the 20th century. The European Confederation of conservator restorers (ECCO) proposed to unify its denomination as “conservator-restorer”, and has usefully worked in order to define its history and specificity notwithstanding the high variability of institutional and training profiles .
16In order to describe this professional figure, it is interesting to look again for parallels to the medical disciplines, which also have a general scientific background and the demand for important manual skills. Medical disciplines also require comprehension that often relies on intuition more than a precise definition of the details. A work of art, just like the body of a patient, offers important obscure areas for intrinsic reasons bound to the unpredictability of the variables. All works of art, as all human individuals, are different in constitution and personal history, and it is not possible to understand them in minute detail nor predict their behavior in more than a general way. Furthermore, the medical professions also continually borrow technologies and scientific information from disciplines that may be akin or unrelated, assimilating them through a process of appropriation. Another important similarity is in the stringent limitations imposed to research and, consequently, to the use of the experimental method: the uniqueness of the “object” make it impossible to decide with rigorous scientific precision which would be the most appropriate choice for each problem. It becomes thus necessary to appeal to statistics and experience, also because it would not be correct to use “in vivo” testing without a reasonable certainty of avoiding any damage.
17The main difference with the medical profession is in the level of group awareness, which is much less developed for the conservators. Scarce collective awareness influences the quality of the relations with the kindred specializations of curators and conservation scientists. One of the main difficulties, in the conservators’ profession, is that of defending actions in the confrontation with the co-responsible figures in a project: the curator can use historical or archival evidence, the conservation scientist the results of diagnostics or general scientific laws, while the conservator often has to refer to “sensations” or to manual ability. The difficulty in founding reasoning on reliable data or hypotheses is often at the origin of a certain restlessness that characterizes conservators. Art history, or history of the artists’ techniques can give more consistent results, because of their academic structure. If conservators like doing research in these subjects, it is therefore not only for the pleasure of a deeper understanding the treasures they handle.
18The conservator is continuously confronted with decision making, being at the interface between the artifact and the various levels of knowledge about it. This is true for the domain of Preventive conservation (whose evolution has been guided by the applied sciences), and in the strategies of definition of priorities in the so-called “Remedial conservation”. If one seeks for positive justification of every step forward, such a high level of stress can lead to operational paralysis. Therefore, in order to cope with the complexity of choices and the structural insufficiency of sound data for supporting them, at times conservators sidestep the problem through an uncritical use of traditional approaches. This can also mean that conservators choose at times to ignore what they either don't understand or believe to be going against the traditional part of their education. The deep appropriation of the scientific method, within the specificity of the profession, would contribute to the improvement of the level of conservators’ professional awareness, helping to ground on hypotheses that would be considered valid until proven otherwise.
19Writing from the Italian context, in which tradition is particularly long and articulated, there is a slightly different perspective with respect to other western countries.
- 10 “Ma nell’atto d’incoraggiare scopertamente il ristauro […] nel provar d’avanzarlo […] si consulti (...)
20Already Pietro Edwards, “Inspector for the restoration of public paintings” of the Venice Republic in the second half of the 18th century, laid the grounds for modern reasoning about the profession, declaring the need to leave the tradition of the artist-restorer who arrived to the profession through a makeshift and not by a deliberate choice. In his writings, Edwards expresses fundamental and modern concepts on the role of the restorer and on the need to acquire a specific training supported by scientific research. He also recommended operating on the basis of decisions that could be shared by an interdisciplinary board of experts. “Encouraging restoration of works of art […] in order to try to improve it […] seek science’s advice, and that of experience, at all times when there will be the need for the one or the other; do as rules be fixed that may be apt for the variable combinations of the cases; provide the operator with the means for being enlightened with attempts for new discoveries; act with the counsel of men who have both theory and practice, but do not overwhelm with useless details or haughty pedantry” 10.
- 11 As for instance in the restoration manuals written by Giovanni Secco Suardo and Ulisse Forni.
- 12 Like Haquin and Picault in Paris.
21This extraordinary fruit of the Enlightenment was dispersed by the upheavals of the 19th century, that regressed the profession to the fragmentation in which individual and individualist excellences became interested in promoting their knowledge and habits11. In that period the situation was not so different than in other European countries, where commercial goals could prevail on general interest because of the presence of heavily influential leading personalities12.
- 13 n. 1089 del 1939, or “Legge Bottai”.
- 14 The Committee had the goal of writing the “Manuel de la conservation et restauration des tableaux” (...)
