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Restoration dramas

This combination of two undated handout photos made available by the Centro de estudios Borjanos shows the 20th century Ecce Homo-style fresco of Christ before (left) and after (right) an elderly amateur artist Celia Gimenez, 80, took it upon herself to restore it in the church of the northern Spanish agricultural town of Borja. The incident made national news and was an Internet trending topic Thursday Aug 23 2012 with some Twitter users dubbing it ‘Ecce Mono’, meaning ‘Behold the Monkey’ instead of ‘Behold Man.’ (AP Photo/Centro de estudios Borjanos)

By all accounts, Cecilia Giménez’s efforts to restore a nineteenth century fresco at her local church were a failure. Upset by the deterioration of Elias Garcia Martinez’s painting ‘Ecce Homo’ (Behold the Man), the 81-year-old Spanish woman took it upon herself to revive the original splendour of the piece by touching up a few spots. Sadly her ambition outran her talent and the result was a cross between a cartoon Jesus and a quizzical gibbon.

But the botched job hasn’t been all bad news for the tiny town of Borja, just outside Zaragoza. Within four days of pictures of Giménez’s “restoration” going viral, the church of Santuario de Misericordia had amassed around €2,000 from €4 entry fees. When Giménez saw the church profiting from her handiwork, she demanded royalties and was roundly condemned for her cheekiness, despite the fact that she wanted to give her share of the proceeds to charity.

Giménez had realised what big companies have known for a long time: there’s money and publicity to be made from high-profile restoration projects.

Brand aid

The last fresco makeover to catch the public imagination was not a blatant disaster like Martinez’s effort, but was just as contentious. In 1979 the Sistine Chapel frescoes were much less luminous than they are today. Covered with centuries-worth of candle smoke, Michelangelo’s masterpieces were drowning in grime. Restorers argued that they had to be saved: but who would foot the bill?

Step forward Japan’s Nippon TV, whose “donation” of $4.2 million underwrote the 14-year project. In return they received exclusive TV, film and photographic rights in the site. Since signing the deal the channel has produced multiple documentaries, publications (including a two-volume coffee table book priced at $1,000) and other Michelangelo-based merchandise. It has not disclosed what profit it has made from the spin-offs, if any.

One of the most vocal opponents of the Sistine Chapel restoration was ArtWatch UK. “The Sistine Chapel restoration was the worst ever on a major fresco,” says its director Michael Daley. He claims that the restorers didn’t just wash off the dirt, but also removed “the last stages of Michelangelo’s own painting”.

“Within four days of Giménez’s ‘restoration’ going viral, the church had amassed €2,000 from entry fees”

Daley also believes that the commercialisation of art restoration – which he describes as a “pernicious and destructive development” – is detracting from rather than aiding preservation. “So-called ‘restorations’ of important art or architecture have proved one of the most effective forms of corporate PR,” he tells me. “In the interests of PR, every restoration is presented to the media as a triumph, a miraculous recovery of a long-lost original and authentic condition,” he says. “Journalists who in most areas of life incline towards a healthy scepticism…  throw away their critical faculties when presented with hype about art. Partly this is a result of undue deference, the feeling that in art, the experts really must know best.”

Daley bemoans the fact that there are increasingly few unrestored works of art remaining, and worries that restorers backed by corporate money are sweeping through Europe’s back catalogue of masters and “fiddling” in a way that in many cases is unnecessary and even harmful.

Dr Spike Bucklow, Senior Research Scientist at the Hamilton Kerr Institute accepts that Daley “is correct to worry about the way that money might influence the treatment of cultural heritage” but says that “money influences
all other activities and it also influences the creation of the cultural heritage in the first place.” He also points to the fact that art has always been sponsored by rich and powerful patrons, all of whom had their own agendas. “After all,” he says, “what was art in the first place if it wasn’t to a large extent corporate PR?”

Pillars of industry 

While corporate sponsorship of art and exhibitions continues, businesses are becoming increasingly interested in the world of architectural restoration, which offers a larger canvas on which to advertise their patronage.

This winter Rome’s Colosseum will be restored thanks to €25m from luxury shoemaker Tod’s, which will be given the right to use the Colosseum’s logo for 15 years and to brand all entrance tickets. Rumours that Tod’s will plaster ads for its footware over the Flavian Amphitheatre have persisted, but the company has denied this.

Over in Venice, meanwhile, companies are battling it out to sponsor the restoration of the sixteenth century Rialto Bridge, with fashion label Diesel reportedly in the running. The successful company will be given advertising hoardings on the bridge and permission to hold events in the nearby St Mark’s Square. The move comes just a couple of years after the Doge’s Palace was bedecked with Coca-Cola ads during its restoration.

Purists may bemoan the branding of Venice, but as the economic crisis continues in Italy, options for cultural institutions are becoming limited. Less than 0.2 percent of the latest national budget is allocated to the country’s 5,000 museums, 60,000 archaeological sites and 44 Unesco World Heritage sites. In defence of cuts to the cultural sector, the former finance minister Giulio Tremonti famously stated simply: “You can’t eat culture.”

Increasingly, it seems that cultural institutions have only two remaining choices. Take the corporate money, or call in Cecilia Giménez.

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