In June 1991, Jane Slate Siena interviewed Paolo and Laura Mora at their home in rome. As former Chief Conservators at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Italy and consultants to major conservation projects in over 20 countries, the Moras reflect on their forty years experience in the field as conservators, educators, and advocates for the preservation of cultural heritage.
JSS - What changes have you observed in the practice of conservation since you entered the field?
Paolo Mora - Our experience began in the 1940s when restorers were painters with very refined manual and aesthetic skills. At that time, very little was understood about materials, yet a lot of cleaning and overpainting was done. The practice is very different now, because we have become more knowledgeable about materials and techniques. We have tried to promote the new approaches, to learn about materials, to know more about environmental matters, and to establish contacts with conservators and scientists working in other countries. This transition began early in our careers when we realized that it was better to do nothing with a work of art than to work in the old way.
What occurs to you when you see a particular object or monument in need of conservation?
Laura Mora - We immediately want to stop the deterioration and save the object, the materials, the structure, and the image. We can use the Nefertari tomb as an example. When we arrived, we made a survey to determine which elements of the tomb were in the worst condition. For those areas, we designed an emergency treatment. We consolidated the damaged areas, and then worked on restoring the beautiful images. A complex site like this is like a book in which there may be only a word missing here, or a sentence there, or perhaps a chapter there, but you must bring the object back to life and help the reader understand what is being said by the object.
Would you like to speak about your own approach to conservation treatments?
PM - Every object made by man, whether a painting or a monument, is of a certain time, it may be 500, 1000, or 5000 years old. From the time of its creation, it starts changing and aging. We can never say that the object we have now is or can ever be identical to the way it was at the moment of its creation. So we have to respect its history and appreciate what we call the patina, the time that passes on a work of art. We can't take it off. The colors and binding media change, maybe very little if the work was done with a good technique and with excellent materials, but still there are changes. We prefer to use reversible treatments with minimal intervention.
What do you think are the most critical issues in conservation today?
PM - We have different degrees of urgency, but certainly everything that is outside is in imminent danger. We can protect objects in museums from just about everything, except of course very strong earthquakes. Outdoor objects are in very bad condition because of natural aging and weathering processes and exposure to destructive influences such as air pollution. It may happen in other parts of the world, but we see it in Italy daily. People tend to conserve the works that are the most beautiful and most important, and overlook the works that are in greatest danger. Our personal view is that we should not select only the most beautiful objects for conservation. Otherwise our cultural heritage will disappear.
How do we become better equipped to address these issues of environmental impact and selection?
PM - We cannot save everything, so we must have all the information available though the interdisciplinary approach before selecting objects for conservation. We must work according to the new theory and concentrate on long-term conservation, not object-by-object restoration per se.
It would seem, at least to the visitor, that there has been a conservation renaissance in Rome and throughout Italy during the 1980s.
PM - Yes there is, but there is very little money. Fortunately we now have legislation in Rome that addresses conservation, traffic, pollution, and so forth. We are motivated because when we examine old photographs, we see that the monuments have deteriorated significantly in short periods of time 100, 50, even 20 years.
What has been the role of the professional organizations in increasing public awareness of the need for conservation in Italy?
PM - We have been working for many years here to promote these ideas. The Istituto Centrale del Restauro has of course been very active. The government officials understand what we need. The cultural heritage in Italy is its petrol, and we are a very wealthy country. Like the Egyptians, we want to show that the art and monuments are sources for economic enrichment. We must have resources to protect these assets.
Conservators, not unlike artists themselves, rely on creative processes, their own instincts. Would you tell us something about your creative processes?
LM - Conservation was our destiny. In our early studies, we tried to establish a conservation program with a critical scientific approach. So we tried to construct and build slowly, first in our own experience, and then with others. This passage was extremely interesting and infinitely exciting, because it was something new. Paolo began reading everything that he could in the languages he knew, and we followed all the congresses to establish dialogues with others. We came to feel that we could transmit our experience to others in the field. Our mission, our passion, has been to do this, because it is through teaching that we confirm everything. We feel that we are not necessary anymore because a status has been created and there are young people in so many parts of the world who are our conservators. Thanks to them, we have understood things, and these are always things that come from the heart.
In what areas is more training needed in conservation?
