Professor James Beck of Columbia University, on sabbatical leave this year as Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, appeared in criminal court here on 18 January 1991 to answer charges of “diffamazione aggravata a mezzo stampa”, (libel, quoted in print). The action has been brought against Professor Beck by Signor Giovanni Caponi, a restorer who lives at Tavernuzze on the outskirts of Florence. In 1989 Signor Caponi was hired by the Soprintendenza alla Belle Arti at Pisa to restore the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca’s Cathedral of San Martino.
Signor Caponi’s accusation reads that he was slandered in an interview Beck gave to Florence’s La Nazione newspaper, excerpts of which appeared in two separate articles on 25 July 1990. Caponi claims that his reputation as a restorer has suffered. If convicted, Professor Beck faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison, although in practice a custodial sentence would be most unlikely. Judge Maradei postponed the trial until 17 May 1991.
Three other newspapers also ran the story, printing the same statements attributed to Professor Beck which Mr Caponi finds slanderous: Il Tirreno from Liverno, La Stampa of Turin and Il Giornale dell’Arte. Professor Beck may also eventually face similar charges in these three cities.
The monument involved was sculpted by the great Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia (about 1371-1438) in white Carrara marble in 1406-1407. It is considered of prime artistic and historical importance both for its great beauty, and for the early date at which it succinctly sums up the values of the coming Renaissance.
Beck is quoted as having said to La Nazione, “It’s a mess. Ilaria has been well kept for 600 years, and in one day the monument’s been irrevocably ruined”. According to the newspaper, the ex-chairman of the Columbia University Art History department said that the work had been so over-cleaned that it now seems flat. Further, according to Beck, it has lost its artistic unity and the subtlety of the artist’s carving. “It didn’t need restoration anyway”, claimed Beck. He points out that after 600 years a statue’s patina is integral to it, and should never be removed. La Nazione claimed that Beck said the marble now looked as though bleach or acid could have been used to clean it. The words “barbarous”, “plastic” and “mummified” also appear in the article. Beck is further quoted as saying that restorations like the Ilaria are “not so much restorations, as destructions”.
Professor Beck is the author of three books on Jacopo della Quercia, an artist whose work he has, he claims, studied for twenty-nine years. One of the books, published in 1988, will certainly appear at the trial. It has exceptionally clear photographs of the work before cleaning. Another, a two-volume study to be published in September 1991, by Columbia University Press in New York, promises to become the standard work on the artist for many years to come.
In spite of his expertise as a scholar and connoisseur of Italian art, Professor Beck admits that he has little technical knowledge of restoration techniques.
Mr Caponi, on the other hand, appears to be an experienced restorer, trained, he says, by Lionello Tintori, the most prestigious fresco restorer in Italy. When interviewed about his experience in restoring marble, Caponi replied that of his thirty-five years work in restoration, sixteen to eighteen years have been in marble restoration. “Besides”, he said, “the restoration of fresco and of stone are similar in many ways, because fresco is, after all, made with stone and water. When the water has evaporated, fresco is technically a kind of stone. In fact”, he continued, “the cleaning agent used for the Ilaria del Carretto monument was the same as that used for the frescos in the Brancacci Chapel, resina scambionico. We considered it best for Jacopo’s marble after our preliminary tests”.
The Brancacci Chapel in Florence, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, contains the first great Renaissance frescoes, painted by Masaccio in about 1426. The whole chapel was carefully restored over the last years and re-opened to the public in the summer of 1990. Mr Caponi also stated that the work on the Jacopo della Quercia was done in the summer of 1989, and took four people about twenty to twenty-five days to complete. Questioned about earlier work for the Pisan Soprintendenza he replied that he had restored both the façades of Lucca Cathedral and of Carrara Cathedral nearby. He has also restored many of the stone statues in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Pisa, works by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, by Arnolfo del Cambio, and other masters there.
Cleaning and restoration affects not only the surface texture of a work of art, but is also crucial to its colour. When queried about the change in colour which has come about on the Ilaria monument, Mr Caponi said, “Of course it became much whiter. We took off the dirt which had accumulated over centuries, and the marble of the statue underneath the dirt is white. And of course it looks changed because the dirt which was on it before reflected the light in a different way”.
As is widely known, Professor Beck was involved for some time in another restoration controversy, that of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, by Michelangelo: he has claimed that the work was overcleaned. He is similarly concerned about the Masaccio frescos in the Brancacci Chapel, as he is about proposals to clean another Masaccio, the Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He thinks that no restorer should be allowed near this great work until long, careful consultations with art historians and restoration experts have been made, together with exhaustive tests of the chemicals to be used.
It is not impossible that Ilaria will develop into a controversy similar to that over the Sistine Chapel, but with the significant difference that Professor Beck might this time go to prison. Beck’s defence could also directly or indirectly cause the Soprintendenza in Pisa to become involved. The Soprintendenza was the legal entity which hired Mr Caponi, vetted the work and presumably paid him. Dottoressa Clara Baracchini, Soprintendente Aggiunto at Pisa, interviewed by telephone, stated that their office considers the Ilaria restoration excellent. She added that they published a clear statement to that effect on 27 July 1990, two days after Beck’s accusations were quoted in La Nazione. But Professor Beck’s charges never mentioned Caponi by name, referring only to “the restorers”.
Professor Beck also claims that the restoration of the della Quercia sarcophagus was done much too quickly, without adequate tests or consultation. When questioned whether this was so, Dottoressa Baracchini agreed that the work had been done quickly, but stated that this happened because no difficult technical problems were encountered.
“Would they clean Michelangelo’s David without exhaustive tests and consultation?”, Beck asked after the trial had been postponed. “Why then Ilaria? Jacopo was one of the prime influences on Michelangelo as a sculptor. In fact,” he continued, “the restorers of Michelangelo’s Medici tombs in San Lorenzo are reportedly using only water mixed with turpentine, and are proceeding with extreme caution.”
Regardless of whether Mr. Caponi’s accusation is upheld by the court, the controversy may also become embarrassing for the Italian government. Besides his work on Quercia, Beck has published books on Masaccio, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as a general history of Italian Renaissance painting. He has taught Italian art history at Columbia for thirty years, and is currently director of the Casa Italiana in New York, one of Italy’s most prestigious cultural organisations in the United States. He is also editor of The Italian Journal, an American bi-monthly cultural magazine. Professor Beck is married to an Italian, and he and his wife have a house near Vinci, in Tuscany, where Leonardo came from. The spectacle of such an eminent admirer of Italy and things Italian, and such an accomplished scholar, fighting in a Florentine court to stay out of prison for stating frankly his opinions as an experienced critic and expert, may prove uncomfortable for the authorities in Rome. Besides, a conviction, no matter how mild, would set a serious precedent. What critic would subsequently dare express his or her opinion honestly?
“As the world expert on Jacopo della Quercia”, asked Beck, “wouldn’t I be lacking in responsibility if I didn’t speak out? Am I just supposed to say “tutto bellissimo” (It’s all lovely) and not rock the boat, when I really believe that all the drama and high art have been scrubbed from Ilaria?”
Unless legal technicalities change the course of the trial, the court will have to decide whether in fact the statue has been overcleaned or ruined. Both parties are expected to call experts to support their positions.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Fair comment?'