Manuela Belli has her paper conservation studio in Rome, behind the Palazzo di Giustizia, and not far from Castel Sant’Angelo. Belli studied at Rome’s Tor Vergata University (graduating 2008), with three years at a conservation program in Spoleto (graduating in 2003). The Spoleto program was founded jointly by the European Union, the Italian Cultural Ministry, and the Region of Umbria. Unfortunately, it no longer exists. The program had 15 students and classes were held at the 14th century Rocca Albornoziana. The fortress, named for the Spanish cardinal Aegidius Albornoz, was designed by the architect Matteo Giovanello Gattaponi. The Rocca sits at the top of Spoleto, and can be seen in the photograph below. Also below is a detail of the fresco in the Vatican’s Hall of Maps, showing the town on a fictive piece of paper. The last year of the Spoleto program involved internships in Italy and abroad.
It was at Spoleto that Belli met her teacher Christine Borruso, with whom she later collaborated for five or six years, and now has taken over her practice. The Spoleto program mostly concerned books. Borruso, however, taught courses in the conservation of prints and drawings. Borruso, herself, trained to be a paintings conservator in her native Germany. When she moved to Italy, she studied at the Patologia dell Libro program and took classes at ICCROM, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, based in Rome.
The studio is a large work room with an anteroom containing flat files. As with all the paper conservation studios I’ve seen, it has an immense sink and an immense table for working on large projects or multiple pieces at once. She says that even if the table is large, it never seems large enough. There are beautiful Japanese brushes made from various materials, including palm and horsehair; and fine sieves to strain glues. At one side of the room there was a Japanese karibari, made from layers of paper coated with waterproofing persimmon juice, and used in the flattening of paper. Belli has visited Japan and says there’s a lot to learn from the Japanese about paper conservation. There are also some bright drawings done by Borruso’s grandchildren.
This past Thursday, I asked Belli some questions about paper conservation. The conversation was in Italian, and the translations below are mine.
LV: Can you talk about your internships?
At the Spoleto school, for our third year, all the students had the opportunity to intern at collaborating institutions. I had the good fortune of going to Washington D.C., to the Library of Congress, for three months. I also had another internship at the Museo di Roma in Palazzo Braschi. On my own, I applied to the Folger Shakespeare Library. That was again for three months, just three months because it was too difficult to extend the visa. At the Folger I worked almost exclusively on books. And especially leaf casting.
LV: What is leaf casting?
Manuela Belli: It’s a mechanical means of restoration, where you use a machine, in which you disperse a pulp, made of paper fibers, in water. It’s used prevalently on papers that have insect damage, very many holes and tears. The machine is used because doing it manually would be too time consuming. Using this machine, the fibers are dispersed, with the aid of suction the water is aspirated away and the fibers are deposited where there are holes. It is a very quick way of filling. You tone the pulp, matching the color of the paper, beforehand. You use a computer to calculate how much pulp is necessary. It’s used for big projects, where there is a lot of damage, often worm holes going through all the pages of a book. It requires a lot of preparation, adjusting the parameters: the color, the amount of pulp, but once you’ve done that, the process is very rapid.
LV: How does conserving drawings differ from conserving books and prints?
Manuela Belli: I see the distinction more between prints together with drawings, and books. With prints and drawings you want to principally safeguard the aesthetic aspect. You want to restore their legibility/visual appeal after they might have been compromised by the effects of time, the attack of microorganisms, stains, glues etc. Whereas with books, you principally want to give them back their functionality, so they can be read and consulted, and aesthetic concerns are secondary.
LV: What are the differences between doing work for private clients and museums?
Manuela Belli: A private collector or dealer often wants the object to return to its old splendor. It’s often hard to explain to a private that the paper can’t be as white as when the print or drawing was made. Whereas, for museums, you know what you can do, and, what you can’t do.
LV: Can you talk about your most challenging project? And, why was it so challenging?
Manuela Belli: I remember working on a large format work. It was a sacred subject. A print from the late 17th century. It had already been restored, and restored by somebody who wasn’t specialized in paper. The restoration was crude, and the work was compromised. It was almost illegible. I could see that it had initially been affixed to a wooden panel. It was made up of eight sheets. The lowest two were greatly damaged. There were huge holes, it was deformed from the use of too much glue, and a paper that was too thick in comparison to the print. We had to remove all the old restorations. The print had been watercolored, and some of the colors were soluble, making it even more difficult to restore. There were moments when we thought we’d never come to the end. It’s much harder for us to conserve works that have been badly restored. In the end it was very satisfying to see the final result.
LV: What is the process for conserving museum works? Is there a bidding system?
Manuela Belli: If the restoration will cost above a certain amount, they are required by law to publish a notice of a competition for the work. If it’s a small amount, they can go to a conservator, someone they’ve worked with before, and have the work restored. In Italy, museums always have less money, and prevalently what gets restored is what’s needed for a special exhibition. They don’t have money for prevention. What’s been lost is the money for preventive conservation. This is an error in my mind. It’s shortsighted and a waste of effort, and of money, to only do work after the damage has been done.
What are some of the differences between being a conservator in Italy and abroad?
Here conservators are often thought of as artisans. They aren’t recognized as professionals. There’s little recognition of how long people have studied, and the internships they’ve had. One difference, I’ve noticed between the US and Italy, is that in the US conservators are brought in to collaborate, they’re on the same level as the art historians. Here, conservators are close to being the lowest rung on the ladder. I remember in the US when there was to be an exhibition, there would be a kind of round table meeting and each one gave their opinion on what to do. The thoughts of the conservator were taken into account. Here, the conservator is called in last, told what to do, and if something happens, they have to resolve it.
LV: Just what is it that makes drawings so appealing?
Manuela Belli: What first comes to mind is certainly the spontaneity of drawings, the immediacy in the creation of a drawing, which is quite different from a print or a book. It’s the freshness and the immediacy of the artist’s idea in the realization of the image. And, above all, every drawing is unique. A drawing isn’t reproduced the way a print is.
Manuela Belli can be reached
by cell phone at (+39) 347 092 0091
by email at firstname.lastname@example.org