The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Part 2: A traumatic production of “a different Leonardo”
The unhappy $8m Olivetti-sponsored restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper began in 1977 with a repair of small flakes of detaching paint. It morphed, on very grand institutional technical advice, into a promised liberation of all of Leonardo’s surviving original paintwork. It ended after twenty-two years amidst widespread recriminations and as a distinctly mongrel work showing alarmingly little original paint and very much alien “compensatory” and “reintegrating” new paint.
Prospective major restorations are often presented as elegant technical answers to some urgent conservation necessity the resolution of which promises magnificent artistic gains. In reality, the interface between technical intervention and artistic outcomes constitutes art restoration’s fault-line and does so in a field that is notoriously subject to the law of unanticipated consequences. One of the commonest surprises is how greatly the coherence of a work had depended on earlier restoration repairs that were removed on the grounds of being alien impurities. Like Humpty Dumpty, radically stripped works often prove to be wrecks that have to put back together again and many a restorer discovers – too late – that it is easier to take to pieces than to reassemble [see Endnote 1]. The resulting changes made during restorations are often presented as “discoveries”, “recoveries” or “recuperations” when on close examination they prove to have been plain errors. One such unwarranted, unsupported, insupportable case is shown here.
Towards the end, the restorer, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, expressed the hope (Art News March 1995) that her restoration might be the last because: “The less you restore a work of art, the better its chances of survival. Each time you touch a work, it suffers a trauma, no matter how carefully you operate.” In November 1998 the Art Newspaper reported that when Mrs Brambilla was restoring a crucifixion on the wall opposite the Last Supper in 1978, she noticed that “fragments of painting were peeling off Leonardo’s work before her eyes.” The Guardian of July 21 1997 reported she had noticed “bits of painting falling from the Last Supper” and that after experts from Italy’s central institute for restoration in Rome (Istituto Centrale di Restauro) had been called in “the decision to restore the painting was swiftly taken”. Too swiftly, many Italian experts believed.
Although conservation necessities are sometimes exaggerated [see Endnote 2], with paint losses, determining the extent, cause, and remedy must always be the top priority – the equivalent of fixing a building’s leaking roof. As seen in Part 1, when the Last Supper was disintegrating to the touch after the Second World War, the then restorer, Mauro Pelliccioli, fixed the problem by embedding the paint in litres of shellac. He also won some critical praise for uncovering most of Leonardo’s own surviving paint from restorers’ over-paint. Crucially, however, he tackled the disintegrating paint first (during 1947-49). Only when the shellac was settled and the paint completely secure did he begin scraping off restorers’ repainting (during 1952-54). In this most recent restoration, despite the problem of paint detachment, work began with an intended systematic removal of the remaining repaints.
Effectively, in the last restoration the authorities undertook an all-or-nothing gamble with a masterpiece. Against the certainty that shedding the old would be disruptive of the familiar and the still-surviving, they bet that the recovery of some more fragmentary, talismanic relics of Leonardo’s paintwork would outweigh the scale of accompanying losses and newly exposed bare wall. This presumptuous naivety was to prove disastrously wrong-headed. First, as scientific tests of paint fragments (published in Studies in Conservation, August 1979) were to warn, the distinction between original paint and later restorers’ overpaint was not at all easy to establish: “the dividing line is much less clear cut”. (This was hardly surprising given the work’s earlier exposure to corrosive cleaning agents and heated metal rollers.) Second, Pelliccioli had already uncovered most (two thirds, he believed) of what was taken to be Leonardo’s surviving paint. While there was not all that much more to recover, there was, artistically, still very much to lose. Pelliccioli had left repaints in place precisely where they covered only bare wall – which is to say, where they held the image together.
The paradoxical consequence of this pursuit of original material was that the old ill-preserved yet somehow-maintained “theatrical” illusion that Leonardo had originally created was greatly undermined. One narrow specialised purist concern for what was “original” and “authentic” material was set against another larger more elusive aesthetic/artistic concern for what had been intended; for what was yet struggling to survive. Achieving the liberation of fragmentary and injured archaeological material imperfectly adhering to a damaged moisture-prone vertical surface came at the cost of eliminating all that had maintained and prolonged Leonardo’s decaying but originally mesmerising artistic illusion incorporated into the space and fabric of a large room. (Kenneth Clark had spoken fondly of “these ghostly stains upon the wall”.) The work was remorselessly stripped down to the sum total of all previously accumulated injuries in order that the resulting wreck might then be put back into some presentable aesthetic form more suited to today’s tastes. The ideological/art historical rationale offered for this purgative exercise was that every age has the right to make its own Leonardo…that the Leonardos that had come down to us from the past were somehow deficient, obsolete, culturally-contaminated; that we now simply know better. The preposterous nature and Futurist flavour of this relativist conceit (“Every previous generation has erred, we, standing outside of history – or at its end – will now get things right”) might have been held self-evident. Leo Steinberg, evidently unsettled by this recent spasm of historical/aesthetic cleansing, quoted Jonathan Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” (“Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper”, 2001.)
