In Florence, he sought out woodworkers and frame makers, many of whom were practicing their craft in much the same manner as their Renaissance forebears. “There were artisan shops everywhere,” he says, “great woodworking shops where the level of skill was unbelievable. I loved everything about it—the tools, the designs—so I started apprenticing with a woodcarver, with no pay.”
He supported himself by guiding museum tour groups of American university students, mostly art history majors. The work forced him to study each museum’s collections and bone up on art history so he could stay a step ahead of the students.
After a year, Bisacca almost decided to “abandon the manual skills artisan craft thing” and go to graduate school in the history of architecture.
“That was my great love,” he says. “Particularly Brunelleschi. He was my obsession.” (He rolls up his right sleeve and shows me a tattoo—the floor plan of Brunelleschi’s Sacristy of San Lorenzo.) “I got this notion that conservation might be a nice synthesis of my academic interests and manual skills. I decided to go meet Andrea Rothë, who managed the best private studios in Florence. I just went there and introduced myself, asked for a job. At first he put me off—there were so many applicants—but we got to talking, and I asked a lot of questions about structural interventions. Andrea said that if I was smart, I’d use my manual skills and interest in art to specialize in the structure and conservation of wood panels. I agreed, and I was able to enter the studio right away to be trained by Andrea’s two experts. His advice changed everything for me.”
Rothë, who recently retired from the Getty Museum, recalls the young Bisacca in an e-mail interview: “George came to our studio at Palazzo Pitti with a corner section of a frame and asked if we needed any frames to be carved. I told him he would not make much of a career by carving, but if he wanted to go into something for which there was a lot of demand—and very few experts—he should go into wood restoration. Two of the best wood restorers, Renzo Turchi and Gianni Marussich, worked for us, and I introduced George to them. I considered them the best and still respect much of the work they did, but methods were evolving and much has changed. They introduced George to the basics, but eventually he surpassed his teachers and has made many important contributions to the field.”
Compared with the thickness of the wood support beneath it, the paint film on a typical Renaissance panel is about as thick as Earth’s atmosphere in proportion to the radius of the planet beneath—a ratio of about 40:1. A geologist on the International Space Station who views mountains, plains, and oceans on Earth’s surface knows that they are undergirded by tectonic plates, mantle, and core, where tremendous forces are capable of moving the mountains and raising the plains. The wood beneath a panel painting harbors its own tectonic forces, which can move the paint on the surface, or crack and destroy its adhesion.
Unlike the Earth’s mantle, wood is a biological product, and living trees contain large amounts of moisture in their sap and within their cells. When cut, wood loses most of its moisture as it comes into equilibrium with the relative humidity of its environment. But even though wood may seem “dry,” it is never quite so; its cell walls remain hygroscopic, capable of adsorbing and desorbing water from the air around it. As it does so, it continually changes dimension, warping and sometimes cracking—and this has been the greatest challenge faced by both the original craftsmen who made the panel and those who have tried to conserve it.
Many centuries-old panel paintings were installed in churches, where the stresses of winter heating and summer humidity took their toll. Those housed in museums hardly fared better; it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that indoor climates could be controlled.
In an effort to keep panel paintings from being destroyed by their own internal forces, 19th-century restorers tried fixing the panel to a rigid support. But the wood fought back and the constraints of the support only made things worse, driving one part of the panel up against another, lifting microscopic mountains of paint.
Some panel paintings were planed down to the paint film, removed from their wood supports, and remounted on canvas, an incredibly difficult and dangerous process that often did more harm than good. Others were “thinned” from a thickness of three or four centimeters to a few millimeters, then attached to wooden “cradles”—a scheme of horizontal battens (across the grain) and vertical slats (with the grain). The thought was that the loose battens would prevent further warping yet allow the panel to move and breathe as humidity changed, but the battens seized up and pressed against the back of the panel, causing a washboard effect on the paint surface. And the vertical constraints caused the entire painting to take on a concave shape, literally forcing areas of paint atop one another like Arctic ice floes. Thinning and cradling remained standard practice for more than a century, but since about 1970, the practice has been largely abandoned.
There’s an old joke in art conservation that the only thing two restorers can agree on is that the work of a third restorer was badly done. Long before the advent of scientific programs in conservation, each restorer had a proprietary interest in his own techniques, often wishing to keep them secret. And often took those secrets to the grave. This is a problem that leading conservators like Bisacca have been trying to address in recent years: How can the worldwide conservation community, which, now more than ever, bases its treatments on scientific principles, agree on and disseminate best practices?
In 1995, the Getty Foundation organized a seminal conference on the structural conservation of panel paintings. Conservators from around the world went to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to share their ideas and techniques. More recently, the Getty Foundation pledged millions of dollars to assure that crucial expertise will not be lost when conservators such as Andrea Rothë and George Bisacca retire.
The Panel Paintings Initiative, co-chaired by Bisacca and Jürgen Wadum of the Statens Museum in Copenhagen, is intended to educate a new generation and disseminate reference and learning resources by undertaking conservation projects in which both senior conservators and their younger colleagues participate.
Bisacca says that what he does is in “a curious spot between science, artisan skills, and artistry, requiring very complicated judgment and knowledge from lots of different fields. That’s why there are so few experts. Conservation puts together materials science, art historical knowledge, chemistry, andall kinds of artisan skills. It’s a wide-open field that I don’t think I will ever exhaust.”