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30.03.2017

The Genesis of Modern Conservation – the Florence Flood Revisited

The Florence Flood – Interview with Ezio Buzzegoli by Gianlorenzo Pignatti ACR Florence December 2016 

After the fiftieth anniversary of the Florence Flood back in November, accredited Icon member Gianlorenzo Pignatti interviewed conservator Ezio Buzzegoli for Icon. Buzzegoli was a resident of Florence when his city was swamped in water. In the immediate days following the flood, he helped the efforts to repair the water-main. He then went on to train as a conservator and spent years taking part in conservation and restoration efforts of the artwork damaged by the water. Here, he reflects on his long career and his memories of the flood that changed conservation forever.

Ghostly city

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The street where I used to live was swamped with water to the height of four meters and the ground floor of my home was completely submerged. Immediately after the 4th of November, I volunteered at the town water-main, which was completely submerged, in order to help re-establish the supply of clean water to the population of Florence. I remember the ghostly city at five o’clock in the morning embedded in mud. I remember the destruction, the people and what became my major concern - finding food.

In 1967, I began to work in a private restoration studio in Florence and I gained my diploma at the local art college in 1968. In April 1969, as a volunteer, I joined the restoration laboratory housed at the Fortezza da Basso. The following year, I opened my own business and I began to work as a freelance restorer on the art objects that had been damaged in the flood.

When I first arrived at Fortezza da Basso, in 1969, the restoration projects were focusing mainly on damaged panel paintings. I was immediately taught the techniques of paint-layer transfer; in fact several technicians were required for this operation because of the considerable size of the painted panels. The work consisted of first replacing the temporary protective layers that had been adhered to the surface of the paintings in the immediate aftermath of the flood with more suitable materials. Next, we carried out the complex operation of removing the wooden backing support and finally the original paint layers. For several months, I worked with the other technicians under the supervision of the Director of the laboratory, Edo Masini. The ‘Deposition of Christ’ by Alessandro Allori from the Church of Santa Croce was the first painting that was conserved employing all of the steps; paint-layer transfer, adhesion to new support and retouching. (1)

I worked mainly on panel paintings and paintings on canvas. I was highly influenced by those who opened the Florentine laboratory after the flood. Pivotal to my professional development was meeting and working with people, such as Ugo Procacci, Augusto Vermheren, Gaetano Lo Vullo, Edo Masini, Sergio Taiti, Luciano Bracci, Giulio Martelli and Umberto Baldini, just to name a few. The first project that I completed on my own, in 1971, was the painting ‘The Martyrodom of Saint Erasmus’ by Orazio Fidani now at the Corridoio Vasariano. 

The influence of the flood

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As a young conservator back then I did not have a clear idea of what my role was because I spent all my energy absorbing information and techniques from colleagues and people around me. After the flood we were required to intervene quickly in order to save the art objects. This striving to intervene at any cost was understandable during that dramatic period but I later modified this approach to my professional practice.

My professional development has been influenced in its entirety by the flood of 1966. My critical thinking, which is an important part of my capabilities as a professional restorer-conservator, was certainly formed by my experience of the emergency operation organized after the flood.

Despite the seemingly endless procession of damaged artefacts, Buzzegoli never became disheartened.

It is my opinion that restorers by definition do not take into consideration the scale of the damage, instead they work bit by bit until the work is completed.

The flood has been described as the genesis of modern conservation, a statement with which Buzzegoli agrees.

After the flood, opportunities to collaborate, share experiences and discuss criticism flourished amongst professionals. For the first time, there was a vast movement for the rescue and protection of national heritage of outstanding importance. We had to come to understand that our actions were to become the basis of our professional code. We also had to comprehend the theories which regulated our practice as professional restorers and to understand the importance of keeping our knowledge updated.

An example of the longlasting and wide-reaching impact of conservation techniques developed during the floor was Paraloid B72. A resin which we discovered to be vital for the drying process of the panel paintings which is so versatile that today is used by many conservators in every field.

