When a work becomes a “monument” in this sense, the meaning of “restoration” changes. In a landmark essay, “The Modern Cult of Monuments” (1903), the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl (1858–1905) defined terms that remain relevant today. A “monument,” for Riegl, is any artifact that comes to us from the past and speaks to us of the past. But he distinguishes between “intentional” and “unintentional” monuments. Intentional monuments are works whose original purpose and significance was commemorative. Memorial statuary and portraiture are intentional monuments, but so may be all manner of other works meant to commend certain persons, deeds, or events to future generations. By contrast, unintentional monuments are relics judged to be informative or illustrative concerning the time of their creation, though the intentions of their makers may have been merely practical (think of the tools and other humble objects that fill our museums). Riegl writes, “It is not their original purpose and significance that turn these works into monuments, but rather our modern perception of them.” Unintentional monuments bear unwitting witness to the age in which they were made. Intentional monuments bear witness on purpose—though, it must be added, in ways that may be problematic, as when they celebrate what a later age condemns.
Riegl then turns to the question of restoration: “Both intentional and unintentional monuments are characterized by commemorative value, and in both instances we are interested in their original, uncorrupted appearance as they emerged from the hands of their maker and to which we seek by whatever means to restore them.” We wish to keep intentional monuments pristine, not least since evidence of decay would suggest that their meaning is no longer revered. In the case of unintentional monuments, we fight the aging process because the artifact’s original condition is the most informative concerning the time of its creation.
To intentional and unintentional monuments, Riegl adds a third category, that of objects prized for their “age-value.” Restoring such works to their original condition would be ruinous. In the case of the Murillo, the restoration was botched not simply because the restorers were unskilled; it was misconceived from the very first. Had the restorers made the painting look good as new—just like the original Murillo, which itself has accrued age-value over the years—their work would have been deemed no better than that of the hapless restorer who gaudied up St. George. Never mind that the work on which they lavished their care was a copy; their sin is to have erased the painting’s patina and the passage of time. In this tension lies the paradox of the “original”: It can only be valued if it bears traces that testify to its authenticity, including its origin in a valorized past. Its power lies in its imperfection.
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