The purist shedding of earlier repaints regardless of their antiquity and artistic functions, necessarily guaranteed that Leonardo’s work would be “altered considerably”, as Carlo Bertelli, the then director of the restoration, acknowledged in the catalogue to the 1983 Washington National Gallery of Art exhibition of Leonardo’s studies for the Last Supper. A later defender of the restoration, Giovanni Romano, not only applauded the creation of “a different Leonardo” during “a great restoration” (Il Giornale dell’arte, April 1999) but fawningly added that he would be “satisfied with a restoration of this sort every year.” Throughout this era of vaultingly high ambition, the restoration community needed the biggest possible “sell”: nothing less than a “New Michelangelo” was said to have emerged during the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration. It became a commonplace that revolutionary restoration “discoveries” required the very “rewriting of art history”.
There is no mystery about how the latest calamity came about. In the 1983 catalogue, the Washington National Gallery curator, David Allan Brown, duly relayed the twin official reasons for the restoration: that the paint (which, under a microscope, resembled “the scaly skin of a reptile” ) had not remained secure; and, that Pelliccioli had not removed all earlier repaints. The repaints had to come off because they were now “threatening the stability of the original colour.” Not explained, was how this was so, or how much original paint had been left by Pelliccioli. In the July 2 1995 New York Times, Bertelli recalled having been “certain that there was enough beneath the additions to warrant this restoration”. He added that “Mrs Brambilla and I had examined the surface with a microscope, and we were surprised to see how much of Leonardo’s original work remained”.
In 1983 Allan Brown noted that “The expectation that a considerable portion of the original might survive [had given] a strong impetus to the decision in the late 1970s by the Superintendency of Fine Arts for Lombardy (at that time directed by Franco Russoli) in consultation with the Istituto Centrale di Restauro, to take up again the unfinished work of cleaning the picture.” This would suggest that so strong was the desire to revive and complete Pelliccioli’s unfinished aesthetic programme that the operation was begun even as the technical solution which had originally made that aesthetic objective possible was said to be failing. Whatever gains might have been hoped for or anticipated, by May 1998, Bertelli admitted (in Art News) that “Now we can see only a few square feet [of original Leonardo paint] but they are by the master” and, on a Channel 4 documentary that year (“The Lost Supper”), he characterised Leonardo’s mural as a “ruin” (“una rovina” ). In the November 1998 Art Newspaper Brambilla said, self-contradictorily, that the repaint had had to be removed out of fear that condensation might become trapped between “the artist’s original paint and the successive layers of paint”, and, that constant environmental conservation measures would henceforth be necessary because “the layers of repainting are no longer protecting the original paint.”
Which was the case? If the repaint was protecting the Leonardo paint, what had been causing the original detachments? Given that the 1979 tests mentioned above had established that it was not always possible – even under ideal laboratory conditions – to “decide exactly on the dividing line – both for areas and for layers – between what remains of the original and materials pertaining to later interventions”, how great could the risk have been of moisture insinuating itself between the original and the subsequent paint layers? On whatever technical premises it rested, when the restoration proper began on the better preserved right-hand side of the mural, the attempted removal of all previous restorers’ repaints and consolidations of paint, inevitably constituted a prolonged and sustained assault on the mural’s fabric – as Brambilla herself candidly described in the March 1995 Art News:
“Here we have a surface that is completely ruined, disintegrated into tiny scales of colour that are falling off the wall. We have to clean each one of these scales six or seven times with a scalpel, working under a microscope…Here I can clean an area one day and still not be finished, because when the solvent dries it brings out more grime from beneath the surface. I often have to clean the same place a second time, or even a third or a fourth. The top section of the painting is impregnated with glue. The middle is filled with wax. There are six different kinds of plaster and several varnishes lacquers and gums. What worked on the top section doesn’t work in the middle. And what worked in the middle won’t work on the bottom. It’s enough to make a person want to shoot herself.”
