The public may decide the fate of Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi”

Antonio Paolucci states he will halt the Uffizi’s planned restoration of the painting if he hears convincing arguments as to why it should not take place


In an extraordinary decision, Antonio Paolucci, the official responsible for Florence’s artistic heritage, has said that he will hear the opinions of “members of the public and interested parties” before deciding whether an unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi Museum should be restored.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper Professor Paolucci said that preliminary tests are now being carried out on Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” and that when these are completed a public meeting will be held to discuss the results. Professor Paolucci estimates that such a meeting could take place in October.

The decision to hold a public meeting follows a plea to suspend restoration from a group of international art historians spearheaded by James Beck, Professor of Art History at Columbia University and a vociferous opponent of numerous restoration projects in Italy.

On 30 April, having learnt that Leonardo’s Adoration was to be subjected to routine restoration, Professor Beck faxed an open letter to Antonio Paolucci and to the director of the Uffizi, Anna Maria Petrioli Tofani. The letter was signed by around 20 other art historians.

It called for the “postpone[ment] of intervention” on the painting “until international experts, art connoisseurs, and the interested public... [could] evaluate the situation.”

Speaking to the Italian press, Anna Maria Petrioli Tofani orginally dismissed the open letter as a “publicity stunt” by Professor Beck. She defended her museum’s conservation department and, in particular, the expertise of the Uffizi’s chief conservator, Alfio Del Serra whose previous projects for the museum include interventions on Leonardo’s “Annunciation” and “Baptism” and on Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”. Speaking to the Italian press Alfio Del Serra also dismissed the letter and the experts who had signed it by describing them as “people with little technical knowledge of the science of restoration.” He described the objective of the restoration of the Leonardo work as “the recovery of [the painting’s] full readibility.”

But the number of international art historians and specialists in Italian Renaissance art willing to sign the letter continued to grow. At the time of going to press they had risen to 43 and include James Ackerman of Boston University; Eve Borsook of Villa I Tatti in Florence and Harvard University; Bruce Boucher of London University; Sir Ernst Gombrich of the Warburg Institute; Mina Gregori of the University of Florence; Charles Hope of London University and the Warburg Institute; Carlo Pedretti of the University of Los Angeles; Craig Hugh Smyth of Harvard University, and Leo Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania.

In the face of such international pressure and growing media interest Professor Paolucci sent a reply to Professor Beck dated 29 May.

In this letter Professor Paolucci explained that the painting was being subjected to preliminary tests. He then said: “If after the diagnostic tests are carried out I am convinced (and either you or others are able to convince me) that it is not appropriate to carry on with the cleaning, Leonardo’s ‘Adoration’ will be placed back on its wall on the Uffizi and it will remain untouched.”

“If, however, the diagnostic examinations persuade me of the practicability... of the cleaning intervention, the cleaning will take place.”

“I am prepared to exchange opinions with everyone and to listen to everyone’s thoughts with great respect and with the greatest interest. I do not, however, intend to delegate to others, not even to the world’s greatest expert of experts, decisions and responsibilities which are mine alone.”

Speaking to The Art Newspaper Professor Beck said that he welcomed the decision to hold an open meeting. “It is a move towards greater openness and transparency.”

He explained that he objects to the restoration because he believes that the Leonardo painting is too fragile to be cleaned. “The work can be protected without being restored,” he said.

“I worry because Italian restorers are so good. Alfio Del Serra is one of the top restorers in the country, he may even be the best. He copies Old Masters in his spare time and he is frighteningly good at it. We have to ask how he intends to restore ‘readibility’ to a painting that was left unfinished by the artist and was never fully readable in the first place,” said Professor Beck.

“One of the fundamental problems with restoration in Italy is that it is sponsor driven. The companies that fund these projects want to be connected to works by great artists. So sometimes there is a tendency to secure funding and rush ahead with unnecessary restoration while works by lesser artists are neglected and never get restored,” said Professor Beck. Preliminary testing on the “Adoration” is being funded by Nestlé Italia.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The public may decide'