The Roman School of Conservation, the ‘Critical Conservation’

The founder and first director of the Scuola di Specializzazione per Io Studio ed il Restauro dei Monumenti, at the Universita degli Studi di Roma

“La Sapienza”, Guglielmo de Angelis D’Ossat (1961) proposed the separation of the architectural intervention (when the building has to respond to a certain use and program) and the preservation-repair operation, from a conceptual and operational point of view. The following directors of the Roman conservation school, Renato Bonelli, Gaetano Miarelli Mariani and Giovanni Carbonara, continued the reflection. With Brandi as a major reference, they have maintained continuity but at the same time the evolution of the discipline, with a great influence internationally.

The methodology of Professor Roberto Pane (1897-1987), a student of Giovannoni, can be deduced from the attack he makes on Rudolf Wittkower’s book ‘Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism’ at the 18th International Congress of Art History in 1956 in Venice. S. Casiello (2010) reminds us of the psychological instance that Pane encourages to keep in mind, “in the name of the attributes of memory and according to our inner life”, in addition to the historical and aesthetic instances. In 1945, Bonelli, a follower of the philosophy of B. Croce, and as such separated the aesthetic implications of the practices (Croce, 1920), already framed the concept of architectural criticism as art criticism (Bonelli, 1945).

Along with Pane’s argument, Bonelli established that the historical value of the work of art is identified with the expressive, while its understanding is entrusted to criticism and not to the practical principles from which the creative act has resulted, thus laying the basis of ‘Critical Conservation’ (Restauro Critico) (Bonelli, 1945). To Bonelli, conservation does not belong to the practical sphere but to the theoretical one. Accordingly, the conservator sees the final work not only as a historical or critical one but also as an artist who takes the work to its original expression. The need to identify the added parts loses importance; the important thing is the final result. The task of the conservator is to reinstate the “intimate and robust coherence of beauty” to the work of art. This is a beauty in Croce’s sense, not in nature, but in the spiritual energy of human activity. In this way the work will never be false, but original in its value of universality (Bonelli, 1945).

As we have seen, Brandi’s theory is focused on the subject of the work of art, the only one to be preserved, with the aim of conserve the potential unity of the work of art and without cancelling the traces of history (Brandi, 1963). The ‘Critical Conservation’, as formulated by Bonelli (1963), once again considers the architectural conservation as a creative act, in which the original (the building as a document) and the intervention that increases the value of the building (taking possession of it) are respected at the same time, in an effort to merge the new with the old. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a strong connection between conservators and art historians, antiquarians and collectors and the discourse on authenticity was intense, as we have seen in the case of Boni.

This theory is influenced by the two preceding centuries. As we have seen, since the eighteenth century, architecture has been exposed to historical judgments, and the present separated from the past with the consequent loss of continuity. The archaeological value of the building increasingly prevails and monuments became bearers of ideal images of the past, anecdotal documents or scenery that only contribute to the urban context, losing identity as individual buildings, and in the end the true nature of its architecture was not understood. As we have also seen, the definition of conservation as a discipline appears in the nineteenth century, but the great evolution occurs during the twentieth century, as reflected by the definition of conservation (restauro) in the Enciclopedia Italiana (Giovannoni, 1936) and the Enciclopedia Universale dell’Arte (Bonelli, 1963).

The practice promoted by the Italian Conservation Charter and by Giovannoni (1936): “the reinstatement of existing fragments with the eventual addition of neutral elements, necessary for the reintegration of the whole and to ensure future conservation”, is called by G. Miarelli Mariani (1999) ‘Theory of Substitutes’; he also believed that the ways in which architectural conservation is carried out today do not respond to contemporary sensibilities and the current way of understanding the past. He blamed the philological or ‘Scientific’ approach of the interwar period of the twentieth century for the progressive separation of the conservation from the architectural debate, which he thought it has been recently increased, separating conservation from the Zeitgeist.

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