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The Birth of Conservation: Early Restoration Works

Before the Industrial Revolution, history was just the continuation of the world. Restorations were taken for utilitarian and aesthetic reasons and pieces were fixed and maintained accordingly. If we look at restoration and conservation works in a modern sense, we can pinpoint a few projects that really planted the seeds for our field today.

So firstly, it should be mentioned that King Nabonidus of Babylon, who reigned between 556 and 539 BCE was really the first documented guy to undertake a massive restoration project. He left his capital for 10 years to restore temples, mostly to the moon god Sin. During these restorations, he also conducted what are considered the first archaeological excavations.

Jumping forward in time to the Roman period, writer Cassiodorus was a large advocate for conservation of Roman buildings. Writing in his letters that greater attention must be paid in conserving them rather than in planning them.

Cassiodorus lookin' studious as always

“On preserving the buildings of Rome: "It is useless to build firmly at the outset if lawlessness has the power to ruin what has been designed: for those things are strong, those things enduring, which wisdom has begun and care preserved. And therefore, greater attention must be exercised in conserving than in planning them, since a plan at its outset deserves commendation, but from preservation we gain the glory of completion." (I.25.1)”

Of course, both of these examples can be interpreted as the old way of thought when approaching maintenance of old things, but the intentions are there nonetheless.

It’s not until the 16th century that we get a more unified agreement, with some considering the 1565 restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes as the beginning of the tradition of conservation and restoration of cultural heritage. Only 50 years after its completion, the ceiling began to show signs of decay, most likely from water penetrating from above. You could see effects of saltpeter, which leaves a white efflorescence, and cracks, were also forming. It is said that these efflorescences were treated with linseed and walnut oil as they made the crystals a bit more transparent.

The 18th century is when things really start to explode with larger projects underway and methods/ professions rising up. In 1762, Michelangelo Bellotti first attempted to restore Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Paintings in the Spanish royal collection underwent meticulous restoration beginning in 1735 following a fire. They were undertaken in specially constructed studios, and the materials used were even documented. And in this century, painting restoration became an official, separate profession in France.

After this, conservation projects grow and grow, as we become more aware of the ageing of our cultural heritage and start realising that we as humanity have really made some amazing things that are worth keeping around a little bit longer.

Technical analysis of artist techniques and materials rises in the 19th century, and we start to engage with art and cultural objects in different ways. So instead of just creating, we’re moving on to conserving, recognising cultural importance as it arises, and doing something about it. What started out as a few, important individuals recognizing this and trying to do something about it has transformed into a global movement and universal awareness of all our human achievements have to offer.

Have any questions? Email me!


Gianluigi Colalucci's essay, Michelangelo's Colours Rediscovered in The Sistine Chapel, ed. Massimo Giacometti. (1986), ISBN 0-517-56274-X

Zahira Véliz "The Restoration of Paintings in the Spanish Royal Collections, 1734-1820," Studies in the History of Painting Restoration, ed. Christine Sitwell and Sarah Staniforth, Archetype Publications, 1998, pp. 43–62


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