Could Pelliccioli’s already failing shellac have survived these repeated traumatic assaults with solvents and scalpels on all the glues, waxes, lacquers and gums within the paint-film? Had some new superior quick-acting consolidant been identified or manufactured? What were the structural consequences of this apparent removal of every atom of previous consolidations of the paint? Brambilla has said of the detaching paint “To re-adhere the fragments we used wax-free shellac in alcohol, the same adhesive as Pelliccioli applied during his intervention of 1947″. So, in other words, just some more of the same. If Brambilla’s best English wax-free shellac lasts no longer than Pelliccioli’s, we might expect another restoration within twenty years or so.
One thing is clear: the technical underpinning of the restoration, and the swiftness with which its unquestionably radically transforming methodology was applied, were both challenged by Italian experts. On July 2 1995 the New York Times reported that Mirella Simonetti, a Bologna-based restorer, protested: “There was never any doubt in their minds. They decided how to proceed without even conducting the proper analyses to determine how much of the original painting remained. They didn’t even submit their findings to an international committee of experts.” The Florence-based diagnostician, Maurizio Seracini, who had been called to examine the Last Supper after the restoration began, complained: “I think that Mrs Brambilla has worked in good faith. But you don’t decide to restore a masterpiece like the ‘Last Supper’ on the basis of what you see under a microscope. It’s simply irresponsible.” Seracini added “I myself have not seen any definitive scientific proof that restoration was really needed.”
That the authorities had not known how much original Leonardo paint might survive had been tacitly acknowledged as early as 1983, when, with the restoration one third completed, David Allan Brown could speak only in relative terms: “By comparison with other, well-preserved murals of the time, Leonardo’s detailed execution is almost entirely lost.” Even when the restoration was eventually finished (or halted) there was no agreement among the protagonists themselves on how much had survived. Carlo Bertelli, the director of the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, who effectively initiated the restoration, put the figure at 20%. Pietro Marani, the prolific Leonardo scholar who advised Brambilla from 1985 and became co-director of the restoration in 1993, once said that “no more than 50%” survived and later more ambiguously claimed that 90% had survived “in parts”. Giuseppe Basile (later the director of the restoration of Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes) put it at “about half”. Giorgio Bonsanti, the director of the Florence-based laboratory Opificio delle Pietre Dure, put it at “possibly 20%”. Giovanni Urbani, the director of the Istituto Centrale di Restauro between 1973-83, and the director of the Brancacci Chapel restoration, thought 25% had survived.
In 1989 a Milan town councillor, Maria Bonatti, brought an (unsuccessful) action against the restorer for accelerating the mural’s decay – a charge also made by the painter, essayist and paint materials expert Mario Donizetti, who held that it would “disintegrate more rapidly than before.” Ten years before the restoration ended, in November 1989 the Art Newspaper reported “Over the years work has been stopped repeatedly, sometimes following changes at the helm of the Milanese Soprintendenza and the Instituto in Rome, other times simply to allow the whole project to be reconsidered.” Eventually the proceedings quickened dramatically. In his 2001 book, Leo Steinberg recalled encountering the restorer and three young assistants in 1998 “all huddling at lower left scraping away”. On the cleared wall, “more filling was needed – and it had to be done fast (a deadline had been imposed from on high), so that this must-see tourist attraction would show decent finish to the daily sightseers.”
In 1983 Bertelli had said in National Geographic that Brambilla was taking a week to clean an area the size of a postage stamp. He quoted her professional plaint: “It’s difficult. The work is hard and tiring. It creates much physical tension bending over the microscope. After a few hours my eyes grow blurry. I may come every day for months. Then I must take an extended break. There is also the psychological tension. All the eyes of the world that know Leonardo are watching what I do. Some nights I do not sleep.” The pressure intensified as the restorer inched her way towards the central figure of Christ. In April 1998 the Art Newspaper reported that “Hundreds of tourists (mostly Japanese) last month lined up…to visit Leonardo’s Last Supper. The painting was back on view after having been closed for two months to allow restorers to work on the faces of Christ and the apostles.” That report evidently escaped the attention of the National Gallery’s then director, Neil MacGregor, who wrote in his 2000 BBC book “Seeing Salvation”:
“When the latest restoration was unveiled in 1999, all hell broke loose, and the admirably scrupulous restorer in charge was vilified in much of the world’s press…Among the wilder accusations, fears were expressed that the face of Christ had been altered. Happily these proved to be groundless.”
