I first discovered painting conservation while on a tour of the Getty Museum. I remember entering the conservation lab and seeing Old Master paintings on easels and tables right there in front of me. The conservators, oblivious to our little group, were intent on their work. Some were cleaning paintings slowly with small cotton swabs, others filling chips with tiny spatulas, still others were retouching with graceful brushes and small white palettes. Restoring paintings seemed to cover all of my passions: art, history, and Europe. Check, check, and check. I was 13 years old.
Returning home to New York City, I told my mom, “I’m going to be a painting conservator!” My quick-witted mother responded, “Go write to some museums and see if they’ll take you on as a volunteer for next summer.” I wrote to at least 20 throughout Europe. Only one replied “yes.”
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is located in Copenhagen, Denmark. The museum specializes in ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, pottery, and the like. To this day it blows my mind that they accepted me. I practically still had braces on my teeth! That summer I sat at a sink cleaning shards of Etruscan pottery and was in seventh heaven. A week before I was to leave, the director, Flemming Johansen, lowered a huge covered object on a pulley. “As a going away present you may now start to work on… this.” He ripped the tarp off and, behold, there was a colossal marble head of Titus the Emperor. Sheesh, how cool was that?
Five years later, I was ready to attend NYU to study for my chosen vocation. Instead, I got sidetracked. I wound up graduating summa cum laude from the legendary Mudd Club, and went to Europe, where I worked as a fashion model in Paris, London, Milan, and Rome.
It was in Rome at the age of 24, I met the late great, gruff, rough, and lovable Italian New Realist painter Mario Schifano. In his Trastevere studio, looking down from the indoor balcony at his large paintings lying flat on the floor below, he bellowed that existential question, “Leeza, what is it you have always wanted to do in this life?” Painting conservation, I answered. A phone call was made, a meeting planned, and two days later I had my first job as an unpaid apprentice at Cecilia Bernardini’s restoration lab in Prati, Rome.
The studio worked in various mediums: Renaissance paintings, Medieval panels, marble statues, ancient Roman mosaics, and on-site frescos. I absorbed it all, but my specialty, my forte, would become paintings on canvas or panel. The pay then was paltry, and during those early years in Italy I cooked lentils in many ways, if you catch my drift. I learned by doing, hands on, slowly absorbing the craft. First came the years as an apprentice, then serving as a paid worker in several restoration studios, and finally sharing a company with my brilliant colleague Antonio Toscano.
We worked all over Italy, in churches, abbeys, monasteries. Cleaning away candle and incense soot from centuries-old ceiling murals, being the first to see the original colors that had been hidden for so long, and reconstructing areas of images that were missing, uniting them to make them readable again—for me it never gets tired. We worked at private palaces in Rome, too, belonging to storied names: the Colonnas, Doria-Pamphilj, Chigi—these aristocratic families still exist, some with quite a bit of their wealth and their art still intact. It helped me understand why there are revolutions.
By 2000, Rome was abustle with preparations to celebrate the Vatican Jubilee year. Scaffolds for cleaning were mounted on the façade of Saint Peter’s. Antonio and I were sent in to work on the Carlo Maderno ceiling decorations—painted and gilded putti and garlands—inside the Vatican’s Cardinals’ Corridor.
I had been in Italy 17 years learning how the Old Masters painted, their techniques, the materials and recipes they used—and, most importantly, how to read the intimate minutiae of a work of art. The Maderno at the Vatican was a great addition to my CV. It was time to return to New York City and knock on some doors.
Starting with cold calls to galleries, dealers, private collectors, and auction houses, I gradually built a clientele. Networking was important, of course. I reached out to meet other restorers: George Bisacca, the master panel conservator from the Metropolitan Museum, was always helpful with sage advice and insider contacts; and Simon Parkes, who so generously passed my name on for what became my first award-winning restoration job, a 15 × 25 foot long 19th-century painting by Raimundo de Madrazo for the Italian Charities of America.
Today, I am a one-woman operation based in New York City. My NYC projects include the Stations of the Cross mosaics at the Church of Ignatius Loyola on Park Ave and 84th Street, the chapel ceiling and the paintings of the Civil War-era Little Church Around the Corner, aka the Actors’ Church, at 1 East 29th Street, and the 19th-century ceiling mural in the Chelsea Hotel. I’ve attended to many private clients, including Henry Luce III, Sir John Richardson, and Glenn O’Brien, as well as anyone who calls for help with a ripped heirloom.
I entered the life of restoration the old fashioned way as an apprentice and work work work. I never gave up, never even thought about it. I was born to do this and I was lucky to discover a path to achieve it.