Restorers return to glory

May 2, 1997

Three years ago, Rome's once-glorious Central Restoration Institute seemed doomed to slide into apathy and mediocrity, a victim of mismanagement and of appointments dictated by politics rather than competence.

Now, 18 months after Giovanni Cordaro took over as director, the ICR is striving to restore its standing as one of the world's key centres for research and teaching in restoration and conservation.

Professor Cordaro is eager to repair the damage done in recent years. "I've tried to establish priorities. We must concentrate on fields where a real need exists, on ways to protect monuments, statues and paintings, from the terrible effects of modern pollution.

"This involves working with scientists outside the world of restoration itself. They also raise issues of an almost philosophical nature. For instance, when should a statue be removed from where it has stood for hundreds or thousands of years? How do we measure the damage it could suffer in years to come?

"I believe that an important statue should only be left outside if steps can be taken to ensure it will suffer no damage at all. But this means developing new protective varnishes which do not deface the sculpture or corrode it, which can be periodically removed without damage and re-applied."

This dilemma is concentrated in one of the ICR's most important recent projects, the restoration of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. For almost 2,000 years this gold-plated bronze sculpture graced the centre of the piazza of Rome's Capitol. A few years ago it was discovered that the bronze was corroded, in particular where it was in contact with the gold "skin".

"The restoration involved enormous research in metallurgy and on the effects of air pollution in conjunction with rain and humidity. In the end we decided to keep the restored original in a glass chamber beside the piazza and to substitute a replica."

The ICR was founded in 1939 by Cesare Brandi, who shaped and directed the institute until 1970. Until the 1960s, it was the world's only major national institute dedicated to the art and science of restoration and a Mecca for restorers from all over the world.

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