Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do
The first curators and directors of museums and galleries were titled “Keepers”. It was a nicely ungrand reminder that the curator did not own but was merely required to guarantee the safe-keeping of collections. Those modest days are past. Today’s museum is no longer the means by which interested members of the public are granted access to fine collections of art in circumstances conducive to tranquil contemplation and reflection. The Modern Museum is an instrument wielded simultaneously (and rarely coherently) on behalf of assorted vested interests. Governments can treat museums as tools of social engineering. Sponsors can use them as means of burnishing tarnished corporate personas. For many groups and interests they constitute both job-creation schemes and marketing or catering opportunities. Possession, notoriously, is nine parts of the law and today’s museum directors and curators often act as if, for the duration of their tenures of office, they themselves own the works. For some, art collections constitute harvestable assets, a kind of tradable currency that can project institutional and personal brands/egos onto the global stage. No one retains a career interest in leaving well alone. Even when they are not being shuttled around the world, pictures can be physically or virtually “restored” so as to generate newsworthy “discoveries” and dramatically upgraded attributions. Even when circumstances preclude the generation of physical transformations and excitements, curators can, as our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), here discloses, deploy purely “presentational” techniques to identically detrimental effects. [M. D.]
Michel Favre-Felix writes:
In her desire to give “more visibility” to Mantegna’s Dead Christ (see Fig. 1), the iconic masterpiece of the Brera’s magnificent collections, the museum’s director, Sandrina Bandera, could have given carte blanche to a trendy museum designer or to a provocative artist. Instead, she chose the movie-maker Ermanno Olmi as “a humanist concerned by the human tragedies and a humble artist who would not try to hold his own with the painting.” [See, bottom right: Endnote 1.]
The result, as seen since late December, is that the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. (See Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.) This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares “This will last: I will fight for it”.  (See Figs. 6 and 7.)
While not doubting the sincere empathy of the 83 years old film director with Mantegna’s tragic moving image, likely created in the mid-1480’s, after the loss of his two beloved sons, his declared ambition, after a “deep intellectual research” (“profonda ricerca intellettuale”) to “present the painting just as its creator wanted”  cannot be accepted. To begin with, Ermanno Olmi holds that “the frame was a nuisance. It is a painting that would have been hung upon Mantegna’s bed or on its side, not a decoration.”  This discarding of the frame (see Fig. 8) is a matter of no regret for the Brera, which states that it was documented “only” from the XVIth century. However, the idea that a religious painting rightly becomes a “decoration” as soon as it gets a frame is a post-modern conception that rests on an inability to comprehend how paintings were conceived and viewed in the religious climate of the 15th century.
Far from being an alien ornamental addition, the frame is a device that serves as a gateway marking a separation between the surrounding real/material world and the depicted ideal world. It marks the step away from our daily views into the world of artistic and spiritual contemplation – both a border and a bridge: the intermediary moment that permits the introduction of the “epiphany” of the image.
Decorum was, on the contrary, a native part of the religious display and sincere piety was expressed through the enriched appearance of images. Dismissing “decoration” with Mantegna, who gave unequalled expressive importance to decorative elements in his own art by elevating ornamentation to the highest degree of artistic and spiritually expressive means, is singularly regrettable. (See Figure 9, which shows the outstanding subtlety and complexity of Mantegna’s design and its interrelationships between the carved gilded architectural frame and rich depicted ornaments.)
Clearly, in his quest of the essence of the image, Olmi felt compelled to “liberate” the Dead Christ from any kind of “decorum”. Instead, by acting without any self-critical distance, he has merely wrapped the sacred image in the stereotypical “decorum” of our modern times: the non-framing of modern paintings and the omnipresent practice, in books and on computers screens, of reproducing old paintings without their frames. Such a reading might have been acceptable had the museum announced: “this is the creative movie-director’s own personal vision of the painting”. But M. Olmi claims to have “recovered” Mantegna’s original intentions by means of new historic-scientific deductions.
He does so with contradictory explanations. First, he asserts that, historically, “this painting has not been painted to be exhibited for all to see but was intended to remain hidden from any external sight”.  (Giovanni Agosti, the art historian and Mantegna specialist at Milan University, refutes this account.) Why, then, has Olmi gone to such lengths to give “more visibility” to the painting – which was the very aim of the Brera’s project?
