An unexpected Leonardo in Cinzia Pasquali’s restoration
by Fabio Falzone
Only four people in the whole world have had the honor of putting their hands on Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and bring them back to their original splendor. One of them is Cinzia Pasquali, whom we met in Paris in her atelier, Arcanes – the biggest and most advanced in France. Born in Rome, she is a graduate of ISCR (Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro), and has worked on the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon, the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, and the paintings inside Naples Cathedral. Her résumé also includes important works by Bronzino, Ribeira, and contemporary artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Giuseppe Penone. Last but not least, her recent work on Leonardo’s famous “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” means Pasquali is one of the few specialists who may someday aspire to work on the “Mona Lisa” – the most popular painting inside the Louvre, and perhaps in the world.
How did you come to be a professional restoration specialist?
I always loved drawing, even as a child, not so much out of pure creative instinct but because I liked copying the aesthetics of the pictures I saw. At 16, I found out about the ISCR, a very selective art conservation school – which at the time accepted only 13 new students a year – and decided that was what I wanted to do. After graduating from high school, I was accepted at my second attempt. I started studying and working, and never looked back.
Who inspired you?
Giovanni Urbani and Michele Cordaro, art historians and former directors of the ISCR. Cesare Brandi, the father of scientific restoration: his 1963 essay, “Teoria del restauro” is still a landmark in the field. Finally, Paolo Mora and his wife Laura Sbordon, who also worked for the ISCR. Unfortunately, all of these masters have passed away in the past few years.
Is Italy still at the forefront of art conservation and restoration in the world?
The Italian school was founded in the late 1930s, and is still the oldest and best in Europe. The French school was born next, in the 1970s. The Italian approach has roots in archaeology and art history, and a strong connection to scientific methods: Rome’s Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro and Florence’s Opificio are still the best schools available. They accept students from all over the world, willing to move and learn Italian to go there. The ISCR is also opening schools abroad, to compensate for the lack of culture of conservation outside of Europe. The institute has always felt a responsibility to defend this culture, even when I was still a student there.
What about the state of art criticism in Italy?
Italy has excellent art historians and critics: I believe they are better than ever today. Unfortunately, the country’s managerial structure and culture is too weak to support them.
Does the name of your atelier, Arcanes, have a particular meaning?
Véronique Sorano Stedman, my former partner who is now Chief of Restoration at the Centre Pompidou, came up with it. It is an acronym, standing for the French meaning “Association for Restoration Conservation Analyses and Studies”. It also recalls the amazement we feel when we discover something unknown, mysterious, arcane. Before any intervention, indeed, we always go through essential phases of investigation and diagnostics.
Are there many other workshops as large as yours, in France?
No, here in France the culture of art restoration is mostly limited to individual professionals, working out of small workshops.
What is your philosophy in art restoration?
The mission of any restoration specialist is to conserve a work of art and pass it on to future generations. But there are many different interpretations as to what that means exactly. I believe restoration is about passing on a work of art by enhancing the original, giving the same importance to aesthetic presentation and to material conservation.
Do you try to get into the artist’s head?
Any job I get means I have a problem to deal with, like a doctor when a patient walks in. Any good doctor tries to understand the symptoms and to analyze the patient’s family history: I do the same, trying to examine and understand the technique and materials used as well as the creative process – i.e. the sketches and overlapping layers – that led to the painting in front of me. Getting into the author’s head is an option, but you have to keep a scientific view and avoid becoming too romantic to avoid mistakes.
What was your most surprising discovery while restoring Leonardo’s works?
How much he left unfinished. Except for a few of his earlier works – the “Portrait of a Musician” and “La belle ferronnière” – a number of Leonardo’s works are incomplete. During restoration, it appeared that even “Saint Anne”, which he began in 1501 and continued to change until his death, in 1519, is unfinished. He was haunted by dissatisfaction: he wanted to reproduce nature perfectly but never could. Leonardo had many scientific theories he attempted to represent in his paintings, and was a very rational artist. Knowing that, it was very moving for me to find out that he used various manual techniques – such as the “sfumato” – that allowed me to see and touch his fingerprints impressed in paint.
Can you explain what “sfumato” is?
