Schädler-Saub, Ursula:

The Fragment between Real and Virtual Re-Integration – Historical and Theoretical Foundations and Their Relevance for Our Acting Today


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This contribution deals with fragmentary preserved cultural heritage, focusing not on built heritage but on sculpture, paintings, architectural surfaces, and fittings of historical interiors in general. It starts with three different definitions of the term fragment: 1. The fragment is a piece of a lost whole; it differs from a ruin, because it is able to regain its “potential unity” (Cesare Brandi) that can bear witness to the historical and artistic values in their wholeness; 2. The fragment is an unfinished work, for external reasons or due to the artistic and spiritual impossibility of completing it; since Romanticism, many works of art are created as frag-ments, open to different interpretation and perceptive integration by the beholder; 3. A fractionalized reception, i.e. a subjective perception, can create fragments of items preserved in their wholeness, and on the other hand it can assimilate fragments as completely preserved works. All the three definitions relate to our appreciation, handling, and mediation of cultural heritage, whether fragmentary or not.

How do fragments come into being? They are caused by the aging of materials and by natural disasters, but above all by human hand. Vandalism and armed conflicts need to be mentioned here, but also neglect or decontextu-alization due to the loss of original function and use, the change in contemporary taste, and lack of empathy. Some case studies—from church interiors to antique markets and private or public collections—highlight the changing circum-stances and their impact on the material and appearance of cultural heritage. The reception and acceptance of the fragment depends on cultural traditions and viewing habits. Its appreciation can be aesthetically, historically and philo-sophically justified. Since the Italian Renaissance, the re-covering and restoration of antiques have inspired the pure preservation as well as the reintegration of fragmentary works of art. For modernity, the fragment accrues aesthetic and existential meanings potentiated by its fractural condi-tion, with great influence on presentation concepts of cul-tural heritage and collection pieces. In the name of authen-ticity, conservators created fragments by removing histori-cal additions, from antique statues up to wall paintings and panel paintings. Since the last decades of the twentieth century, an increasing attention to the history of restoration and the cultural context of works of art has led to a some-times curious re-restoration and re-establishment of an appropriate framework for fragments and fortunately also to an increasingly respectful handling of the passed-down conditions.

The fragment poses a challenge for research to develop the best possible methods for its investigation, documentation, and interpretation. How does the handling of the fragment change in the digital age, with the rapid development of new technical possibilities? Will digital methods of reintegration and presentation make material interventions in the original fragment unnecessary, promote its protection and appreciation? Or will 3D reconstructions that can be repeated at will increasingly push the question of the professional preservation and mediation of the origi-nal into the background? What is needed is a critical evalu-ation of the new technical possibilities in conservation-restoration in order to use them as helpful tools for re-searching and communicating fragmentary works of art without being blinded by the glittery variety of what they offer. Binding ethical principles help us in this; they are based on the theories and principles of the twentieth centu-ry but must also take new challenges into account.

A translation by Roger Skarsten of the conference paper: Das Fragment zwischen realer und virtueller Ergänzung – zu den historischen und theoretischen Grundlagen und ihrer Bedeutung für unser heutiges Handeln, published in: Schädler-Saub Ursula; Weyer Angela (Ed.): Das Fragment im Digitalen Zeitalter | The Fragment in the Digital Age. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen neuer Techniken in der Restaurierung | Opportunities and Limitations of New Conservation-Restoration Techniques, Tagungsband der interdisziplinären Tagung der HAWK Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaft und Kunst Hildesheim/Holzminden/Göttingen in Kooperation mit der ICOMOS AG Konservierung-Restaurierung und dem Verband der Restauratoren e.V., 7. bis 8. Mai 2021, hg. v. Hornemann Institut, Berlin 2021 (= Schriften des Hornemann Instituts 21), S. 17–43


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Beteiligte, Autor/inn/en:

  • Ursula Schädler-Saub (Autor/in)