That the unveiling was badly received is beyond dispute, but if vilification was in evidence it was aimed by defenders of the restoration at their critics (see right). The extent to which the face of Christ was altered, and the evolving means by which the restorer came to impose her own distinctive, ahistorical, arguably arbitrary aesthetic reading on the unprecedentedly vast, fully-exposed areas of paint loss in a quest to “bring it back to its original colors and composition”, will be examined in Part 3. Here (right) we examine a single unwarranted change that was made to the design of drapery on Christ’s right arm and then presented as a restoration recovery.
 In the 1962-64 National Gallery Annual Report, the then director, Sir Philip Hendy, described how with the great Uccello panel from the Battle of San Romano series, the stripping down (which had begun and 1959 and was still ongoing) had exposed a greatly damaged surface. As a result, after its characteristic Gallery “complete cleaning“, it was realised that “To restore scrupulously takes very much longer than to create freely, and the task of pulling the picture together again could have been further prolonged.”
 With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling it was said in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling“. When I asked in 1990 how big the puckerings were, a Vatican spokeswoman said “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”
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The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration
Two decades after recognising that art restoration “discoveries” and “revelations” had become very big business, we encounter a blockbuster exhibition that required a Government indemnity of £1.5 billion and was specifically launched as a vehicle to celebrate a restoration that had yet to take place: “We started thinking about this five years ago, when we were beginning to plan the restoration of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, so an exhibition to celebrate that project seemed like the right thing to do.” So said Luke Syson, the curator of the National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan” exhibition, in a BBC interview.
Museum restorations never take place in vacuums. If you build an exhibition on the proposed restoration of a very famous artist’s work you set certain narrative expectations in motion; create pressures and hopes of big, dramatic results. When the “Virgin of the Rocks” was put back on display after its restoration – and pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo, even though the restorer had not removed all of his predecessor’s varnish – I was pleased to discuss the then forthcoming Leonardo exhibition with Luke Syson who said that its scholarly focus would be an analysis of the influence that a new type of Leonardo painting had had on his followers. Namely, that during the 15 or so years long gestation of the National Gallery’s version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” which was delivered unfinished in 1508, and the contemporaneous (1492-98) “Last Supper” in Milan, Leonardo’s painting style had become distinctly abstracted, less naturalistic and more metaphysical in character. When I expressed scepticism that this thesis might rest secure on two such different works as the “Virgin of the Rocks”, with its uncertain condition and status (the Gallery admits the picture is “manifestly uneven in finish and execution” and that there has been “a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it”), and the degraded, fragmented, many-times restored “Last Supper”, Syson disclosed that the Royal Academy’s full-size copy of the latter by Giampietrino was being borrowed. At this, I asked if the Gallery’s own Giampietrino “Christ carrying his Cross” (which had recently been relegated to the reserve collection – on Syson’s instruction, I learned) would also be included in the exhibition. It would not. This was disappointing – and a lost opportunity to right an ancient wrong.
The “Christ carrying his Cross” had been discussed by Larry Keith, the Gallery’s new head of conservation who has restored the “Virgin of the Rocks”, and Ashok Roy, the Gallery’s head of science, in the Gallery’s 1996 Technical Bulletin under the title “Giampietrino, Boltraffio, and the Influence of Leonardo”. This followed the restoration of two Giampietrinos (his “Christ” and his “Salome”) and Boltraffio’s “Virgin and Child”. A remarkable technical discovery had been made on “Christ carrying his Cross” the ramifications of which seemed not fully to have been appreciated. Keith and Roy did acknowledge that Giampietrino’s Leonardo borrowings were “not restricted to matters of composition alone, but also include other aspects of painting technique”; they granted that the “strong chiaroscuro and dark backgrounds of Giampietrino’s small format panels are clearly an attempt to emulate the more striking pictorial effects that Leonardo had introduced to Milan”; they explicitly acknowledged that Giampietrino’s painting technique was much influenced by Leonardo’s, and that this could be “seen in the sfumato and relief of the National Gallery Christ carrying his Cross” – which painting was “clearly derived from Leonardesque prototypes” and for which “A silver-point study of Christ carrying his Cross by Leonardo [was] clearly the compositional source…” And yet, despite all of this, they seemed at pains to cast Giampietrino as a pronouncedly lesser follower of Leonardo than Boltraffio.
