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Interview. Stains and uneven cleaning bode poorly for the Colosseum restoration, which is being carried out by general contractors and not specialized restorationists. Now some experts are pushing back.

Killing the Colosseum

If you’re a restorationist who’s gotten his hands on the Sistine Chapel, the Orvieto Cathedral or a Da Vinci painting, it’s likely that in Italy you remain unemployed. Or rather exiled. And for a long time. It’s not because there’s no work — that would be a paradox here — but because you’ve taken on a new identity: that of a professional who has brought honor to his country, and is now marginalized. Forced to sit in the window, watching other, less-qualified people work.

Take for example the firm Arké, which has in its portfolio restorations of the facade of San Luigi dei Francesi, Palazzo Farnese, the Spanish Steps and the fountains of Piazza Navona. In recent years, the company has been unable to win tenders. Why? Because companies like Arké are being beaten out by less expensive general contractors.

The Colosseum is currently undergoing a long restoration. But when some of the scaffolding was recently removed, the arches looked terrible. The first three had been entrusted to specialized companies as a pilot site, with subsequent arches left to a general contractor. The difference is striking, even to untrained eyes.

The problem is a cultural attitude (or ignorance) among construction companies whose leaders make decisions from an economic perspective. Immediate profit margins take precedent over the fact that substandard work can jeopardize the asset, undermining future conservation. One day, they’ll have to spend more just to salvage the artwork, provided that’s even possible.

Now, the Colosseum has become the protagonist of a battle restorationists are waging against the new status quo. The first jab was a public letter to government authorities who had previously rejected appeals of the legality of hiring construction companies to restore priceless artifacts. Manuela Micangeli, president of Arké, is leading the charge, and he spoke with il manifesto. “The Colosseum was supposed to be an example to the world,” he said. “So why throw it away? Italian restorationists are in a category recognized internationally, they have taught us and exported everywhere the practice of this profession. The work on the Flavian Amphitheater [another name for the Colosseum] should have been optimal, the most beautiful of all…”

Instead, that’s not exactly what happened. The Colosseum was an incorrect restoration?

Although travertine is resistant material, every stone surface is porous and sensitive. The question is why a call was made for general contractors, composed of masters and surveyors who oversee the work, leaving out the specialist firms? The general construction companies, among others, are forced to hire conservators to carry out the task entrusted to them … but not enough to resort to a qualified person. It is important to have a consistent level of intervention. One needs an expert who takes an overall perspective.

The maintenance of large areas at a consistent level is difficult. With spraying and mechanical brushes, it is easy either to “break through” or to stop too shallow. The uncovered part [where there was no scaffolding] of the Flavian Amphitheatre shows that the monument remained stained. Some points are too clean, others too dirty. They are not connected. There is no harmony and even the architecture suffers.

The techniques for cleaning, today, are multiple. There’s not just nebulisation. Moreover, water use must be well balanced because, if vigorous, it brings to the surface rust, iron pieces and threatens to break out other materials often found in ancient architecture. In short, flaying the “skin” that covers the marble. And if you run the natural bristle brush with force, you may remove the historical record, including the manufacturing process of the monument. In milder cases, you can use atomization. There is also sepiolite in place of water. It’s a clay with high absorbency, which serves to extract the stains. There are different, non-toxic substances for the monument to which you can turn.

What is the right level of cleanup work for art?

One that keeps part of the authenticity. If the marble is completely scraped off, the patina becomes too white. It loses its natural aging, reliefs and visible contrasts. And the preservation can also do more harm than good: When the skin is removed, the monument will be exposed. It will become more fragile, and its deterioration will be faster. Less resistant the ravages of time. Nebulization misused does damage. The delicacy of a restorer is also important with regard to his cognitive approach. During a restoration, information comes out that can escape a less attentive eye. If that information is erased, the process is irreversible and all is lost.

What happened that caused this progressive “expulsion” of the restorationist?

We had already lodged an appeal in the case of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Until the mid-’90s, work in the archaeological area of ​​the Roman Forum [the restoration of the Arch of Septimius Severus] was entrusted to companies specialized in restoration. The crucial point is, afterward, the awards went construction companies, which then subcontract to restorers since they do not have — within them — that kind of expertise. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina has Roman polychrome marble. It’s an architecture that’s particularly valuable. But the Council of State rejected our appeal on the basis of a report provided by a group of architects, who endorsed the tender process.

Restoration enterprises are formed by teams of specialists working together for many years. They have behind them important commissions and great experience. There’s no reason to let this honorable category die.

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