PM - We have many theories, but very little verification through experience. The lack of schools in architectural conservation has undermined the evolution of thought in this area. It is urgent that architectural conservators have more opportunities to test and develop methodologies for practice.
Your comments about architectural conservation remind me that your bibliography addresses a variety of subjects. You art closely identified with mural paintings, but you also work with panel paintings, mosaics, surface finishings, ancient color, Roman stucco, architectural facades, and an array of materials such as stone, marble, brick, plaster, and wood.
PM - Yes, we have studied all of these because each material is part of the ensemble of the monument or object. We are rather well known for our work on architectural surfaces, but why? Well, we began working on panel paintings, small Raphaels and Piero della Francescas, and then went to wall paintings. For this, we needed the architects, engineers, and scientists in other disciplines. This has led us to search for appropriate interdisciplinary teams to study all elements of the work of art. We try to take a complete look, to close the chain.
You are describing what might be referred to as a holistic approach to conservation.
PM - That is the point, because we have seen wall paintings restored in buildings where water is seeping through broken windows or leaking roofs. After one year, we must begin again to repair the new damage.
You have worked on major conservation projects in over twenty countries.
LM - Yes, over the years we have worked in many foreign countries and have developed a particular philosophy. People do not want foreigners coming in and working as if the local people are not capable. There is always the best solution for each problem and it is through collaboration that everyone finds it. By working in this way, we have achieved magnificent cooperation with the local people and the authorities.
PM - Yes, we try to always form a mentality, never to pass on recipes. As Laura says, every case is different.
Much of the world's cultural property is located in countries with extremely limited resources. How should we respond to this?
PM - We must get money, help, and technical support to the people working there. Local training, materials, and equipment are needed. There is also a need for new approaches. Look at Turkey where there are hundreds of churches, or Egypt where there are hundreds of tombs. Improvements in overall conservation strategies and site management are desperately needed.
What would some of the elements of your overall strategy be?
PM - Our message to archaeologists is don't excavatewe have so many things already to protect outside. If you have been in Pompeii then you know. Secondly, conservators should be included in all excavation teams, if excavation is necessary. Finally, we know that once excavated, all materials deteriorate, sometimes extremely rapidly. This is very difficult because we know that everything is destroyed in time. Our work is to prolong life.
We began very optimistically, but you bring us to the conclusion that conservators are prolonging life that is mortal. Mountains become deserts eventually.
PM - Yes, industry today gives us materials that will last four or five years. We need materials that will last hundreds of years and more. To form and support a mentality like this is not easy. I am very curious to know what will be around in 10,000 years. Remember that we still have prehistoric rock paintings.
LM - Let's not forget that they are located in secluded sites, and that Lascaux, one of the most famous, is closed. All tourists who go there see copies.
Do you advocate that copies be made of endangered sites and monuments?
LM - I think so, though I don't like them.
Does art have to be seen in the original? Do you think that the public will accept more replicas?
PM - I think the public wants to see the image, not necessarily the materials. Specialists, on the other hand, must have access to the original material. Take again the example of the tomb of Nefertari. There are doors and narrow passageways that are no more than 80 centimeters wide. Two persons cannot pass there simultaneously. I don't think it would be a very pleasant experience for tourists.
Can the experience that people have with art by viewing replicas be meaningful?
PM - Visitors today are very interested in the cultural heritage and I think we must strive to organize visits that convey the spirit of the artwork or monument. Our technologynow allows us to make almost anything. The Lascaux experience is successful because the exhibit and accompanying information are beautifully presented. In other places, the solution may be to provide access to individual sites on a rotating basis. Presumably, tourists could see a range of replicas with museum-quality presentations, and also see one authentic monument.
Where should we be in twenty years?
PM - We must try other means of energy production and use, for ourselves and for the environment.
What do you think the work of the conservator will be like in twenty years time.
PM - I think it will never be done by computer. It will always involve a physical communication with the object. The conservator will need to be a humanist and a scientist. I hope that we will have better site management and maintenance strategies so that surgical interventions are less frequent.
What are your plans for the future?
LM - We will continue working as consultants. We will be onsite on the scaffolds to support the conservation approaches that have been established, and to help develop new ones. This is what makes us very happy. We feel very fortunate to have found a life's work that we love, that allows us to live and work among beautiful things. That is what we will be doing.
Jane Slate Siena is Head, Institutional Relations, the Getty Conservation Institute.