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For Ardenia Capannelli, beauty is found in ravaged works. Photography by John Gilhooley

The Fixer

by Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Riviera Orange County magazine | November 27, 2012

Call her the art whisperer. For almost 20 years, Ardenia Capannelli has been the go-to person for those seeking to restore artwork ravaged by time or damaged in a mishap. She’s worked on everything from centuries-old paintings to family heirlooms with sentimental value. In the world of restoration, the requirements for success are the same. “You have to have a light hand,” Capannelli says. “You have to have a critical eye. You really have to analyze the piece and decide the appropriate restoration method.”

In our high-tech society, people expect a quick fix for any imperfection (think Photoshop and cosmetic surgery). But art restoration is a delicate craft, rooted in respect for and allegiance to the original. The goal is to restore only what’s necessary. “Leave the original as original as possible” is the maxim.

So, Capannelli spends her days hunkered down in her Newport Beach studio, painstakingly coaxing old paintings, sculptures, porcelains, figurines and ceramics back to their original beauty. Her work is based on philosophy and techniques learned in Ascoli Piceno, her hometown in Italy. There, as in much of Italy, fine art can be found in churches, schools, the public square. But the town needed people trained to restore and preserve the art. Leaders joined with one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Italy to design a training program. They selected only 12 students. Capannelli, who was always artistic, was chosen. She spent the next three years learning the ancient profession. “It’s not an easy job,” she says. The craft involves several critical components, from mixing and selecting the right solvents to clean the painting, to repairing rips and holes, to matching the original colors and doing touch-ups. After finishing the program in 1987, Capannelli spent a year working at the Museum of Ascoli Piceno. She restored paintings from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Then a friend invited her to visit Newport Beach. She was smitten. “I just didn’t go back,” says Capannelli, who’s always been a rebel—the most likely to do something wild and risky, like move to a country where she knew only one person. She was determined to succeed. She married the friend, studied English and took on secretarial jobs. But her passion for restoration kept calling. For a year she worked with a local firm, then started her own business at home. In 1996, she opened Ardenia Capannelli Conservation and Restoration Studio in Cannery Village.

In Italy the profession of art restorer is old and respected. Here, it’s fairly new. “People don’t know much about art conservation and restoration,” she says. Until, that is, they see the fruits of her labor—like the client who brought her an old porcelain clock. It was in 50 pieces. He was so happy with the restoration that he held an unveiling. And that wasn’t even her most difficult job. That moniker goes to a Flemish painting that took a year to complete. The most celebrated? The restoration of a surfboard owned by Duke Kahanamoku.

“It’s good that people know that there is such a thing as restoring art,” she says. “I see people appreciating it more and more.”