I was 18 years old and in Florence, Italy in 1969, playing drums in a touring band. I suppose I was too busy drinking and chasing Italian girls to realize the Arno had flooded Florence less than three years earlier, but hey, I was a Baptist preacher’s kid in a far away country on my own for the first time. Now I wish that I could have been a “Mud Angel” who helped rescue and restore some of the world’s most important pieces of art, as well as books from the flooded Biblioteca Nazionale.
Restorers moving Cimabue’s “Crociffiso,” a victim of the 1966 flood in Florence.
I don’t know who should be more ashamed, me or my art history professor, but I had never heard of the angeli del fango (“mud angels”) until I read Dark Water by Robert Clark. Clark wrote of the angeli:
You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.
It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.
Because I tend to fall into the romance of an idea quicker than Clark Griswold, this mission, this project, this role drew me and made me wonder if they could still use an old guy as a mud angel forty-some years later — not that I knew anything about restoration of art or books. I once dabbled in what I thought was restoration until an old, tobacco-chewing mechanic set me straight.
In high school, I bought a 1940 Ford with a plan to “restore” it. But being under the influence of the Beach Boys and others who sang of the virtues of a cool ride, one that would assure you would never be without a date on a Saturday night, I began to “pimp my ride,” although we didn’t know that term back then. I wanted a car equipped like the Beach Boys’ “409,” memorialized in their song of the same name:
Nothing can catch her,
Nothing can touch my 409,
My four-speed, dual quad, posi-traction, 409
Giddy up, giddy up, 409
So the first order of business in my “restoration” of this old car was to move the shifter from the column to the floor, attached to a four-speed transmission. This was critical for any hot rod. On the first test drive following this transformation, I stopped by the garage of the tobacco-chewing mechanic for a part. He came out to the car rubbing his permanently grease-stained hands on a filthy red shop rag. I was expecting high praise for the quality of my work, but instead got a rant from the old guy that began, “You cocky, long-haired, sumbitch! You ain’t restoring this old girl (pause to spit); you’re restylin’ her.”
With that he wiped tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth with his shop rag, then turned and walked back to his garage mumbling expletives and shaking his head, as if trying forget what he had just seen. But he taught his lesson, and this student now knew what restoration was and wasn’t, at least when it came to cars.
Reading the July 12 issue of The New Yorker this summer, I came across an article called “The Mark of a Masterpiece” by David Grann, and from this article I learned more about restoration, creation, and conservation.
Grann tells of meeting Peter Paul Biro (whose father Geza was a “serious painter”) who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. Geza, who died in 2008 at the age of eighty-nine, had his left arm — his painting arm and hand — crushed in an accident while a prisoner of the Russians. While trying to teach himself to paint with his right hand and needing to support his wife and two sons, Geza took a job as a restorer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest — a job he hated. I found myself wondering if, when it comes to art — and maybe life — “creator” is a higher calling than “conserver.”
I looked again to the Grann article.
For all their seeming kinship, a restorer is the antithesis of a painter: he is a conserver, not a creator. Like a mimic, he assumes another person’s style, at the expense of his own identity. He must resist any urge to improve, to experiment, to show off; otherwise, he becomes a forger. Yet, unlike a great actor, he receives no glory for his feats of mimicry. If he has succeeded, he has burnished another artist’s reputation, and vanished without the world ever knowing who he is, or what he has accomplished.
Now my thoughts run broader than art, books, and cars, to people like me, created in the image of a Creator yet many times torn, fractured, broken, and in desperate need of restoration.
I can see for myself that when I try self-restoration, it becomes more like attempted re-styling: trying to make myself in the image of another. Many times my restoration attempts smack of mimicry or forgery, and I find myself wondering who I am after all. I long for authenticity, but many times see only a persona of some kind.
But what if there is an instance where the creator and the restorer are one and the same? I recalled a verse: There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
What if Cimabue had been able to restore his Crocifisso himself? Would he have even wanted to undertake it? Maybe something more akin to redemption would have been on his mind — and a new creation.
I have come to this conclusion: dispassionate or dishonest restoration of anything will never be beautiful. (A re-styled ’40 Ford? Now that’s a different matter, although Henry Ford might beg to differ.)
I’m now reading the restoration themes in the biblical books of Job and Lamentations differently. Perhaps the writers knew something of this restoration:
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.
I would sing the repeated refrain of the eightieth Psalm, more fervently today: Restore us, O God; / make your face shine upon us, / that we may be saved.