Custodians of Art and Time

Written by  Giordano Magri
A portrait of the craftsmen and structures devoted to the restoration of artworks in Ferrara.
At the end of via Machiavelli, a little glass door and a nameplate mark the premises reserved for the course in the preservation and restoration of modern works of art. Inside, a large room, lots of desks, easels holding paintings - most of which are relatively new -, brushes, pots of paint, and the tools of the trade.

Two years ago or so it was decided to set up a course for fifteen young people, chosen from about fifty candidates, aimed at training them in the conservation and restoration of modern and contemporary canvases. The idea was a brainchild of Franco Farina, the master craftsman who has set up some unforgettable exhibitions in the Gallery of Modern Art housed in Palazzo dei Diamanti: for one of his most recent exhibitions, devoted to Tapies, various works arrived from Spain in disastrous condition and he was struck by the need to create a school in Ferrara for the conservation of modern art, something the city lacked.

Financing was provided by the Emilia Romagna region, which was in turn backed by the European Social Fund, plus a contribution from the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara. The pupils work under Francesco Petrucci, who lectures in high Energy Physics and has always been fascinated by the application of physics to art. At the end of the course the Regional government will examine the pupils before awarding a diploma. What to call them at that point? Craftsmen, restorers, art conservers?
Italian law has as yet nothing to say on the matter, but in reality what counts is that these new professionals manage to find work suited to their qualifications without having to join the queue in the desperate hunt for that elusive first job. Farina makes no secret of his optimism as he knows well that the problem facing all museums and art galleries is primarily a matter of maintaining art works, while full scale restoration is something to be avoided if possible.

He puts it like this: «Artists know that the materials they use now have a limited lifespan, and that's why it's important to retard their decay as much as possible through maintenance. Italy has plenty of specialists in the restoration of old art, while for modern art there is virtually nobody. And here in Ferrara we could fill this nationwide gap. The Rector of the University is helpful and enthusiastic, but before we can set up a three-year degree course we'll need the kind of help that only a really forward looking public and private sector can provide».

In the meantime, professor Petrucci is finishing off the preparatory part of the course and soon he'll be taking his pupils on training sessions at art galleries in Bologna, Modena and Cento. Five testing weeks will follow, in the course of which dozens of Italian artists will visit the studio in via Machiavelli where they will produce a painting in front of the students before answering questions on the techniques amd materials used. Thereafter the studio will be empty, leaving the supporters of the course to hope that it will fill up again the following September.
From the moderns to the past masters, along the same operative axis. We are in the studio run by Maria Barbara Stella, the artist-artisan as she intends to style herself until the authorities get round to conferring a specific professional status upon art restoration.

Ten years have passed since she took a high school diploma at Ravenna before enrolling first in Art School and then in the Institute of Art and Restoration at Palazzo Spinelli in Florence. Armed with a well earned diploma from the Tuscany Regional Council, her first commissions came along.

When asked about prospects, both her own and those of the other young people who have followed in, she smiles. She says she has never lacked work. Among the restorations that aroused her greatest enthusiasm she recalls a painting by Cesare Mezzogori, which shows the Madonna del Rosario with saints Domenic and Justina (1661), a large canvas in a very poor state that required months of highly professional work.

That these young custodians of art and time are needed is beyond doubt, and if it is true that Italy possesses over 50% of the world's art heritage how many more jobs of this type could be created?