Italian Varnishes in the Sensory Heritage of the Nineteenth Century

Érika Wicky, Ph.D.

Varnishes played a significant role in both the history of material culture and sensory heritage. While they were meant to protect and embellish wood and painted surfaces by rendering them smooth and shiny, varnishes were perceived as noxious owing to their strong smell. Situated at the crossroads of sensory studies and technical art history, this research aims to highlight the polysensorial dimension of the history of varnishes in nineteenth century, in particular the tension between interest and disaffection toward varnishes. Indeed, before varnishes were transformed by the first synthetic resins around 1900, many late nineteenth-century painters stopped varnishing their works because they felt that it conflicted with modern aesthetics. In the same period, early modern varnishes became the subject of historical reconstruction experiments and technical treatises, which helped to improve restoration techniques and allowed painters to rediscover old varnishing techniques. This research will consider the sensory aspects of the uses, non-uses and making of varnishes in nineteenth-century Italy. Based on historical sources (technical treatises, critical reception, etc.), as well as on interviews in which restorers share their experience and technical knowledge, it will foster a polysensory approach to the history of art and cultural heritage.

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