White and restoration: the leadership of the neutral

Written by Fabio Marcelli
Translated by Lucrezia Parboni Arquati (IT Version)

The color white is poison for a painting, use it only for the bright details. Pieter Paul Rubens

In the collective mind white is the non-colour, instead to colour theory white is the result of additive synthesis of all colours then, on the contrary, the colour par excellence. We will not dwell on the controversy between Newton and Goethe, between science and sentiment, also because totter reason the desire to share that a natural phenomenon such as colour, bearer of intense aesthetic and emotional feelings, can not be explained by a scientific theory mechanistic and, as the German scholar, we would like to be surprised when “looking at a blank wall through the prism, it was left blank”1
Strange the colour white, it would appear from a side without its own character, colour manifestation of the void that the popular tradition expressed in that “like a blank sheet of paper”; other supreme colour synthesis, primary element and primitive (Yang) synergistic to the complementary black (Yin) is no coincidence that originates by the opposite subtractive synthesis.
Whatever it is your own idea about it, now days the white in architecture is often the choice to express the classic values ​​of the ancient, purity and modernity of the forms, or at least all those aspects of the poetics of space-related, and light the absolute. This relationship between colour and mental concepts is defined in time through the historical crossroads that, in parallel, outlining the conceptual interfaces between white and restoration.
White and restoration meet the first time at the beginning of the sixteenth century with the discovery of the Laocoon, in reality they are not aware, or rather the restoration is not even aware of himself (until the eighteenth century restoration as we consider it today practically does not exist) but the discovery of the sculptural group comes to represent an important step in the path of mutual definition. The candid priest literally dazzles the artists of enshrining the victory of the white monochrome in the aesthetic taste of the times and of the future on the basis of an erroneous interpretation that turns into aesthetic choice the effects of staying underground.
Simultaneously, the Laocoon than to the exegetical equivocation on classical cromia, it is also paradigmatic protagonist of one of the major methodological errors led to the restoration is still an example and that represents a gusset, indeed one of the major founding brick the definition of the discipline, but this is another story that would lead us too far, we return instead to our protagonists who meet again two centuries later in the eighteenth century. Shortly after mid-century Winckelmann with his “Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture”, definitely authentic myth of the white of classical antiquity as a symbol of ideal beauty, in those same years the restoration is transformed from reuse to conservation through a historical analysis of the past process that also in the neoclassical one of the main elements that build a new feel the past and more definition of the concept of cultural heritage focusing on preservation and transmission to future.

20 x 25 cm. (1)

The next century is witnessing a further meeting between the white and the restoration2, a meeting of example of the progress that the idea of ​​conservation was doing. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century is still common practice the use of “whitewashing” as a form of maintenance chores, they applied light covers of whose purity whitewash would have given back to the gory  of factories that were obsolete, to the point that it hopes to use of buildings like Palazzo Farnese, the Theater of Marcellus, the Colosseum and the Pantheon. Just recently he started a heated debate between supporters and not of this method with positions that oppose the whitewashing recognizing the value not only to the “property of the building”3 which are “the most beautiful compartments that give the building a sort of wealth “but also to the patina that Boito, in the same years, will define” the colour of the time “, positions which testify to a new sensitivity in the analysis of degradation in which the simple surface deposits are distinct from the natural alteration of the materials, in the search for forms cleaning that conserve it.
After another century and the White lives a second conceptual raise with the Modern Movement which makes it a linguistic sign in the aesthetics of the new architecture. But if in the eighteenth century the common matrix in the rediscovery of antiquity had approached the restoration, now the roads diverge in finding that the Movement makes forms that depart from use of styles and orders of the past and from history in general Gropius in his Bauhaus programmatically exclude the teaching of history and the result will be the loss of interest in the buildings of the past and consequently for their restoration.4 Despite this removal regulate current developments in the restoration will own those expressive values ​​of contemporary and purity of the volumes that will be applied especially in the volumetric updates of existing buildings, attitude that reconfirmation white as the colour of opposites: chromatic expression of the ancient re-found before , signature style of modern time.


Through these facts historical paths of experiments, discoveries and reflections white reaches us coloured contrasting and complementary meanings, acquired over time the expressive values ​​that the mutual restoration in a sort of overlapping and synergistic layers but still relate to two great family intervention: restoration and grafting. In these two macro areas restoration is in white, the colour support to the dictates of discipline: antique white when you want to mend a tear of history, the modern white when you want to operate a graft in history. In the first case the restoration draws to neutrality canons, purity, reflection ancient; in the second to those of contemporary, definition stereometric volumes and projection of the modern but in both cases it expresses the critical value of distinguishability, fundamental value of the restoration introduced by Boito in 1883 and that the same illustrates paraphrasing a Chinese proverb: shame deceive contemporary, ashamed even more deceiving posterity.5
Distinctness and figurative recovery unit are among the main keys of the relationship between the white and the restoration, but if in the graft on the ancient chromatic choice appears congruent expression of a juxtaposition of different languages ​​within a desirable path diachronic active in the life of the building, in the case of additions the same white appears, at times, overpowering visual history by becoming the protagonist in the final result.
White often becomes the most simple and proven way into recovery but the search for solutions that work on different textures of similar materials or on eurhythmics of different materials could give better results in some cases, because «although the white is the  lord of white elephants … and white stones that ancient pagans were giving a sign of joy … white … like the bridal veils, innocence, purity … although it is associated with the very sweetest, honourable and sublime … nothing is more terrible than this colour , when separated from the good».6


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[1] J.W.Goethe, Goethes Werke, Weimar, Bd. 4, p. 295

[2] Sull’argomento si veda: O.Muratore, L’uso del ‘bianco’ nel restauro architettonico a Roma nel XIX secolo, in “Bianco. Forme e visioni di architetture senza colori”, Opus Incertum, nuova serie, anno II, 2016, pp. 94-103.

[3] F. Milizia, Principi di architettura civile, a cura G.Antolini, Milano, 1847, cap. III, parte terza.

[4] Diversa sarà la linea del Razionalismo italiano dove tra gli anni venti e trenta del secolo vi sarà un ritorno ai valori estetici e compositivi del passato soprattutto nelle opere pubbliche, riflesso del regime politico.

[5] C. Boito, incipit de I nostri vecchi monumenti. Conservare o restaurare?, in “Nuova Antologia”, vol. LXXXVII, 1886, p.480.

[6] V. Capossella, La bianchezza della balena, in “Marinai, profeti e balene”, 2011.