One of the least defensible and intellectually questionable concepts raised in the often vitriolic debates surrounding art restoration practice over the past few decades is that of “readability.” A a vague and shifting goal, it continues to be advocated, especially by the museums and state officials around the world. Apparently readability rests at the foundation of French restoration policy. For example, M. Jean-Pierre Mohen conservateur général du patrimoine, directeur du Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France is an unequivocal advocate of readability. (cf. Le Monde des Debats, Septembre, 2000). He states in no uncertain terms: ” La lisibilité devient donc une notion extrêmement important: elle est garante de la part d’authenticité de l’oeuvre, de son état de conservation et de sa capacité a transmettre son message esthetique el culturel.”
If one were to suggest that a Bach Cantata should be transposed and reconstructed to make it “listenable” to a wide audience, many would find the proposition unacceptable. The same might be said of remaking T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland so that the poem would become “understandable” to neophytes and school children. The situation surrounding a painting from the past is rather different in one crucial aspect, however. Re-writing Bach’s musical score for a new redaction or Elliot’s poetic structure for another less complex one does not affect the original text. The correct, uncorrupted text is still there and can always be consulted. Such is not the case with a painting which has been made more readable. The restoration operation requires that making the object more readable be conducted on the original, unique and only text itself.
How does a restorer go about achieving M. Mohen’s much treasured readable image you might quite reasonably ask? Generally speaking any old varnish is removed along with “dirt” from the surface of the painting. In the nature of things, varnish often darkens in time and can turn warm in tone. Of course the removal of such varnishes with solvents can strip the picture of the often admired natural patina achieved over time. Besides, removing one layer on the surface does not guarantee that the layer beneath is not affected.
Restorers almost automatically remove old restorations from a painting. In their place, they tend, in differing degrees, to replace them with modern corrections, under the assumption that we moderns are better at guessing what the correct appearance should be. Usually, too, there is an effort to make the colors themselves more vivid. In consequence the painting becomes increasingly more accessible and attractive to the public. In the process of restoration, especially when readability is the key standard, outlines, edges, contours, which help define the imagery, are reinforced. Even if the original is relatively readable, it can be made more readable. And in areas where the original surface has been lost over the centuries, the restorer repaints them without compunction, in the name of readability. All this happened at the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes are today definitely more readable than they were before 1980. To be sure critics and artists have found that the imagery appears to be too much like highly readable Walt Disney illustrations.
Even if the culture could decide what might be acceptable standards of readability, arguably an impossible exercise anyway, will those standards remain the same in 5 years, 10 or 20? Tastes change, as art styles do, and sometimes very fast. One thing is certain in the history of art restoration: experts can quite confidently identify the restoration of one period from another. Thus the time and taste behind the treatment is left indelibly on the unique text.
The concept of readability appears to encompass another characteristic: an aura of democratization. The art object needs to be made assessable to the lowest common denominator. The notion is similar to the one behind Classic Comics, where Dante’s Inferno or the Holy Bible is cartoon-ized for school children. Or consider those nefarious summaries of Moby Dick, The Raven, or Hamlet condensed into several dozen easy-to-understand pages. The process is known today as “dumbing down.”
Readability harbors an hidden agenda: tourism. The tourist industry is one of the leading business of the grandest cities in Europe and America and in places like Paris, New York and Rome, it represents the single greatest income producer for the local economy. In order to make the art palpable to mass tourism, the assumption is that the art objects should be readable, so that the visitors are satisfied in their rushed visits to the Louvre, the Met, the Uffizi. That is interpreted to mean that the paintings must be bright and shinny, and the sculpture scrubbed and sandblasted. In this way, the thinking implies, visitors may wish to return and tell their friends about the marvels they saw.
One cannot forget that restoration is carried out by skillful artisans, steady hands, and the activity being in the final analysis is not science but craft, for want of a better word. Whether in the cleaning stage at the beginning or in the reintegration or repainting stage at the end, the crucial factor is the manual ability and good judgment of the operators. And if the superintendents and museums directors want readability, they can get it only from these individuals, who being human, interpret the pictorial surface, evaluate what clues there are, and make a product which is regarded by the officials as “readable.” This does not even imply that the result is, somehow, correct, original, accurate, or in harmony with the artistic statement of its creator, but merely that it is “readable.” An application of the “readability” approach is the recently completed Last Supper in Milan. Finally, you could say, after centuries of confusion the mural is readable; but the problem is that it is false. As little as 20 percent of what you see is by Leonardo da Vinci and the rest has been painted by the restorers, including the crucial head of Christ which is a highly readable image, datable to circa 1998.
Even bringing the theories of the sacred cow of modern restoration is not necessarily useful nor a legitimate claim to right reason when it comes to modern restorations. The notions of Cesare Brandi, who was neither a scientist nor a restorer but an art historian developed his ideas over 70 years ago. After all if you were to cling to a theory of aviation before the introduction of the jet, or of energy before the atomic revolution, or medicine before antibiotics, the subsequent discussion would prove to be irrelevant to a contemporary situation. When it comes to art restoration there is a far better, safer and more accurate solution to the “readability” requirement, so dear to the official French position. And it is one which preserves the integrity of the original art work at the same time that it employs modern technology.
In order to give the viewer, whether a sophisticated one, a beginner, or a school child, a tangible impression of the art of the past as well as the probable intention of creating artists, I propose that state-of-the-art computer technology be employed to generate to-scale facsimiles and that these be placed side-by-side with the “originals” when they are not very “readable.” This idea surfaced publicly a few years ago when French authorities were considering a thorough cleaning of the Mona Lisa. Complaints had come from museum experts and arts scholars alike over the appearance of the painting, with its darkened, discolored varnish. It was, in effect, difficult to read, and many opined how wonderful it would be to see it freshened up. Good sense prevailed, however, with the recognition that the surface was so delicate and that Leonardo’s process so fragile that losses could have occurred in the restoration. The suggestion was put forward in some quarters to produce a facsimile as one imagines the original appeared. In this way a viable imagine could be offered to the public and for educational purposes, at the same time that tampering with such a basic creation would effectively be avoided.
In fact, the possibility of showing carefully produced scale facsimiles should put an end to the readability alternative with all its built-in threats to the authenticity of the work and the wide margin of error in interpretation. In this way, the text is maintained, never repainted nor brightening up on the basis of one reading or another, even the most qualified. The original remains there and merely requires maintenance. The interpretations, which are inseparable ingredients of restoration, would be limited to the facsimile and could readily be changed from time to time, as our knowledge expands. Under any circumstance it would be more “correct” than any dangerous and essentially experimental treatment of the unique original and would better guarantee the aims of the Restoration Establishment. Let us once and for all eliminate from practice the pernicious and inherently dangerous notion of readability, as outmoded.