In retirement, I’ve gone back to school, where I’m working on a bachelor’s degree in Art History. Naturally, the history part is relatively easy, but the art half of the equation is an uphill climb for someone with no measurable amount of artistic talent. Still, the courses are fascinating and my professors are all exceedingly kind to a ‘non-traditional’ student in their classrooms (that’s education-speak for ‘old fart’).
After delivering a little over 6,000 lectures, being a student again is a little strange. It took a while, but I finally stopped answering the instructor’s hypothetical questions during a lecture. And with difficulty, I can sit quietly when the audiovisual equipment acts up and my fellow students offer insanely impractical solutions. It’s not my circus.
Just this week, I was discussing the day’s reading assignment with another student before class. When I opined that the author had used thirty pages to say something that could have been more clearly stated in two paragraphs, another student remarked, “You should take an upper level history course—all the reading is like that!”
The student I had been talking with almost lost it—as he had taken several upper level history courses from me a few years ago.
The class in art conservation and restoration is interesting. We are practicing on terra-cotta flower pots. After carefully painting them and testing them with various solvents and resins—the professor not-so-carefully broke them into pieces and threw some of the pieces away. It is now my task to somehow put the poor pot back together. I fear that my prized flowerpot will never be able to play the piano again.
After being checked out on cheap terra-cotta pots, I will be more than willing to do the same thing for your prized Ming vase. I know the procedure—first, you break it with a rock…
The pieces of the pot do not go back together as easily as you might imagine. The terra-cotta didn’t really break cleanly, some of the edges crumbled into dust. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle where the edges of the pieces got sanded down a little. As it is now, I suspect that my restored pot may look like something Picasso produced.
All of this reminds me of the remains of an old church I visited in Central Mexico. Once a prosperous Catholic church, the building had been a revolutionary target during the War of the Reforms in 1850. Though it seems unlikely today, in Mexico’s past there were several occasions when the prosperity and conservatism of the Catholic Church came under attack by the Mexican people. There were even times when it was possible that the church might completely vanish. Today, the Mexican Constitution still contains anti-clerical provisions that, though largely ignored, severely restrict the Church’s role in public affairs.
At various times during wars and revolutions, churches were sacked, priests were assassinated, and the state confiscated church property. During the War of the Reform, this particular church was looted and all of the fabulous stone statues and sculpted facades were turned into rubble. In particular, the stone carvings that made up the front face of the church were busted into crumbled debris.
What was left of building remained more or less intact, and for over a century the former church was employed for a variety of secular uses. What had been intricate carvings became building blocks used to create walls breaking up the vast chapel into rooms and hallways. For a while, the former church was used as a dormitory for Protestant missionaries, as a warehouse, and even as a bowling alley. Locals delight in telling gullible tourists that the building was used as a brothel, but the tale is almost certainly apocryphal since the building is far too prominently located within the city to have ever been a whorehouse.
Eventually, the city decided to restore the former church and with cooperation from the local diocese, work commenced to restore the old building. The interior walls were dismantled carefully, recovering as much as possible of the pieces of the former artwork. Luckily, most of the stonework had originally been in the form of large stone cubes, sort of like a large stone three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle.
As these stone blocks were recovered, they were carefully placed on racks, awaiting a somewhat problematic restoration. There were huge problems with the restoration, however. Both interior and exterior walls had been destroyed and it was impossible to tell whether any individual carved block of rock was originally part of the altar, of the nave, or of the church’s ornamental facade. Much worse was the fact that no one alive had ever seen the original and there were no drawings or photographs.
Think of several three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles mixed together, the edges all worn enough that any piece will fit in several locations, and the boxes the puzzles came in are missing the photographs and instructions. There are almost an infinite number of possible reconstructions.
When I visited, the conservation team was carefully numbering the blocks and photographing the carved faces of the stones. Then, using a computer, the digitized images were carefully fitted together until they had recreated an image of the long-lost graceful carved facade of the old church.
Working carefully and slowly, the team rebuilt the facade, using as little concrete filler as possible between the stones. The result was remarkable. Though still covered with a protective net of wires to hold the work together while the concrete cured, here was the beautiful face of an early church from the colonial period of Mexico, lost for over a century and a half, restored.
Sculpted stone columns flanked each side of a delicately carved portico. Niches in the walls protected the statues of the church’s patron saints. Together once again, the stones that had been carefully fit into place revealed a church with a clearly defined Baroque style.
Within a year of the restoration, a painting of the old church was located in Paris. The French artist had visited the town during the heyday of the silver boom and, impressed by the beauty of the church, had rendered the facade of the church in an oil painting that he had taken back to France.
The computer algorithms had matched the stones with mathematical accuracy, the restorers had carefully fitted the pieces together, and according to the painting—not a single piece was in the correct position.