This research project focuses on the Italian Renaissance and its rediscovery of antiquity. Its main objective is to clarify the relationship between the material restoration of artworks and political restoration in an era where this relationship is particularly conspicuous. The aim is to analyze the links between the material restoration of artworks, with the purpose of returning them to their supposed original state, and their symbolic re-investment as part of a dynamic of political restoration towards a previous regime.
The corpus will concentrate on sculptures and paintings from around Rome and Florence in the time between 1450 and 1570 as well as on their relationship to other artistic mediums. In order to further our understanding of the practical, aesthetic and theoretical challenges related to the issue of restoration, the study of artworks between the quattrocento and the cinquecento requires an interdisciplinary methodology that spans the humanities and the social sciences. Moreover, to build a hermeneutic approach towards art restoration, we aim to engage in exchanges with specialists in restoration technology. Contemporary restoration technologies make it possible to trace how works of art have been successively, and sometimes repeatedly, damaged and restored over time.
Lines of research
The project is structured across four lines of research, each of which exemplifies a different angle from which to consider artworks within the aforementioned dual-dynamic framework of restoration:
Politicized restoration of antiquity
We will examine to what extent restoration is an invention of a state of the artwork that constructs its origins in a quest for political legitimacy. What are the mechanisms at work, consciously or not, in the shift from restoration to foundation, and to the myth of foundation?
Restoring “modern” works
The project will also look at the restoration of artworks produced during and shortly before the Renaissance. The investigation will focus on works that have been symbolically reconfigured in the context of a reinstatement of political regimes and whose materiality was affected to varying degrees in the process.
A time of marked reform
We will examine the restoration of works that have been damaged during a period characterized by its iconoclasm, and we will consider how these acts of restoration were interpreted and even instrumentalized for political purposes. This line of research will also entertain the notion of “restoration” of the artwork as a form of prophylaxis used to prevent its destruction in a climate of politico-religious reform. This line of questioning extends into censorship and additions made to modify works of art.
This approach aims to highlight an inverse dynamic to that of material and political restoration of ancient works of art following their excavation, namely, their expulsion by reburial. This ancestral practice, which survived throughout the Renaissance, was intended to remove the material reality of the object, most often a sculpture, from the visible world and thus neutralize its pagan magical power. Alternatively, it deflected this power onto an enemy, for instance by breaking up a “cursed” artwork and burying the pieces on the enemy’s territory. We believe that this line of research will serve as a valuable counterpoint to the project’s main theme, and that this a contrario approach will stengthen our argument.
The four lines of research that structure our study of restoration in the Renaissance as fabrication of the origins call for an interdisciplinary method, which in turn is centered on four focal points corresponding to the main conceptual tools of the project:
Restoration – Foundation – Origin
The origin as a place of identity-anchoring will be one of the main threads of this project. Sitting between science and myth, it is a topical issue in many research disciplines, from theology and physics to anthropology, Renaissance literature studies and contemporary child psychiatry. Along with these fields, and in close connection to our theme, the history of Greek and Roman antiquity and the history of Roman law have emphasized that the question of the beginnings [arkhaia] is part of a “continuously remodeled fiction that serves as a memory of a time lived in the present and conflates with it” (Dupont, Rome, la ville sans origine, 2011, 19). Our approach to restoration will be underpinned by the concept of mythological archeology, which aims to found the present and is therefore distinct from positivist archeology, which intends to present evidence of a past era.
Origins in the “after-effect”
The concept of “after-effect” [Nachträglichkeit] has long since entered history and art theory at various levels, as witness the ex-post-facto treatment applied to certain images or the study of the “past of art” and its presence in later eras in the form of ruins or fragments. Through a parallel dynamic, the notion of “the survival of antiquity” [Nachleben der Antike] and, by extension, of ancient forms in the Renaissance—which Aby Warburg chose as the central motif of his anthropological approach to Western art—will guide this research. Warburg’s reflections on the influence of one era on another and on the migrations of forms [Wanderung der Formen] in history and culture will also be discussed and used critically. The notions of “after-effect” and survival will be used as conceptual tools to support the examination the project intends to carry out on the subject of restoration as fabrication, i.e., as an ex-post-facto construction of the origins in Renaissance Italy.
Semantics of restoration
We will analyze the polysemy of the term “restoration” and the plurality of its uses by means of a comparison with other words qualifying the relationship to an object or system established in a previous era. For this operation, mastering the semantic nuances of the concept of “Renaissance” is key, from its conditions of use and interpretation to characterize the Italian Renaissance and distinguish it from other revivals to its most recent theoretical and historiographic interpretations. The same examination of parent notions, such as renovation [renovatio urbis], reconstruction, or even the fertile destruction of art with a view to building the present, will serve to support this inquiry, which aims to clarify the meanings and uses of the term “restoration” in Renaissance Italy.
Stories and practices of restoration
The history and practices of restoration will allow us to deepen the material understanding of the object and its successive layers of history, between its destructions and restorations over time. The project team will familiarize itself with these investigative processes by interacting extensively with various specialists in institutes of scientific research and restoration.