It is a technique that allows painters to go from light to dark with gradual layers, so that lines and borders fade in the subtlest way, with faint changes. Leonardo perfected and became the unparalleled master of “sfumato”, distancing himself from the sharp drawing style that had prevailed in the 15th century in Italy: in his paintings, the shift from light to dark is imperceptible. His brush strokes are invisible, even under the microscope, so we began to think that Leonardo painted with his fingers, achieving the suffused light and enveloping atmosphere of masterpieces such as the “Mona Lisa”.
Why do you think he was unhappy with his work?
Look at the trees in “Saint Anne”: Leonardo wanted to reproduce every single element of nature in the most precise way possible. He was one of the very first to bring physics into art. In his “Treatise on Painting”, he noted that air near the ground is “larger” than air above, which is more rarefied: he had brilliant intuitions and his scientific theories were all correct, but he could never reproduce them perfectly in painting.
As you said, he used manual techniques – imperfect by definition…
That’s true. I mentioned “sfumato”, but the same is true for his “spontaneous drawing”: Leonardo let his hand move unrestrained to let art flow from the least controllable part of himself, and later gave it form. From his studies, we gather he was obsessed with seeking perfection through small, dense clouds of sketches, covered in corrections and revisions. The model for “Saint Anne” is a perfect example of this.
With which projects do you feel the strongest connection?
Without a doubt the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon – the first major gallery I restored in France – and the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The first for its beauty and artistic value, the second for its historical importance. The Galerie d’Apollon gathers the best of French painting from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It was restored over 18 months, thanks to Total’s support. The Hall of Mirrors, instead, was closed for 3 years (divided in two phases) for the project, sponsored by Vinci. The most powerful people in the world came to see the renovation: it was a great experience, also in terms of attention from the media.
Are there many works that require urgent restoration in Italy?
Yes, the ones in Pompeii to begin with. For decades, Italy received massive funds from the EU, but was unable to manage them well. Now the country is left with a long list of paintings that need to be restored in Rome, Florence, and many other places.
You mentioned the sponsors that funded the projects you worked on in France. The situation is different in Italy…
There is no law for patronage in Italy. French politicians, instead, have understood the importance of tax breaks for corporate art patronage: in France, when a sponsor funds the restoration or the purchase of a work of art, the expense is deductible by 60 and 90% respectively. Not to mention the huge return in publicity.
In what conditions is the “Mona Lisa”?
Restoration specialists like me work on paintings that are in a critical state of conservation. Unfortunately for me the “Mona Lisa” is doing quite well [laughs]. It’s just quite dirty.
What might happen during its restoration?
I am sure the painting and whoever will restore it will be put under a glass bell, for the public to see. The Louvre cannot take such a masterpiece away from its visitors for too long. It will be an extraordinary adventure and an incredible publicity opportunity. I think a number of sponsors might like to take part in the operation and would be happy to fight for a chance to support it.
Would you – and the Arcanes atelier – be part of the project?
I’d like to, of course, should the Louvre decide to proceed.
Let’s talk about a few technical issues. What have been the most important progresses in the field of art conservation and restoration, in terms of tools used?
Micro-emulsions and gels for cleaning, because they keep the solvent (which is the cleaning agent) suspended above the surface of the painting. This limits the amount of substances that penetrates the original material, and greatly reduces the risk of altering the painting itself. They are an American invention.
How about Italy’s innovations?
Italy is one of the global leaders in non-invasive diagnostics applied to works of art. It is a branch of research that stems from medicine, one of the rare fields in which Italy is at the forefront of innovation, and applies similar technologies to art history. Iperion, for example, is a European project led by Italian physicist Luca Pezzati, of the Optics CNR in Florence; among other things, it monitors cultural heritage sites at risk (such as Pompeii’s walls) and immediately gives a warning about foreseeable structural failures. Another important initiative is MOLAB, a mobile laboratory developed by CNR-ISTM and Perugia’s SMAArt Center, which is currently the international leader in non-invasive diagnostics. Finally, there is Spoleto’s Diagnostics Laboratory, which is active in the restoration and re-functionalization of the monumental complex of Rocca di Albornoz, on Colle Sant’Elia. Today, on top of infrared tools and scanners, there is a wonderful technology called 3D radio frequency, which allows us to virtually “peel off” layer after layer of any object.
Are you ever afraid of making a mistake?
No. Like a surgeon, I can never be afraid. While at work, I have to forget I have a very famous patient under my scalpel.