Other inconsistencies stem from Olmi’s singular and highly specific conviction that the raison d’être of the Dead Christ was to be a private devotional image positioned on the side of the artist’s bed at 67 cm from the ground – at which height he claims to insure a “correct” prospect for a viewer not in the bed but in a standing position next to it. As Olmi argues: “If I have placed the painting at 67 cm from the ground it is because, when it is placed at the eyes level, the Christ looks deformed and stunted as if he was hanging by his arms. It is true that one could feel inclined to kneel, but the viewpoint that I impose is not religious. It is the most adequate with the view chosen by Mantegna.” 
The film-director’s attempts to “correct” the prospect with his disconcerting and precise 67 cm calculation fails to address the long established but puzzling fact that at least two, contradictory prospects were used in the construction of the scene. Actually, Mantegna’s representation is not bound to a formulaic appliance of mathematical prospect but, rather, used an expressive, sensitive one (in accordance with Alberti’s conceptions). Should the Brera’s visitors be instinctively inclined to kneel, M. Olmi might consider that they might instinctively be right, and that he is intellectually wrong.
Let us test Olmi’s calculations. The painting would have hung near Mantegna’s bed, at 67 cm from the floor, as a devotional image for his own kneeling prayers. Nevertheless, the artist would have set the “correct” prospect for the viewpoints of rare visitors to his bedroom. And thus, every day, Mantegna, while kneeling would have, on Olmi’s account, seen no more than a “deformed and stunted” Christ. That the Brera also asserts that this level is “the same that the artist wanted ”  only illustrates the well-known phenomenon of collective misleading.
In truth, Mantegna’s intentions are implicit within the painting. The key is the position of the three lamenting figures at the Christ’s side. These three mourners (the Virgin, St John and the Magdalena) are not standing but kneeling. A recently rediscovered ink drawing, dated to the 1460’s and which may be thought to be part of Mantegna’s own steps towards his final composition shows figures, standing and leaning around the Christ (see Fig. 10). As Mantegna eventually chose kneeling figures, he thereby rethought the prospect. The resulting unusual viewpoint in the Brera masterpiece makes sense when we realize that it represents the prospect drawn from a position similar to that of the three mourners: Mantegna places the spectator as a fourth mourner looking from a similar kneeling position and point of view (See Fig. 1).
Now, there are not so many plausible solutions. In the first, the painting is positioned near the ground, hypothetically as in the artist’s bedroom or – in another hypothesis – as it might have been placed on Mantegna’s grave. In both cases the spectators are rightly situated when kneeling. But a museum is not a church, nor a graveyard, nor an artist’s bedroom. In another reading, the painting hung at eye level and the standing spectators share the sight of the kneeling mourners. Although dashing the Brera’s hopes to revolutionize the traditional display, this solution works perfectly and is consistent with other sight level solutions by Mantegna, as can be seen in his “Wedding Chamber” of 1465-1474 in the Ducal palace of Mantua (See Figs. 11, 12 and 13).
The only wrong choice is that of M. Olmi. Andrea Carandini, the archaeologist president of the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust, put it trenchantly: “this means placing the body of Jesus at the level of the genitals that have everything except eyes” . The Italian professor further slammed Olmi’s failure to understand what a painting is and is not, by confounding an artistic representation of the sepulchre with a mimicked reproduction of a sepulchre room.
Of Olmi’s overly theatrical design, Carandini stresses that the painting is now dematerialized and degraded to a projected image. This new projected slide effect of the Dead Christ offends art historian Philippe Daverio who complains of a present resemblance to the reddish glow of a Pizza furnace . Personally, I am even more struck by the similarity with a movie screen. Could it be that M. Olmi does not realize that he is here replicating the very situation, so familiar to him, of a cinema showing in the dark? Should a row of cinema chairs be put in the present gallery, the seated spectators would be at the perfect height for looking at his Dead Christ film.
As for the Brera’s desire to increase the “visibility” and to recover the “true” (original) the viewing of the Dead Christ, such aims coincide with current (controversial) definitions of contemporary restoration, which pretend to increase the “legibility” of the artwork  and to reveal its “true” colours, by some supposed recovery of its original state.
As with the numerous controversial restorations that have been the subject of critical analysis by ArtWatch and others, hypotheses that are cast up as alleged discoveries are given the status of facts and misleading calculations are supplied for “scientific” proofs. Ambitious restorations and spectacular displays alike are – however awkward their results – made in the name of retrieving the artist’s original intentions.
