The restoration of works of art (also called cultural heritage restoration) is a conservation process with the precise aim of maintaining the properties of a painting, a wooden structure, a fresco, or other types of works without altering their appearance or functionality.
In this comprehensive guide, you will learn everything there is to know about the restoration of works of art, including the principles, techniques, materials, and potential career paths.
The basics of art restoration
The restoration of works of art is a complex and delicate activity, requiring specific skills and respect for the historical and artistic value of the objects.
The purpose of restoration is to recover the original meaning of the work, ensuring its preservation and transmission to future generations.
Definition and history of restoration
Restoration refers to the activities related to the maintenance, recovery, restoration, and conservation of works of art, cultural heritage, monuments, and historical artifacts in general, recognized for their particular value.
Restoration is distinguished from conservation, which consists of preventive actions aimed at slowing the degradation of works and protecting them from external agents.
Restoration, as a scientific and professional discipline, emerged in the late nineteenth century, coinciding with the development of natural sciences and technology applied to the conservation and restoration of works.
Before that time, interventions on works of art were often arbitrary and harmful, based on aesthetic or ideological criteria, and did not take into account the history and materiality of the work.
Among the early theorists of restoration, we recall Gustavo Giovannoni, Alois Riegl, Cesare Brandi, Paul Philippot, and Umberto Baldini, who formulated the ethical and methodological principles that still guide the practice of restoration today.
Among the fundamental documents of restoration are the 1932 Restoration Charter, the 1972 Italian Restoration Charter, the 1964 Venice Charter, the 2000 Cracow Charter, and the 2004 Code of Cultural Heritage and Landscape.
Methodology and criteria of restoration
Restoration is a complex and articulated process that involves 3 phases:
- Preliminary phase
- Operative phase
- Conclusive phase
The preliminary phases include the historical-artistic study of the work, the analysis of its conservation status, the diagnosis of degradation, and the planning of the intervention.
The operative phases include cleaning, consolidation, integration, and surface finishing of the work. The conclusive phases include documentation, evaluation, and communication of the intervention. Restoration is based on some fundamental principles, ensuring its quality and correctness.
- Respect for the work: Restoration must safeguard the identity and authenticity of the work, without altering its historical and artistic meaning, nor adding or removing elements that are not strictly necessary.
- Reversibility of the intervention: Restoration must be carried out with techniques and materials that can be removed or modified in the future, without damaging the original
work, in case of new discoveries or needs.
- Minimizing the invasiveness of the intervention: Restoration must be limited to the minimum necessary to recover the readability of the work, without exceeding or subtracting, and using techniques and materials compatible with the original work.
Regardless of the type of material to be treated, every restoration work must apply these general principles to reflect a complete project.
Techniques and materials of restoration
Restoration employs various techniques and materials, depending on the type and level of degradation of the work, and its nature and composition.
Among the most common techniques are:
- Cleaning: Involves removing surface materials that alter the correct reading of the work, such as dust, dirt, varnishes, encrustations, etc. Cleaning can be mechanical, chemical, or physical, depending on the type of substance to be removed and the type of support to be treated.
- Consolidation: Involves strengthening the structure and cohesion of the work when it exhibits fragility, cracks, detachments, etc. Consolidation can be surface or deep, depending on the level of penetration of the consolidant, which can be organic or inorganic depending on its chemical nature.
- Integration: Involves filling gaps or losses of material that compromise the continuity and shape of the work. Integration can be material or chromatic, i.e., restoring the substance or color of the work, respectively. Integration can also be mimetic, neutral, or differentiated depending on the degree of similarity or distinction from the original work.
- Protection: Involves applying a filmogenic material, natural or synthetic, to enhance colors and protect the color from atmospheric particulate deposition and/or scratches/friction.
In the next section, we will see how some of these techniques can be applied to three different types of works and analyze new techniques related to their specific materials.
3 examples of art restoration
Restoration involves various types of works, including carved wooden artifacts, paintings, and frescoes, each presenting specific challenges and solutions.
1. Restoration of carved wooden artifacts
Carved wooden artifacts are works made of wood, such as frames, ceilings, furniture, sculptures, etc. Among the most common operations in this type of restoration are:
- Pest control: Involves eliminating wood-boring insects that attack the wood, causing holes, galleries, dust, etc. Pest control can be done using chemical methods, such as insecticides, or physical methods, such as heat treatment, anoxic treatment, microwave treatment, etc., depending on the type of wood and the level of infestation.
- Consolidation: Involves reinforcing the structure and cohesion of the wood when it exhibits fragility, cracks, detachments, etc. Consolidation can be done with gluing, inlays, nailing, stapling, etc., depending on the type of wood and the type of damage.
- Cleaning: Involves removing foreign substances deposited on the wood’s surface, such as dust, dirt, paint, wax, etc. Cleaning can be mechanical, chemical, or physical, depending on the type of substance to be removed and the type of wood to be treated. The purpose of cleaning is to recover the readability and brightness of the wood without altering its chromatic and material qualities.
One of the unique topics offered by CER is the restoration of carved wooden artifacts, with a three-year course covering all the mentioned techniques and more.
