By Kalypso Milanou, 2003

Treatment of paintings

Icon Network > I-N Publications > Conservation > Treatment of paintings

Thursday 5 March 2009, by Icon Network

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By Kalypso Milanou, at the laboratory for the conservation of icons and easel paintings of the Benaki Museum.

Conference, Byzantine & Christian Museum, 29 January 2003, Mikra Mouseiologika I, Athens 2005.
ISBN:960-214-475-3, pages:51-54

- Dealing with old restorations is a very common and important aspect of our work in the conservation department of the Benaki Museum, since the main body of the museum collections comprises artefacts either collected by Anthony Benaki during the first decades of the twentieth century, or presented to the Benaki Foundation later on by other well-known collectors.

- The aim of this paper is simply to set out the de-partment’s approach towards such works conserved or restored in the past (several decades after their completion, up to the first decades of the twentieth century). The different kinds of interventions most commonly found, and the criteria that lead us to the removal or preservation of such additions and overpaintings are presented, followed by the department’s attitude to their restoration.

- In general, interventions on icons executed before the 18th century are left intact, on condition that they do not cover parts of the original and at the same time do not aesthetically alter the painted surface. Where the existence of several paint layers is revealed, an effort is made to preserve them all, by transferring the most recent to a new support. The restoration of works exhibiting extensive losses, or in cases where information regarding their previous condition is not adequate, is usually avoided.

- Interventions dating from about the nineteenth century are removed when they are considered inconsistent with the work and do not have any special artistic value. Overpaintings covering the original paint layers are treated by curators and conservators as special cases, regardless of their date.

- Decisions are based on the individual needs of the works. Prior to their restoration, the procedure and the extent of the intervention are decided upon. The nature and size of the losses, the existence of comparative data from other works of the same period and technique, as well as the needs of scientists and the expectations of museum visitors are taken into consideration.

- The question of how missing sections should be dealt with is a most important and interesting aspect. The ideal is to preserve paintings as historical objects and also to preserve the essence of their intended aesthetic content. Finding the appropriate balance between these aims is a subtle and often contentious matter, with no single solution being correct for any one picture. In most cases there is a search for some sort of compromise whereby the compositional integrity of the original is restored, but in a way that gives the viewer information or visual clues that some of what is now visible is in fact restoration. This can be a fine balancing act, and different types of solutions have been used in different cases. Restoration is usually limited to the central area of the composition. The most commonly applied approaches towards colour restoration are: the application of an even, neutral tone, in accordance with the surrounding colour; the use of ‘rigatino’ or ‘trateggio’; full reconstruction. In all three cases reversible materials are always used.

- Twentieth-century interventions to the wooden support also present great difficulties during treatment. The most commonly encountered are: the application of non-reversible glues; impregnation with waxes, animal glues or shellac; the filling-in of gaps with hardwoods or compound materials; the removal or replacement of the original battens. On all the above issues, the prevailing attitude aims at minimum intervention in the work, with the removal of the additions that are considered aesthetically disturbing or harmful to its future preservation.