Retouching a painting at the Conservation Unit of the Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Finnish National Gallery /Jenni Nurminen

On the Will of Preservation

Ari Tanhuanpää, PhD, senior conservator, Finnish National Gallery

An extended version of the paper presented at the 3rd International Artefacta Conference ‘Agency’, University of Turku, Finland, 16–17 February 2023


There are countless artworks and other objects of cultural heritage that have been destroyed, intentionally or unintentionally, over the course of history. This fact seems to call into question the categorical imperative for conservation that Cesare Brandi (1906‒88) put forward in his theory of conservation (Teoria del restauro, 1963). Brandi ‒ an art historian, art theorist, critic, and poet[1] ‒ is one of the most cited names in conservation theory, but this particular issue has received surprisingly little attention among Brandi scholars. Brandi claimed that when an individual encounters an artwork they ‘feel immediately an imperative […] for conservation’.[2] Yet one might ask whether Brandi’s imperative has anything to do with what is happening in the real world or is there a serious flaw in his reasoning?

Cesare Brandi´s Teoria del restauro

It should be noted that Brandi theoretically deals only with artworks in his book, which can be considered a shortcoming.[3] Brandi’s theory of conservation is connected to his art theory, which is based on semiotics and phenomenology; he has been influenced by philosophers such as Benedetto Croce (1866‒1952), Edmund Husserl (1859‒1938), Martin Heidegger (1889‒1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905‒80) and Jacques Derrida (1930‒2004).[4] The concept of presence is crucial in it ‒ that is the immediate presence of the artwork that is distinct from the parousia of the factual existence. Brandi underlines that the artwork does not signify: it ‘presentifies’.[5] Regardless of the date of creation of the artwork, it ‘is not given in the past […] [but] in the present’.[6] Brandi refers to this ‘pure reality’ (realtà pura) using his neologism astanza, or ‘adstance’ (a word derived from the Latin, adstare, ‘proximity’) and contrasts it with flagranza or the ‘flagrance’ of existential and empirical reality.[7] Brandi cites John Dewey’s book Art as Experience (1934): ‘A work of art […] is actually and not just potentially a work of art when it lives in some individualised experience. As a piece of parchment, of marble, or canvas, it remains (subject, however, to the ravages of time) self-identical throughout the ages. But as a work of art, it is recreated every time it is aesthetically experienced. This means that, until such a re-creation or recognition ‒ in Brandian terms, riconoscimento occurs, the work of art is only potentially a work of art […]. It is simply a piece of parchment, or marble or canvas.’[8]

Brandi did not address this distinction in his theory of conservation, but it is central to his concept of art. In Brandian terms, the conservation of an artwork means preserving its pure form. Paradoxically, the physical materials of the artwork, on which the conservation treatments must exclusively focus, are secondary to this ‒ physical matter is completely subordinate to image; its only function is to act as a medium for the manifestation of the image. This gives rise to the requirement that conservation must aim to preserve the material of the artwork for as long as possible.[9]

[1] Brandi published monographs on Giorgio Morandi (1941), Duccio (1951), and Giotto (1983). He wrote several art theoretical studies, on painting (Carmine o della pittura, 1962), on sculpture (Arcadio o della scultura, 1956), on architecture (Eliante o dell’architettura, 1956), and on poetry (Celso o della poesia, 1957). His theoretical work culminated in three works: Segno e immagine (1960), Le due vie (1966), and Teoria generale della critica (1974). Brandi served for a long time as director of Italy’s most important conservation institute Istituto Centrale del Restauro (ICR), in Rome (currently Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR).

[2] I use the second edition of Teoria del restauro (Torino: Giulio Einaudi, 1977) as my reference. The English edition of the book, translated by Cynthia Rockwell, was published in 2005, Theory of Restoration, edited by Giuseppe Basile (Firenze: Nardini Editore). A more correct translation for the title would be Theory of Conservation.

[3] Brandi states that the concept of conservation is not to be articulated ‘on the basis of the practical procedures in which it is carried out, but in relation to the work of art as such from which it receives its qualification’. Cesare Brandi. Restoration. Theory and Practice. Edited by Giuseppe Basile. Associazione Internazionale per la storia e l’attualità del restauro – per Cesare Brandi. Palermo: AISAR editore, 2015, 16, (accessed 6 January 2023).

[4] See, e.g. Paolo D’Angelo. Cesare Brandi. Critica d’arte e filosofia. Macerata: Quodlibet, 2006.

[5] Cesare Brandi. Les deux voies de la critique. Trans. Paul Philippot. Bruxelles: Vokar, 1989, 51.

[6] Cited by Massimo Carboni in his Cesare Brandi. Teoria e esperienza dell’arte. Milano: Jaca Book, 2004, 44‒45.

[7] Paul Philippot. ‘The Phenomenology of Artistic Creation according to Cesare Brandi’, in Cesare Brandi. Theory of Restoration. Edited by Giuseppe Basile. Firenze: Nardini Editore, 2005, 30; Giuseppe Basile. Teoria e pratica del restauro in Cesare Brandi. Saonara: Il Prato Editore, 2007, 56. On this distinction crucial to Brandi’s thinking, which he does not, however, discuss in his theory of conservation, see Brandi’s Teoria generale della critica. Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1998. Stefano Gizzi has compared astanza to Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura, in his ‘The Relationship Between Brandi’s “Astanza” and Benjamin’s “Aura” and its Influence on the Restoration of Monuments’, in J. Delgado & J.M. Mimoso (eds.), Theory and Practice in Conservation. Proceedings of the International Seminar. Lisbon: Laboratório Nacional de Engenharia Civil, 2006, 73‒86.

[8] Brandi, Theory of Restoration, 48. Brandi’s term riconoscimento has a thematic connection to what Étienne Souriau called ‘instauration’. That is ‘a process that elevates that which exists to an entirely different level of reality and splendour […]. “To instaure” does not so much refer to the act of creation as it does to the “spiritual” establishing of something, ensuring it a “reality” within its own genre.’ Peter Pál Pelbart. ‘Towards an Art of Instauring Modes of Existence that “do not exist”’, (accessed 31 December 2022).

[9] Brandi, Theory of Restoration, 49.

Featured image: Retouching a painting at the Conservation Unit of the Finnish National Gallery.
Photo: Finnish National Gallery /Jenni Nurminen

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