2. Restoration of paintings
Paintings are works created on different supports, such as canvas, wood, copper, paper, etc., with pigments of various kinds, such as oil, tempera, acrylic, etc.
The restoration of paintings aims to recover the readability and chromatic harmony of the work while preserving its materiality and authenticity.
Among the most common operations in the restoration of paintings are:
- Lining: Involves applying a new canvas to the back of the painting to reinforce the original support when it exhibits tears, deformations, detachments, etc. Lining can be done using various methods, with natural and synthetic materials, depending on the characteristics of the painting and the level of degradation.
- Filling: Involves filling gaps or abrasions in the paint film with materials suitable for the nature and color of the work, using natural and synthetic materials. Filling restores the continuity and flatness of the paint surface, preparing it for subsequent chromatic integration.
- Chromatic integration: Involves chromatically reconstructing the filled areas with compatible and reversible colors, using natural or synthetic binders. Chromatic integration aims to restore the unity and harmony of the work. Different criteria can be adopted: mimetism, chromatic selection, ‘rigatino,’ depending on the type of work and the client’s indications.
The Centro Europeo del Restauro (CER) offers a three-year course specialized in painting restoration, covering these specific techniques and other restoration topics.
3. Restoration of frescoes
Frescoes are works created on walls or ceilings, with pigments applied to a layer of fresh plaster, ensuring adhesion and resistance.
Among the most common operations in the restoration of frescoes are:
- Consolidation: Involves reinforcing the cohesion between the plaster and the wall, and between the various layers of plaster, when they exhibit cracks, flaking, detachments, etc. Consolidation can be done with injections of natural or synthetic materials, depending on the type of plaster and the level of degradation.
- Cleaning: Involves removing foreign substances deposited on the surface of the fresco, such as dust, dirt, salts, paint, etc. Cleaning can be mechanical, chemical, or physical, depending on the type of substance to be removed and the type of fresco to be treated. Cleaning aims to recover the readability and brightness of the work without altering its chromatic and material qualities.
- Integration: Involves filling gaps or losses of material that compromise the continuity and shape of the fresco. Integration can be material or chromatic, depending on whether it restores the substance or color of the work, and it can be mimetic, neutral, or differentiated, depending on the client’s indications.
In this case as well, CER offers a three-year course in fresco restoration that grants the state title of Cultural Heritage Restoration Technician.
Professional Outcomes in Restoration
Artwork restoration offers various job opportunities, both in the public and private sectors. There are two main professional figures operating in the field of restoration: the cultural heritage restoration technician and the cultural heritage restorer.
Cultural Heritage Restoration Technician
The Cultural Heritage Restoration Technician is the professional who collaborates with the restorer. They follow the operations indicated by the restorer, determining direct and indirect actions to limit the degradation processes of the assets and ensure their preservation.
The correct execution of these operations—under the direct supervision and control of the restorer—is a fundamental requirement.
To become a cultural heritage restoration technician, it is necessary to attend an accredited regional professional training course lasting three years.
Upon completion of the course, a certification of skills is obtained, allowing registration in the list of restoration technicians, which can be consulted on the Cultural Heritage Professionals portal.
The Cultural Heritage Restoration Technician can find employment in public or private entities dealing with the conservation and enhancement of cultural assets, such as museums, libraries, archives, superintendencies, foundations, associations, etc. They can also work independently, offering their services to public or private clients.
However, it’s important to note that the technician can work on protected works only if the work is entrusted to a Restorer, and the Technician is therefore their collaborator. Otherwise, they can only act on works not protected by the state, and if the client is public, the asset must not be protected, even when working independently with a VAT number.
Cultural Heritage Restorer
The Cultural Heritage Restorer is the professional who assesses the state of preservation and implements a strategy to limit the degradation processes of the constituent materials of the assets, ensuring their conservation and preserving their cultural value.
The restorer is responsible for analyzing, designing, directing, and executing restoration interventions, coordinating other operators performing complementary activities.
- Diploma issued by the Ministry of Culture’s high education and study schools
- Bachelor’s degree in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage
- Second-level diploma in a single-cycle enabling to the profession of cultural heritage restorer
Educational qualifications must refer to one of the 12 professional competence sectors provided by regulations. Possession of one of these titles allows registration in the list of cultural heritage restorers, available on the Cultural Heritage Professionals portal.
Which Restoration Path to Choose?
Artwork restoration is a fascinating and stimulating profession that requires passion, expertise, and responsibility. To embark on this career, it is necessary to choose the educational path that best suits one’s aspirations and abilities.
To choose which path to follow, it is important to assess one’s interests, aptitudes, and work expectations.
The Cultural Heritage Restoration Technician:
- Has a more operational and practical role
- Has a shorter and less expensive training
- Works on private or publicly unprotected works.
The Cultural Heritage Restorer:
- Has a leadership role of greater responsibility
- Signs the project and is responsible for its success
- Has longer training and requires managerial skills
Whichever path you choose, artwork restoration is a profession that requires dedication, preparation, and constant updating, but it also offers great satisfaction and opportunities.
The Centro Europeo del Restauro helps you in this journey from A to Z.
Check out the available courses and inquire directly on the page that interests you; you can consider us your personal advisors for artwork restoration—without obligation.