By Miguel Angel Corzo
Those who value the artistic and historic legacy of the past lost a great friend when Paolo Mora passed away in March of this year. A world-renowned conservator, a generous teacher, and a man passionate about the work that was his life, Paolo Mora made an enormous contribution to the saving and preservation of a host of the world's cultural treasures. Gifted with great ability and insight, he pursued conservation with a gentlemanly determination that garnered the respect of his colleagues.
Paolo was chief conservator and professor at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome from 1950 until his retirement in 1986. He and his wife Laura, who was also a professor at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro, were responsible for the conservation of a number of Italy's most notable works of art. The Moras, along with Paul Philippot, wrote Conservation of Wall Paintings, a classic work in the profession.
For both Paolo and Laura, passing on the knowledge they'd acquired was an important part of their work. In teaching, Paolo offered a broad vision of conservation—not simply technical approaches to problems. "We try to always form a mentality," he said, "never to pass on recipes." Teaching was as much for themselves as it was for their students. As Laura once put it, "It is through teaching that we confirm everything. . . . Thanks to [our students] we have understood things, and these are always things that come from the heart."
When he retired from the Istituto Centrale, Paolo did not really retire. Instead, he and Laura took on the leadership of the first Weld project of the GCI—the conservation of the wall paintings of the tomb of Queen Nefertari in Thebes, near Luxor, Egypt. It was an ambitious undertaking, one that required large portions of patience, conservation expertise, and political skill. Over the course of the project, Paolo could be counted upon to display all three of these qualities. What he displayed most of all was a fervor for the task at hand, a calm but evident enthusiasm for the challenge of rescuing what is arguably the most beautiful of all the pharaonic tombs.
He had first seen the tomb of Nefertari over 20 years earlier. He recalled being awed by the extraordinary quality of the wall paintings—and equally distressed by their deteriorating condition. He said that he "saw immediately that we had to do something." When the time "to do something" finally arrived, he and Laura headed up an international team of conservators that labored in a cramped, uncomfortable environment to protect a delicate surface over 30 centuries old by applying the highest scientific methods while, at the same time, conserving the exquisite aesthetics of the paintings. That they succeeded magnificently was no surprise to those of us who knew Paolo and Laura. But that in no way lessened the admiration we felt for their superb accomplishment.
I feel very fortunate to have worked with Paolo. I learned a great deal from him—not only about conservation but about living and dedication. His love of his work was evident in all that he did.
"When a conservator sees something in bad condition," said Paolo, "he has to put it in good condition. It is not only for paintings. At home when I see that a glass or a dish is broken, I have to put it together. It is a desire to set things right."
During his remarkable life, Paolo set a great many things right. We should all be grateful.
Miguel Angel Corzo is the director of the Getty Conservation Institute.