Simulation and Invention as Techniques for Fixing Paintings in Italy, ca. 1300–1500

Annika Svendsen Finne, M.A.

In an article first published in 1952, the Italian art historian and critic Cesare Brandi touched on a counterintuitive idea: that a later hand could "riplasmare" the seemingly crystallized fabric of a historic artwork, reworking that object "in a manner that is analogous to how the creative process developed originally, merging the old and the new […] so as to abolish or reduce to a minimum the time that separates the two moments." Brandi’s evocative lines suggest the possibility of chronologically unexpected conversations between an artwork’s initial making and its later afterlife, inviting us to step away from a linear understanding of time, and also away from the disciplinary and professional barriers which divide creative/generative from reparative activities in the present day. This dissertation project explores the idea of riplasmare as an integral aspect of how pre-existing paintings were fixed, kept, and cared for by late medieval artists working within the central Italian tradition. The focus is on approximately thirty events from between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries wherein artists overpainted, expanded, repaired, reshaped, and cut apart pre-existing paintings, apparently as a means of material and/or spiritual maintenance, or compensation for various forms of loss. Certain case studies will be unfamiliar to the academic community, while others are well-known but have tended to be seen as incidents driven by later agendas, wherein a new creative will was one-sidedly imposed onto defenseless artworks. However, given the significant continuities in the technology and function of paintings over the timespan in question, it is alternatively possible to cast the later artist as working inside the physical or conceptual sensibilities of the older object, recapitulating the logic and methods that guided its initial manufacture, and using techniques conventionally understood to be generative – like simulation and invention – as instruments of care. Motivating questions include: how does the coexistence of multiple successive painters in the formation of a painting add texture to notions of artistic and historical authority? As the field of conservation becomes more sensitive to damages that are not only physical but also intangible – like losses to cultural context, or to the spiritual properties of certain objects – how might the idea of an 'overpaint-able' painting have implications for the ongoing pursuit of ethical standards for the conservation and preservation of works of art and cultural heritage?

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