Cesare Brandi (1906 – 1988) was an Italian art historian and the Director of the “Istituo Centrale per il Restauro” in Rome. His recently translated “Theory of Restoration”—a collection of essays first published in Italian in 1963—is an attempt to elaborate a justification for and understanding of restoration and conservation as necessary practices. These essays are without question phenomenological and are perhaps most easily understood as such via an examination of his discussion of the relationship between art and time.
Brandi distinguishes the time that governs the work of art into two categories: “extra-chronological time”—the duration between an artist starting and completing an art work—and “historical time”—the duration between the completion of the art work and the experience of the art work by the viewer. Importantly, the only moment that these two categories of time share is the moment of recognition of the work of art as such – Brandi calls this “rhythmic consonance.” For the artist this “rhythmic consonance” comes when they judge their work to be complete, for the viewer this “rhythmic consonance” is when they judge the object under observation to be art. Because both the act of artistic creation and the act of viewing the art object share a common event of recognition (i.e. “rhythmic consonance” ), “the only legitimate moment for the act of restoration is the actual moment of conscious awareness of the work of art.”¹ In this part of his theory, one can see that the act of viewing/recognizing art is the linchpin of Brandi’s justification for restoration; moreover, because of this reliance, his theory can be broadly categorized as phenomenological.
But isn’t the moment of recognizing a work of art the only possible moment to restore it? When else could you do so? Certainly not when looking somewhere else, right? I think part of what Brandi is trying to unpack with this part of his theory is the awe that works of art often inspire and the respect that this awe creates in the viewer. For example, as Brandi would have it, when I look at a sculpture by Rodin I am sharing a moment with the artist via an “historical” recognition his artwork. In other words, when standing in front of a Rodin you say to yourself, “just as Rodin recognized this object as art, so too am I.” This shared moment turns the art object into a communicative device about what art is. If the artwork is ineffective at relating to the viewer it won’t be considered art. But when it is effective at communicating its “artness”, the viewer has a fidelity to it because its status as such is no longer a singular creation of the artist but rather a shared judgement. And because its “artness” becomes a shared creation, maintaining or restoring or conserving that “artness” becomes not only the right of the viewer but also their duty.
Does this mean the average museum-goer should insist on personally “spit-shining” paintings as they walk by? Of course not! Rather, I think Brandi is advocating that acts of restoration and conservation are essential to all works of art and should be recognized at such. For in a way, every time we judge an object to be art, we are restoring it to its original state, to its original “rhythmic consonance.”
¹Brandi, Cesare. Theory of Restoration. trans. Cynthia Rockwell. Nardini Editore: 2005, p. 64.