Giotto frescoes warning ignored

March 13, 1998

A prominent United States art historian was not allowed to speak at a conference on recently restored Giotto frescoes after he warned that the conservation work could prove damaging.

James Beck of Columbia University, an expert on the Italian Renaissance and founder of ArtWatch International, was excluded from a conference at Padua University last month to discuss the restoration and conservation of the frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Fernando De Simone, an Italian architect and conservation expert who agreed with Professor Beck, was also excluded from the list of about 15 speakers, all of whom were directly or indirectly connected to the team that executed the conservation work on behalf of the city of Padua.

Professor Beck had repeatedly asked for an open debate and had written to Flavio Zanonato, the mayor of Padua, asking to be heard. The mayor said that even if Professor Beck turned up at the meeting he would not be allowed to speak.

Professor Beck said in New York: "To block freedom of speech is to block freedom of information. I believe that if restorers, in this case including the civil engineers of Padua, were legally responsible for their actions we would all be better off. I have faith in the ability of the public to make sensible determinations, if all the issues are set forth."

Earlier he had told the newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he was "saddened, everything seems organised to comfort local public opinion that might be alarmed by any criticism".

Professor Beck made the headlines a few years ago when he suggested that the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel frescoes had removed a layer of original paint, an opinion shared by other experts.

He has also criticised work in the Uffizi and, in agreement with Federico Zeri, Italy's most famous art historian, suggested that recent earthquake damage to the roof of the Cathedral of St Francis in Assisi was the result of the replacement, during previous conservation work, of an original wooden beam with one made out of concrete, which transmitted shocks rather than absorbing them.

On the Scrovegni Chapel and the 38 frescoes by Giotto representing the Redemption, Professor Beck claims that a steel and glass chamber with a concrete base, built at the entrance to the chapel with the function of "cleaning" visitors of dust and moisture, would act like a "pneumatic hammer" on the fabric in the event of earth tremors. He also warns that the level of humidity in the chapel is too high to guarantee the long-term conservation of the frescoes.

ArtWatch International is an organisation of art historians, restorers and artists with the purpose of "creating a system of checks and balances in the treatment of the world's art treasures".

The director of ArtWatch UK, Michael Daley, said: "The more important the job of conservation and restoration, the less willing are those involved to even accept the possibility that mistakes may have been made."

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