In both cases, close analysis shows a contemporary aesthetic prevailing over the artist’s own original one. Professed humility in restorers and exhibition designers is unable to constrain the contamination of the past by our present artistic prejudices. By similar processes, through invasive restoration or intrusive display, the old masterpieces are modernized and thus, for ongoing decades or even irreversibly, falsified.
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ArtWatch Stock-taking and the Sistine Chapel Conservation Debacle
ArtWatch is entering its twenty-first campaigning year with strengthening critical bite. The new ArtWatch UK website greatly extended the published reach of our Journal (see Figs. 1-4), attracting 22,000 visits in its first year and 52,000 visits last year, half coming from the UK and the USA and the rest from 139 other countries. With this post our archive comprises 59 articles by 8 authors. In New York the ArtWatch International site has been revivified under its new director, Einav Zamir. In France our colleagues in the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA) have re-structured their website which now carries much of the contents of their excellent, rigorous journal, Nuances. Our efforts now attract fewer hostile and more respectful responses. We enjoy (sotto voce) support at high levels in many quarters – including among some conservators – and we sometimes earn outright vindication, as shown below. International and national press interest in our campaigns remains high. Unfortunately, in the art world itself many players remain in official denial on the subject of restoration injuries. They can see and admit that this is wrong and that that is wrong, but not that pictures are still being injured in restoration.
Our debut post on 12 December 2010, “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”, contrasted the consequences of musical and pictorial reconstructions. Last May, in a fascinating talk (“The Pursuit of Excellence: A Call to Arms”) at the 4th annual Lufthansa Lecture, at St John’s Smith Square, London, Andrew Manze, a former baroque violinist and Artistic Director of the English Concert and now Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, noted: “Musicians are lucky that they can do no permanent harm to their material compared to the irreversible damage inflicted on the plastic arts, as reported by the ArtWatch organization for example…”
Our second post on the 13 December 2010 (“An Appeal from Poland”) drew an immediate response. Distinguished scholars, curators and conservators in Poland had asked ArtWatch UK to support their opposition to a proposed loan of Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” to the National Gallery (see “The National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo restoration”). We were then attacked in Poland – abusively – by Count Adam Zamoyski, chairman of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation which had agreed to loan the many-times borrowed Leonardo for a substantial fee. It was later reported from Poland that: “In order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow”, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski of the Czartoryski Museum had dismissed the entire board and its chairman, his cousin, Count Adam Zamoyski. Although the contracted loan went ahead it was announced that the fragile panel painting would not travel again for at least a decade.
Our posts of 8 February and 14 March 2012 produced evidence of a mis-reconstructed sleeve of Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. This was reported in the Independent of 14 March 2012. In the National Geographic special issue “Exploring History” it is said that: “Generally lauded by art historians and appreciators, the restored work has aroused controversy. Some say too little of Leonardo’s paint is left, or cavil about the mural’s altered forms…As the debate wears on, we at least – and at last – have a legible ‘Last Supper’ to savor.” “Legible-but-false” could stand as a motto in those museum conservation departments where restorers paint photographically manipulated “virtual realities” onto old master pictures.
Last week our November 12 post on a Black and White Michelangelo drew an artistically perceptive endorsement from the painter and art critic, Gerry Bell. ArtWatch’s genesis was rooted in the tumultuous battles over the 1980-1990s Sistine Chapel restoration battles. That controversy has recently re-combusted – and in precisely the manner we had anticipated two decades ago in the 1993 James Beck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. It is now clear that having first engineered a needless artistic calamity, the Vatican authorities have additionally contrived a situation in which the already adulterated remains of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are also presently in grave physical peril. On January 2nd 2012 Art Daily carried an Agence France-Presse report on the panic that has beset the Vatican authorities over the present and worsening environmental threat to the Chapel’s frescoes:
“The Vatican Museums chief warned that dust and polluting agents brought into the Sistine Chapel by thousands of tourists every day risk one day endangering its priceless artworks. Antonio Paolucci told the newspaper La Repubblica in comments published Thursday that in order to preserve Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the other treasures in the Sistine Chapel, new tools to control temperature and humidity must be studied and implemented. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day, or over 4 million a year, visit the chapel where popes get elected, to admire its frescoes, floor mosaics and paintings. ‘In this chapel people often invoke the Holy Spirit. But the people who fill this room every day aren’t pure spirits,’ Paolucci told the newspaper. ‘Such a crowd … emanates sweat, breath, carbon dioxide, all sorts of dust,’ he said. ‘This deadly combination is moved around by winds and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork.’ Paolucci said better tools were necessary to avoid ‘serious damage’ to the chapel. Visitors who want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan must go through a filtration system to help reduce the work’s exposure to dust and pollutants. This has made seeing da Vinci’s masterpiece more difficult: 25 visitors are admitted every 15 minutes. The Sistine Chapel, featuring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino, underwent a massive restoration that ended in the late 1990s. The restoration was controversial because some critics said the refurbishing made the colors brighter than originally intended.”