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Changing profession

I have not seen the paintings that I conserved for a long time. Only a few years ago I had the opportunity to examine ‘The Deposition of the Dead Christ’ by Allori in Santa Croce, a painting that I had previously conserved. It was necessary to re-do the retouching but this is understandable because the retouching can deteriorate quickly. After the flood, we had to find a compromise and balance between saving the paintings and changing their physical structure. The transfer technique preserved the art object but irreversibly modified its structure because the replacement of the wooden support created an unnatural planarity. The profession has changed drastically since then. Conservation technology and methodology changed dramatically in the past fifty years and today we are able to save the original wooden supports, as we have seen recently with the conservation of Vasari’s painting.

We thought that the transfer technique was the only viable solution to save the painting. Now we are seeing today that colleagues conserved a painting that was considered completely lost after the damage caused by the flood. I am referring to ‘The Last Supper’ by Vasari, whose wooden support has been conserved thus avoiding transfer.

What is really changing the perspective of our profession today is the reduction of funding deployed for the protection and conservation of our heritage. The consequence is that public tenders are geared toward the lowest offer without taking into enough account of the quality of the submitted projects.

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Technical Report

Can you explain in detail the procedure of ground and pigments transfer from the old wooden supports to the new ones? Were the water sensitive gesso grounds partially dissolved during the immersion in the water of the flood?      

First we carried out on site the temporary protective lining of the paintings. This was often carried out with Kleenex tissues because Japanese paper was not readily available. They were adhered with Paraloid B72 dissolved in aromatic hydrocarbon solvents. The second step was to transport the paintings to the conservatory (for lemon trees) inside the Boboli Garden. Here we managed to control the Relative Humidity (RH) fluctuations. At the same time, we substituted the temporary linings with more appropriate Japanese papers adhered with Paraloid. Oily substances were removed with solvents like Shell-sol using absorbent cotton wads.

Subsequently we slowly reduced the RH value inside the conservatory to an approximate 60%. This procedure caused the shrinkage of the wooden supports which eventually resulted in the lifting and flaking of the paint layer. This process has been extensively investigated in the literature.

The gesso ground reacted in different ways to the physical stress and trauma caused by the consequences of the flood. It was clear that the consolidation procedures known at that time were not applicable to the flooded objects because the original preparations made of glue combined with gesso were irreversibly modified by the action of the water. It is my opinion that the first emergency lining of the paintings was crucial to guarantee a relatively safe transfer of the painting.

Let’s now look in detail at the transfer technique. After surface cleaning, the painting was lined with two layers of Japanese paper adhered with Paraloid B72. A further protective layer made of pre-washed gauze, gesso and glue was then applied on top of the Japanese paper layers. In order to create a flat surface, a third temporary support was made out of gesso poured into an aluminium frame. The flatness of the painting surface allowed us to safely work on the back of the wooden support. At this point the wooden support was mechanically removed from the back of the painting with the use of low-vibration electric planes, chisels and scalpels.

We found out that two different preparation methods had been used on the wooden supports. In the first case, the gesso ground had a thin oil-based preparatory layer on top of it. In this case, during the transfer procedure, this thin layer was not removed from the back of the painting. In the other case (gesso ground only) we did not remove the whole ground, instead leaving a thin layer because we were concerned that the painting could change tone when the new gesso was applied to it. At this stage the new preparation made of rabbit-skin glue and gesso was brushed warm on the back of the painting. A pre-washed gauze was also laid into the new preparation.

The temporary aluminium frame was detached from the painting and all protective layers adhered to the front of the painting were carefully removed. Pigment flakes and bubbles were then re-adhered to the support underneath with the use of spatulas and a taking iron.  When it was necessary to add moisture in order to lay down the bubbles, the painted layer was protected with gauze applied with wax. It was not unusual that we had to replace portions of the new gesso ground when this became contaminated with the wax and resin used during the conservation of the painting.  

The final stages of the operation were the relining of the painting and mounting on a new plywood panel.

Icon would like to thank Gianlorenzo Pignatti ACR and Sgr. Ezio Buzzegoli for this interview. 

Lead Image: Florence Flood, Arno River; Public Domain
Image 1: Florence Flood; Public Domain
Image 2: Fortezza da Basso Florence; CC FreePenguin
Images 3 and 4: Marks left by "Angeli del Fango" hands on the white wall. This is pure conservation because these walls were never repainted in the past years with the precise purpose of maintaining this information visible to future generations. Used with kind permission of Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Credit: Gianlorenzo Pignatti.

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