This interview is part of a series of interviews with European craftspeople conducted in collaboration between FRH, the European network for Religious Heritage, and Mad’in Europe, the network of European fine and traditional crafts and Cultural Heritage restoration professions.
Sabrina Cavaglia is specialized in frescoes restoration, easel paintings, and polychrome sculptures. She holds two licenses in art restoration and conservation in Italy and has obtained official accreditation as a conservator from the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. Sabrina works independently in Belgium since 2013, collaborating with Brussels workshops and teaching restoration at IFAPME.
1. Please introduce yourself (profession, area of expertise and years of experience).
SC: My name is Sabrina, and I have been an art restorer for over twenty years. Driven by my passion for my profession and eager to share it, I also work as a trainer in art conservation and restoration in Brabant Wallon. Prior to arriving in Belgium ten years ago, I practiced for thirteen years in Italy, where I successfully completed the national examination for official accreditation as a restorer, granted by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.
2. What clients/markets do you work with (are they local, national or international)? Which are the required skills and certifications that your customers request?
SC: In Italy, I mainly worked for public institutions, museums, church organizations, etc. Now that I live in Belgium, I collaborate with art galleries, antique dealers, and individuals. I still occasionally work with museums, but the majority of my clients are private individuals. Clients seek my services when their artworks have undergone alterations that affect their aesthetic qualities. These alterations can be a result of material aging, poor storage conditions, mechanical accidents, and more. In my practice, I place great importance on ethics and professional conduct. I adhere to the principles outlined in the Deontological Code established in the 1984 Copenhagen Charter, the 1997 Pavia Document, or the Ethical Code of ECCO (European Confederation of Conservators-Restorers Associations). As such, I meticulously follow the foundational principles governing restoration and conservation practices: legibility, reversibility, and compatibility of any restoration intervention applied to the treated artwork.
3. Please briefly explain how your profession is related to religious heritage and/or cultural heritage.
SC : My interventions aim to correct the detrimental effects of time so that the artworks can regain an effective aesthetic or spiritual essence and be passed on to future generations in the best possible conditions. Often in Italy, the faithful eagerly awaited the return of their altarpiece or religious statue from restoration, as these objects were an integral part of worship practice.
4. Please describe the main steps of your usual working process and the materials that you use most.
SC: The first step of my work is to assess the conservation status of the artwork. This phase is essential to understand the extent of the damages and develop an appropriate intervention protocol. During this phase, I use a condition report lamp to detect surface alterations and a UV lamp that provides information about the type of varnish and the presence of overpaints. Next, if the artwork does not present adhesion defects requiring prior re-fixing, I start with a superficial cleaning and/or a devarnishing of the paint layer using special sponges, adjusted aqueous solutions, or solvent gels. This operation is often quite spectacular as it allows me to recover the original colors and depth of the composition hidden by layers of dirt and yellowed varnish. In most cases, the artworks have gaps, meaning losses of material due to accidents or poor conservation conditions. I fill these gaps with putty and then reintegrate them using watercolor and/or varnish pigments. It’s also common for the supports of canvas artworks to have deformations due to improper tension on their frame, tears, and holes. In such cases, I need to intervene on the support by reducing the deformations using moisture and a low-pressure table, stitching the tears with adhesives, and filling the holes with canvas inserts.
5. Do you regularly cooperate with craft professionals from other fields?
SC: As a member of the Union of Heritage Craftsmen (UAP), I have the opportunity to regularly interact with passionate artisans skilled in various craft domains. However, in the scope of my profession, I sometimes collaborate with other artisans like stucco workers and cabinetmakers who seek my expertise to finalize works during the pictorial reintegration phase or the creation of polychromies.
6. Please mention any innovation that helped improve your work (technological, digital, material related, legal…) and explain the impact they had on your profession.
SC: The conservation and restoration of artworks is a constantly evolving multidisciplinary profession, thanks to ongoing scientific research that continually develops new materials and technologies to serve artworks and their conservation. If we adhere to the principles of minimal intervention, the products used by the restorer aim to modify the artwork as little as possible in terms of materiality and appearance. For instance, during the cleaning of contemporary artworks, which use mediums and techniques sensitive to solvents and sometimes water, more and more natural products in the form of gels or emulsions are being used. These interact with surface dirt without affecting the original layer. Another example is the recent use of nanotechnologies for artwork cleaning or plaster consolidation. The profession requires an in-depth understanding of artistic materials and intervention techniques. Therefore, one must constantly stay updated to conscientiously and responsibly use restoration products. In Italy, there is an increasing focus on the ecological implications of the restoration-conservation profession. For example, the current challenge is to replace petroleum-based solvents with more sustainable yet equally effective products.
7. How did you learn the profession? Can you detail your learning path mentioning schools and workshops where you were trained?
SC: I studied in Italy before the implementation of the Bologna reform. Thus, I have the equivalent of what would now be called a “Master’s” in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, specializing in the restoration of mural paintings and easel works. During my studies, I had the opportunity to work on major restoration projects of mural paintings and stuccos in Turin and at the Reggia della Venaria Reale (Piedmont). Afterwards, I apprenticed as a restorer at a company specializing in the restoration of frescoes in churches and historical buildings. Keen to specialize in easel painting restoration, I joined a restoration workshop responsible for restoring works for several museums and churches in Piedmont and Liguria. This allowed me to work for several years on monumental works, particularly large canvas sets that churches used as scenery for certain religious performances. Upon moving to Belgium ten years ago, I had to rebuild my network of colleagues and clients to be able to practice my profession. I also had to reinvent myself as the culture of restoration differs here from that in Italy. Despite my experience in the field, I still consider myself to be in a constant state of learning because each restoration case is unique and requires finding new solutions.
8. Do you pass on your knowledge to young people?
SC: As mentioned earlier, I am a trainer in Conservation and Restoration at IFAPME in Limal, in Walloon Brabant. Sometimes, I also host interns in my projects on site. I firmly believe in the importance of passing on know-how and professional ethics to younger generations because the preservation of heritage is in their hands. Heritage, as the very word suggests, is all that our ancestors have left us and that we must pass on to posterity.
9. What would you recommend to a young person interested in your profession?
SC: The profession of a restorer is complex, at the intersection of art history, chemistry, biology, and more. A solid knowledge of the materials constituting artworks and restoration products is necessary. This theoretical background must be accompanied by mastering technical skills in professional practice. It’s important to be aware that any mistake can irreversibly alter the materiality and authenticity of the artwork. Therefore, I advise young individuals interested in my profession to take the time to train and undertake multiple internships with various restorers before venturing into the profession. Internships can be enriching experiences and opportunities to become known and start collaborating with one restorer or another.
10. Do you think that your profession is threatened and in this case, what are the main threats?
SC: In Belgium, the profession of conservator-restorer is not regulated, unlike in Italy, where access to the profession is regulated and conditioned by obtaining a diploma, a minimum number of accredited working hours with the Fine Arts Superintendence, etc. This lack of safeguards in Belgium means that qualified restorers are sometimes exposed to unregulated competition where, to lower prices, some unscrupulous practitioners tend to disregard the rules of the art and professional ethics. While there are professional associations of restore in Belgium that exercise a form of self-regulation in accessing the profession, offering a kind of peer recognition, the admission criteria are more based on professional status than on experience, skills, or professional ethics of the members. Should the public authorities, as in Italy, implement strategies to promote heritage professions and protect clients against poor workmanship? I still ponder over this. In any case, there should be more public awareness about the issues related to heritage conservation, as it forms the basis of our collective memory.