In our next post we examine the consequences of the last restoration and its contributory role in the present crisis – a crisis for which the blame is brazenly being shifted by the authorities from the authorities and on to the (paying) visitors.
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The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around
In our February 2nd account of the European Commission’s desire to speed the “trafficking” (as it were) of art objects between European museums, through its project “Collections Mobility 2.0”, we addressed the current forms of this politically orchestrated campaign but neglected a rationale for it that had recently been offered by Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, in her introduction to Culture in Motion’s brochure The Culture Programme – 2007-2013:
“I am especially happy to highlight the importance of culture to the European Union’s objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. At a time when many of our industries are facing difficulties, the cultural and creative industries have experienced unprecedented growth and offer the prospect of sustainable, future-oriented and fulfilling jobs.”
Michel Favre-Felix, President of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), has drawn our attention to his own study of the earlier and underlying stages of this policy. An account of those researches was published in his article of Nuances 40-41 (2009). We are deeply indebted to Mr Favre-Felix not only for conducting those initial studies so thoroughly and for demonstrating their unsatisfactory – if not sinister – character, but also for presenting them here in summary form.
Michel Favre-Felix writes:
Since 2003, the declared ambition of the European Commission has been to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, five conferences were held in Naples (2003), The Hague (2004), Manchester (2005), Helsinki (2006) and, Bremen (2007).
The initial premise rested on an arithmetical calculation: exhibitions of international character are presented by only 300 institutions out of 30,000 European museums. Recommendations were issued to stimulate exchanges and loans of works of art within Europe, in addition to existing international travelling exhibitions.
Apart from administrative simplifications, it was seen that the best means of encouraging loans lay in a reduction of costs. With insurance charges comprising on average 15% -20% of travelling exhibition budgets, savings in this area could be achieved by four means: by museums’ extended use of the non-insurance of cultural objects; by waiving certain risks; by waiving costs of depreciation; and by expanding the use of State guarantees.
In the latter, a State takes the responsibility of an insurer, at almost no cost to museums, for the largest part of the values engaged in the exhibition, loan, etc. The minimal part not guaranteed by states, or the “excess” part, is insured by private companies that remain responsible for covering “the first losses”. These are the more frequent and the most tangible (and not having covered these liabilities is the reason why States have had little to pay for damages up to now – which does not mean that accidents had not happened).
It should, however, be recognised that even commercial insurance does not cover all injuries: damages that are not discovered and declared within 48 hours are excluded: the universal rule of “nail to nail” further excludes any deteriorations that manifest themselves sometime after the return of a work. Nor does insurance always cover damages linked to the fragility of an art work in the environment of travel and exhibition as with regard to humidity, temperature, etc. The reasoning is that so-vulnerable art should not have been given permission to travel in the first place, and that the lender erred in permitting it. “Pre-existing fragilities” are specifically a possible exclusion argument. However, these companies do maintain in the process their strong concern with security risks.
A first-step European study, in 2004 specifically acknowledged that:
“Insurance costs serve as obstacles for projects that are doubtful in terms of conservation, for the reason that insurers are not willing to cover particularly high risks. From this point of view, insurance costs are a guarantee against ill-considered exhibition projects. […] Insurance companies have an influence on security measures taken in museums, thus helping prevent damage” [See endnote1].
Nevertheless, the same study and the later EU reports advocate the reduction of insurance and recommend that:
“Museum professionals agree to:
-waive certain risks.
-consider lending on a non-insurance basis,
-cover only restoration of material damage and waive depreciation” 
On the possibility of “Non-insurance” the report contends that:
“Essentially, the question is: why take out insurance on objects lent abroad if the object is not insured when it remains on home ground?”
The purpose of the question is baffling: in 1991 the art insurer Hiscox stated that the risks involved were ten times higher for work on loan than when left at home. Sixteen years later, in 2007, in answer to our questions, Axa Art in France estimated the risks in loan venues to be about six times higher than in permanent residences.
