Art: Dirty Work

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Baths usually are not newsworthy events, but the announcement last fall that Michelangelo’s David would have its first in 130 years made headlines worldwide. The privately funded cleaning project will finish well in time for David’s 500th anniversary in 2004. However, controversy arose in April when restorer Agnese Parronchi resigned over a dispute about how to clean the iconic statue. She favored what amounts to an intensive inch-by-inch dusting of David, while Franca Falletti, director of the Florence gallery that houses the statue, prefers a more modern technique involving water, which Parronchi deemed too extreme.

This turn of events has alarmed some art lovers, including James Beck, an art history professor at Columbia University and president of Artwatch International, a New York–based advocacy group that seeks to protect and preserve the world’s art treasures. Beck did not support the cleaning of David, viewing it as unnecessary because the statue has been shielded from Florence’s corrosive pollution since it was moved indoors in 1873. However, Beck admires Parronchi’s restoration techniques. “She’s the best person possible,” he says. “She believes in very minimal cleaning.” Beck agrees that the cleaning technique Falletti favors might diminish the Michelangelo masterpiece, insisting that the director’s approach “would be a tragic mistake because it would take off a lot of surface that should not be taken off.”

The David project illustrates a larger issue concerning the cleaning of artworks. “Cleaning” is a relatively innocuous word for a process that is more akin to surgery, with its attendant risks of permanent scarring and even destruction. “Every time you intervene with a work of art, you are altering it on some level,” says Paul Messier, a Boston-based professional conservator who specializes in photographs. “You have to have a good rationale for changing the piece‚ always.”


Perhaps the most famous cleaning controversy involved another priceless Michelangelo, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In 1994, after the scrubbing of the masterpiece exposed shockingly bright colors, Beck and others decried it, saying the cleaning went too far and removed layers of paint that Michelangelo applied to add subtlety and nuance.

Messier also points out that one generation’s dirt is another generation’s patina. The idea of how particular artworks are supposed to look has changed over the centuries, and future audiences will doubtless have their own notions of what looks best. Messier explains that removing the patina on vintage photos used to be standard practice, but “people [now] like oxidation on vintage photos. It places the object in time. It is a marker that it has been around for a while,” he says.

Before commissioning or committing funds to a cleaning project, it is wise to ask a few questions. Beck and Messier agree that you should always seek a second opinion (and perhaps even a third) from a qualified neutral party. Also, confirm the credentials of those who will perform the cleaning. Currently, there are no major governing bodies that license professional conservators, so anyone can claim to be one. However, Messier says that the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) may have a certification program in place soon.

In short, when a cleaning is recommended, do not simply accept that it is necessary. Be sure that you understand the risks involved, and that you agree that the rewards are worth these risks. “With every treatment of a work of art, there is a fairly complex cost-benefit analysis,” Messier says. “You always give up something to gain something else.”

AIC, 202.452.9545, aic.stanford.edu;
Artwatch International, 212.854.4569, www.artwatchinternational.org

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