Restoration: the Ship of Theseus Conundrum

A Spanish pensioner’s attempts to restore a fresco has highlighted once again the conceptual and practical problems associated with the restoration of works of art.

Admittedly the Ecce Homo fresco was in rather bad condition. But the result of Cecilia Giminez’s restoration has been to turn what was a battered but charming painting into something risible. Her handiwork has inspired a multitude of similar ‘improvements’.




But it’s not just amateurs such as Signora Giminez who have found art restoration to be less than straight forward. Earlier this year the Louvre exhibited Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne after an 18 month restoration. The dazzlingly bright colours of the restored painting are a marked contrast with the painting’s previous appearance. However, the new, sparkling look has not been universally acclaimed. Two of France’s leading experts resigned from the advisory committee that supervised the restoration. Concerns have been expressed about ‘over cleaning’ and the removal of paint that some experts believed was applied by Leonardo himself.

The process of art restoration gives rise to philosophical questions about whether a restored work of art is the same as the original. Restoration can involve more than just cleaning away dirt or removing discoloured varnishes or finishes. It often involves re-painting and also removing paint which might be original or which might have been applied during earlier restorations.

Art restoration is a good example of the Theseus Paradox famously recounted by Plutarch. After Theseus had slayed the Minotaur he sailed back to Athens from Crete. Successive generations of ancient Athenians maintained that ship in memory of Theseus and his heroic deed. As rotten planks were replaced, what remained of the original ship? Once every plank had been replaced, the ship might have looked identical, but was it in fact the same vessel? Could it still properly be referred to as the Ship of Theseus?

To take a more recent nautical example. After the Cutty Sark suffered significant fire damage, it was lovingly restored. The metal hull and some of the decorations (themselves restored) date back to the time the ship was first launched. But in truth, little of the original tea clipper remains. It is a beautiful replica, but is it really the original Cutty Sark? And if it is the original, what are the characteristics that mean it should properly be regarded as a 200 year old ship?


Perhaps we should just accept that ships, works of art and any other object are like any other living thing. They fade with age and what we are left with is the memory of the thing that once was. Can we ever see Leonardo’s masterpieces as fresh as they were on the day they left his studio? Most people would rather live with the damaged Martinez fresco, rather than the ‘restored’ version. Perhaps other art restorers will save the day, but what will we then really be looking at? A modern day view of what we think the original might have looked like.

Back to Top