Specific European suggestions that lenders should: “not insure works while they [are] at the exhibition venue” ignore the fact that most injuries occur during the time of the exhibition – and especially at moments of handling: mounting/dismounting, unpacking/repacking. In addition to which, environmental stress and risks have sometimes proved higher during exhibitions than during the travelling time.
The admonition to “waive depreciation” means that lenders should relinquish the loss of value after damage. This is a rationale from a mere financial strategy: mathematically, costs of depreciation comprise 80% of the money paid back by art insurance companies. But for ethical and cultural commitments, this strategy is most shocking. Apart from “money value”, waiving depreciation means to ignore, to deny the irreversible loss to the artistic integrity of the work of art when damaged.
Artistic integrity is totally written out of consideration when EU experts specifically advocate that:
“depreciation should not be insured because the value of an object is not important in collection mobility.”
According to this risks/damage management, depreciation should not be a concern, and neither should restoration be a problem, as we see in this incredible statement:
“in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”
This rationale that an injured and then restored work has returned to its non-injured condition – or has returned “enough” to be “re-used”– is not only clearly fallacious, but represents a major fault in museum and conservation ethics. Because restorations may (temporarily) deceive the eyes of the uninformed, restoration is presented as a miraculous mean for wiping off responsibility and liabilities. So, too, may “restorations” that are unnecessary for a work of art in its location, be imposed in order “to enable it to travel”, to endure the constraint of transport and the stress of alien environments. Such thinking might rightly be considered a source of abusive treatments of art objects: because of hasty intervention to meet deadlines or because of losses of their integrity (i.e. by relinings). But EU papers only address this question in terms of financial charges – which are to be kept “to a minimum”.
A most shocking aspect is that there is never any request that the money saved through the proposed facilities be re-invested to enhance security measures. In this strategy of “keeping costs at minimum”, Museums are further counselled to moderate even their demands for increasing safety:
“Museums that are willing to waive insurance coverage of certain risks may want assurances that transport, display, security and climate control are of the highest standard. However, it would be counterproductive [sic] to impose additional demands that again increase costs, especially when the insurance waiver was intended to reduce such costs.”
The “Museum collections on the move workshop” in Naples 2003 advised lenders to “limit as far as possible” extra expenses, and to think twice before asking for accompaniment by a courier , although this has proved to be the most effective procedure to secure the object during its whole travel.
All the opposite – increasing the security and safety measures – should have been a central preoccupation of this European project, because, wishing to have more loans and more exhibitions (than those already conducted by the 300 major museums) would, necessarily mean involving a lot of small museums – which are less equipped – and borrowing art works from non-museum sources (i.e. city-owned or various communities collections). It is well known that when the lender is not an informed professional and is not well advised by a professional conservation team, his work of art would not likely receive the safest (more expensive) forms of care and protection. The tragically recurrent abuses of Signac’s largest painting should serve as a reminder. (See illustration and comments, right.) It should therefore be a priority to promote a reinforced ethical responsibility of the borrower, to protect the “little” lenders.
The last point that deserves urgent consideration is the very motivation for such movements of collections. There is a clear interest to gather works of a given artist (though preferably not the most commonly represented ones) on the benefit of this artist first, and of the public and the experts alike. Common sense and museum ethics too, consider that loans of works of art
“should only be granted to exhibitions abroad which are artistically or academically of high quality”. 
Specifically to be excluded should be loans assembled for the purpose of festivities, political celebrations, personal or group promotions, etc. European institutions might themselves be supposed to set a “best practice” example in this regard. How then, on what academic, artistic or scientific reasons, were the 27 nation members of the European Union asked to send “a treasure of their cultural heritage”, to be gathered in a single (over-crowded) room of the Palazzo Quirinal in Rome (from March 24th to May 20th 2007) in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome?
(1) Study No. 2003-4879 ordered by the European Commission to inventory national systems of public guarantees in 31 countries (June 2004) http://ec.europa.eu/culture/key-documents/doc915_en.htm
(2) Lending to Europe Recommendations on collection mobility for European museums (April 2005) http://www.nba.fi/mobility/background.htm
(3) The role of the courier is to act as representative of the lender in ensuring safe handling of the loan during transit, unpacking, packing and, if necessary, during installation and de-installation. Moreover, he would need the presence of an accredited supervisor (extra expense) to look after the loan all the way along to the plane holds on airport freight zones.
(4) General Principles on the Administration of Loans and Exchange of Works of Art between Institutions, Code of practice of the international group of organisers of large-scale exhibitions (Bizot Group).
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