22It was the return to a broader cultural vision, and to the sense of a collective responsibility for heritage conservation, that in 1939 finally led to the foundation of the Central Institute for Restoration (ICR) in Rome, and to the first law on heritage protection13. This turning point was a result of the International Conference for the study of scientific methods for the examination and preservation of works of art, held in Rome in 1930, under the auspices of the International Museum Office of the League of Nations, and those of the following institution of the “Committee of Experts”14, in which we see (again in Rome) for the first time, the collaboration of five art historians, five restorers, two chemists and one physicist . With ICR, the community assumed the burden of training professionals that would be able to face the responsibility of heritage conservation with an approach that could be shared by the leading representatives of Italian culture. Starting from a profound rationalization of the restoration practices that arose from the wealthy italian tradition, art history or historical and scientific knowledge could not be disregarded.
- 15 Inter-ministerial decree (March the 2nd 2011) published in G.U. on June the 17th 2011, “Definizion (...)
23Training in conservation has reached today a new turning point: the two national training centers, Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro (ISCR, former ICR) and Opificio delle Pietre Dure, are formally made equivalent to University standards, and five Universities have been qualified to give a professional degree in conservation that is acknowledged by both the Ministries of Culture and that of Education15. These Universities have organized themselves in order to guarantee a high educational standard, founding their training proposal on the low trainers to trainee ratio (1:5) and on a high number of hours of work on culturally relevant artifacts. The new Degree in conservation will give access to doctoral studies, thus allowing a formal recognition of the equivalence of the responsibilities of the figures of conservator, conservation scientist and curator.
24Until now, the conservator has been in a position of formal subordination, because of the lower academic level of the available degree, even though this problem had already been overcome in many other countries thanks to a more rapid legal adjustment of the level of initial formation. The richness of Italian specific tradition has then slowed down the process, even though it has been able to express valuable interdisciplinary synergies . The upcoming generations of conservators will achieve an awareness of their role and of their responsibilities through a more direct process, which will be guaranteed by their initial formation.
25Publications, presentations at conferences, workshops and continuing education are the main vehicles for higher-level information, but they also are the moments in which information takes a definite form through confrontation. They therefore play a determinant role in the very production of this information. In general, though, these instruments require a considerable preparatory work, and only few people will end up considering them as a profitable investment. This means that they tend to remain a prerogative of the professional figures with a specific need for the production of scientific publications, while those who do not have the habit to writing and teaching end up by not feeling at ease in such activities. For these reasons, the majority of conservators only write in case they have something they judge of exceptional relevance, or when it is required by external circumstances. On the contrary, conservation scientists and curators do write much more frequently. This disparity provokes the contradiction for which the majority of conferences and conservation journals, though meant for encouraging diffusion of professional knowledge and conservation practices, end up by hosting a great number of contributions with scarce specific relevance.
26Those conservation scientists who are integrated in structures that are statutorily dedicated to heritage conservation (like Museums and national Conservation Centers) have now become a minority with respect to those who deal with conservation from within larger Institutions dedicated to training or research on different fields (like Universities). In Italy, those who have a degree in natural sciences and work freelance on artistic materials for conservation purposes are probably even more numerous, but they generally end up by having less visibility.
- 16 As we have seen, it was composed of five art historians, five restorers, two chemists and one phys (...)
27The conservation scientists’ world responds to varied needs, as those belonging to Universities and Research Centers need to produce a suitable number of publications in order to survive in the academic world. All other categories of conservation scientists, and conservators, rarely share this need. This obligation, which may lead to allocate energy on relatively irrelevant subjects, is counterbalanced by the possibility of promoting and financing broad and far reaching projects. For these reasons their role has a special responsibility, and the choices made in the academic world have a crucial role in the progress of knowledge. The choice of research subjects should express at the highest level the interaction between the three figures that share the responsibility for heritage conservation, and some kind of better formalization of the interaction on this specific point should be planned. As a matter of fact, this was already clear at the time of the institution of the “Committee of Experts” in 1933 Rome16.
28Also when observing the profession from this point of view, we are led to hope for a deeper appropriation of the scientific method by the conservators. The scientific communication of an experience implies the precise description of the problems one has been confronted with, and the reasons that have backed the choices. Thus a real process of definition, that has the additional value of showing the thought process has been needed for the specific conservation treatment. On behalf of this, also a work that may be judged of little relevance may have strong interest if related to the knowledge of methodologies of intervention, and therefore a scientific interest.
29Furthermore, the self attribution of a procedure, of an approach or an interpretation is not only a source of gratification: it is a crucial tool for favoring communication between specialists, allowing the individuation of an interlocutor with relevant specific knowledge.
