Carolina Izzo breathes new life into damaged and ageing artworks
Her brushwork is masterful but Carolina Izzo is not an artist. Her work can be seen in Wellington’s Te Papa museum but she has signed none of it. Hers is the anonymous world of the art conservator, dedicated to preserving and restoring the work of others.
Born in Rome, Carolina studied at Florence’s Institute of Conservation and Restoration, where she learned to replicate the techniques of the old masters. It was an excellent grounding for a career that has seen her rescuing frescoes from earthquake rubble in southern Italy and donning scuba gear for the underwater excavation of an imperial Roman villa. She met her future husband, New Zealander Alistair Scott, while cataloguing antiquities on the island of Capri. An architect working in London, he had flown to Naples for a long weekend and they ended up at the same party.
“I’d brought this eggplant dish and he wanted to know who cooked it. He came for four days and stayed for 12 years.”
Alistair joined Carolina’s company as an architectural conservator; they were married, had three children and, a decade ago, moved to Wellington where they were charmed into buying a house with a well-established grapevine and some rampant bougainvillea.
Carolina took up a position as painting conservator at Te Papa, where she used her skills on more contemporary work. The opportunity to restore the works of artists such as CF Goldie, Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Billy Apple fascinated her.
“Imagine, each piece you have in your hand is unique. You never get bored. Like Rita Angus [her last project at Te Papa in 2008]. I was observing the way she used the brush and how she does such amazing, beautiful faces and how the hands are not quite right. I’m thinking all the time about the person who did the artwork. It is a huge privilege to get that close.”
Meeting Billy Apple was a highlight; he was her first living artist. “I saw those big yellow glasses and I shook his hand and said, ‘Gosh, you are the first artist I can talk to about restoring their artwork’.” He laughed and they have shared many conversations since.
In 2008, Carolina opened a studio in central Wellington where she works for public institutions and private collectors with another conservator, Tijana Cvetkovic. Her tasks range from working on the Government House painting collection to rescuing a 16th century Flemish painting stashed in a humid wardrobe until its paint started flaking off. She’s been called on to deal with problems as varied as repairing holes where builders had screwed the panels of a Rita Angus mural to a wall and working out how to keep fly spots off an important, privately held collection.
There’s also satisfaction to be had from saving an artwork with special family significance. “A young couple literally found a painting under the house,” says Carolina. “They thought it was a painting of their great-grandfather. The damage was so extensive it seemed too expensive to repair.” Luckily, an intern from Athens came to train with Carolina and worked on it, unpaid, for two months, making it affordable to restore.
Too often, Carolina says, collectors return a painting to its artist for repair. “An artist is all about creativity. The tendency is for them to try to improve the painting. They say, ‘I don’t know why I did that tree like that,’ and alter it in some way, which you should not do.”
She recalls a painting that had been repaired by a celebrated New Zealand artist. He had colour-matched the paint perfectly but hadn’t realised the new paint would fade at a different rate to the original – a conservator is trained to take that into account.
Sometimes a conservator’s knowledge of style and technique is used to help create new work, as was the case when Carolina designed an altar for a family chapel in Hawke’s Bay. The altar, like
the chapel itself, is Gothic in shape and simplicity; it borrows from the Renaissance, with details from the paintings of Mantegna and Raphael, and is inspired by the 17th century fashion for faux materials. The wooden columns are painted to resemble oxidised metal and polished plaster stands in for marble.
The practical work was carried out in collaboration with Italian artisan Federica Gatti in her Otaki studio. It is unique, beautiful and, for Carolina, a rare opportunity to create something new. Just don’t call it art. “I am not an artist. Really, my skills are in conserving heritage – our New Zealand heritage. This is where my heart is and I know there is lots of work to do.”
Story: Anna Tait
Photographs: Paul McCredie