James Beck: 77, Art Scholar and Critic of Conservation, Is Dead

Historians in the News

James Beck, a Columbia University art historian who became well known as a critic of what he viewed as the ruinous conservation of world masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, according to Columbia’s department of art history and archaeology.

An Italian Renaissance specialist, Mr. Beck produced 13 books, including three on Raphael and one about the sculptor Jacopo della Quercia, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. He wrote articles on painters from Giotto to Caravaggio, devoting particular attention to Michelangelo.

It was the extensive restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescos, begun in 1980, that initiated his vigorous critique of conservation in the art historical field.

He argued that the Michelangelo frescos were being drastically overcleaned — a process that not only erased some of the subtle volumetric painting, he contended, but also exposed the entire surface to modern pollution.

“The fashion for treatment of art was to clean hard and heavy,” Mr. Beck later said. “As with any face-lift, the treatments were changing the look of the original forever, and I objected to it.” The restoration unfolded as planned, however, and the final segment, “The Last Judgment” a fresco on an altar wall, was unveiled in 1994.

Mr. Beck spoke publicly in 1991 of the “barbarous” cleaning of an important tomb sculpture by Quercia in Lucca, Italy, saying it looked as though it had been scrubbed “with Spic and Span and polished with Johnson’s Wax.” The conservator sued him for “aggravated slander,” a crime that can carry a three-year prison term Italy. He raised similar alarms about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” unveiled in 1999 after a 20-year cleaning effort....
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