30The market seems to act against this process, as the use of resources for writing of one’s work seems at times an unbearable cost when considering the narrow margins of profit that the profession allows. However, this is only a matter of perspective: writing always turns out as a good investment on the medium-term.
31An interesting aspect of the relation between conservator and conservation scientist regards the timing with which information is handed from one side to the other, and the level of mutual understanding. If, for example, diagnostics takes place in the wrong moment, results may become irrelevant or misleading for the conservation treatment. It is the responsibility of both to precisely understand mutual requirements and the potentialities of the collaboration, in order to give meaning to the interdisciplinary work.
32When conservation scientist’s work goes beyond diagnostics, it is at times possible to assist to a strange phenomenon of magic, as his/her statements tend to assume an aura of unquestionableness that seems to derive from the difficulty of contradicting the experimental method that underpins them. This happens even though the scientific method itself is based on assumptions that must be accessible to everyone, in order to give the possibility of assuming the results with a critical attitude.
33If a conservation scientist affirms that a specific material is recommendable for a certain treatment, also the limitations in its use due to its specific characteristics must be clearly stated. Serious problems may occur when these limitations haven’t been made clear, or haven’t been taken into consideration by a user who may not have enough direct experience. These forms of misunderstanding are often originated by the intercourse with the conservation scientist who has proposed the material: his/her renown and serious professionalism can be instinctively substituted to the material’s limitations in the perception of the careless user.
34Richard Sennett, from the point of view of the pragmatist philosopher, considers the craftsman’s studio and the scientific research laboratories in the same way, as they have in common the internal structure, the need of sharing knowledge and that of producing results that may stretch the boundaries of knowledge or of the quality of the result. In ancient Greece, the craftsman was considered Demiurgo, for Plato poietes; together with the medical doctors the craftsmen were part of the intermediate class, between aristocracy and slaves, and performed crafts with an elevated level of awareness and social appreciation. Knowledge belonged to the category, being collective and shared. The social role and awareness were taken away with Aristotle, were recovered in the Middle ages, and even more during the Renaissance, just to be denied once again by Hegelian Idealism and the disasters of soviet Marxism . Architect Renzo Piano describes the circularity of his work method in very interesting terms: “You start by sketching, then you do a drawing, then you make a model, and then you go to reality –you go to the site- and then you go back to drawing. You build up a kind of circularity between drawing and making and then back again.” . Such circularity is in the daily experience of any good conservator, who verifies his proper intuitions and observations in a constant evolution of the project of the intervention. As a matter of fact, in the preliminary project it is almost never possible to exactly foresee the proper actions and the real needs: during the work it is always necessary to adjust the initial approach.
- 17 From this point of view, the relation with the kindred disciplines may become “trans-disciplinary” (...)
35In order to solve complex problems like those the conservator is confronted with, at times a direct approach is not enough: “An incremental approach recognizes that complex problems are best tackled in stages” . Difficult contradictions must be handled, and it is therefore necessary to rely on a creative thought that welcomes external contributions17. The recognition of these needs is not a small issue, and it is certainly not a spontaneous process or something that may be granted by initial training. When awareness of the mental process that allows facing these objective difficulties is missing, a fundamental aspect of the profession is denied. The recovery of this conscience allows giving the conservators’ operativeness the dignity of a thrilling and complex profession, loaded with the burden of great responsibilities. “When the head and the hand are separated, the result is mental impairment” .
36The affinity between the “technical” disciplines of the conservator and conservation scientist makes the balance very complex. There is therefore a tendency to establish a relationship similar to that between brothers, in which the elder may be invested of an implicit responsibility, and the younger one may hold unreasonable expectations. It is not uncommon to see conservators consider conservation scientists’ advice as mandatory as it is based on objective data, and therefore as able to displace the weights on the “steelyard of doubt”, even in the cases in which the results only regarded an extremely small detail. Also for this reason, it is indispensable to carefully evaluate strategies and goals of the interdisciplinary work.
37In conservator’s work, scientific method is not guaranteed by the presence of the conservation scientist: as Feller wrote in 1952, “Scientific knowledge grows by systematic study. A definite intent or purpose is needed to guide experimentation, for random facts do not constitute science.” . The conservator is endowed with the prerogative of always finding a solution: choosing between the lesser of two evils in order to achieve the conclusion of the intervention. Therefore, if it remains unquestionable that “result is what counts the most” it is clear that the thought that underpins it is at least as important.
38The present work aims to make a useful tool for discussion and debate on this crucial and at times controversial subject.