While excluded from the forthcoming show, Giampietrino’s “Christ” has at least been liberated from the reserve collection, making it possible for the picture and its condition to be studied before visiting the Leonardo blockbuster. Not only is it as closely related to Leonardo’s imagery and methods as has been acknowledged, it is arguably the best preserved Renaissance picture in the National Gallery. Its good condition is a byproduct of what the Gallery describes as “an unusual pigmented glaze layer”. After carefully building and modelling his forms with successive layers of paint and glazes to “an illusion of relief”, Giampietrino covered the whole painting with a single “final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black”. This had had remarkable aesthetic and physical consequences. The layer was contemporary with the painting and, being composed of walnut oil with a little varnish, resistant to the usual varnish stripping solvents. The use of walnut oil further relates this picture to the “Virgin of the Rocks” where that oil had been used throughout.
During the picture cleaning controversies at the National Gallery after the Second World War, the possibility that just such toning overall finishes might exist on old paintings was advanced by Ernst Gombrich. In a letter to the Burlington Magazine in 1950 and in his 1960 book “Art and Illusion”, he cited a famous report by Pliny which described the overall dark veiling finishes that Apelles had applied to his paintings to wondrous effect, and asked “is it conceivable that such famous testimonies would never have induced a master of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries to emulate Apelles and apply a darkening varnish to achieve a more subtle tonal unity?” He then reflected “I do not think it is even claimed that our ‘safe’ cleaning methods could detect such a varnish, let alone that they could preserve it.” This provoked the National Gallery’s restorer Helmut Ruhemann (who had cleaned Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” in 1948-9 to unfortunate effect – see right) into a vehement dogmatic dismissal: “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer’.”
That Leonardo was a learned man and a reader of Pliny is acknowledged by both Syson and Keith in the present exhibition catalogue. In his 1962 Burlington Magazine article (“Dark Varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny”), Gombrich repeated what Pliny had said of Apelles:
“He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.”
How could the connection between Apelles’ final “dark coating so thinly spread” and Giampietrino’s “final, extremely thin overall toning layer [with] warm dark pigments and black” have passed without comment? The cleaning controversy of the 1960s had hardly faded from memory: as recently as 1985 it had been described by a subsequent director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, as “one of the most celebrated jousts” in the Burlington Magazine. In the current National Gallery Technical Bulletin, (Vol. 32) Larry Keith, Ashok Roy, Rachel Morrison and Peter Schade, say of the restoration of the “Virgin of the Rocks” that while its practical intent was “primarily aesthetic” it also served to provide an example of the gallery’s interdisciplinary approach: “Whenever possible, major restorations are intended as the hub of a wide range of research activity that sees curators, scientists and restorers working together – increasingly alongside colleagues from other institutions”. Our criticsms of the Gallery’s customary use of restorations as effective “laboratory test cases” for conducting multidisciplinary research with an input from curators are longstanding, but what makes this unusual and pronounced “non-singing” of such a very important finding all the more perplexing is the fact that this discovery may be the tip of a scholarly iceberg. Tucked in footnote 24 of the 1996 Keith/Roy account is a disclosure that such overall toning layers are “quite rare in Italian painting of the period” and that they “may be confined to Milanese technique”. Did this mean that other instances had been found at the Gallery? Or even, given the Milanese locus, that Leonardo himself might have been the instigator or a user of such applications? (Kenneth Clark had earlier attributed disparities of finish in the “Virgin of the Rocks” precisely to damaged glazes – see right.)
When Larry Keith writes in the current catalogue that Leonardo exploited oil paint in the “Virgin of the Rocks” for its “subtle transitions and distinctions within the deepest tones, all of which were carefully orchestrated within a system of unified lighting”, he might as appropriately be describing the well-preserved effects of Giampietrino’s “Christ” as those in the “Virgin of the Rocks” where, despite the picture’s acknowledged “inconsistencies” of finish, Leonardo is said to have created a “new and remarkable unified coherence…by a carefully considered manipulation of lighting, colour and tonal values”.
Whatever the merits of Giampietrino as an artist, no Renaissance work in the Gallery shows a more tightly and subtly controlled overall development of forms, tones, colours, and expressively purposive lighting, than his “Christ”. It was unjust if not perverse when Keith/Roy, gave the laurel to Boltraffio, in part as “an artist capable of a more subtle understanding of Leonardo” but also as one who had been working in Leonardo’s studio “by 1491”, as opposed to Giampietrino of whom “it is not certain how much direct contact [he] would have had with Leonardo’s actual painting methods, and it would be misleading to assume that the imitation of Leonardo’s effects required direct reproduction of his techniques.” Under what circumstances and on whose authority other than Leonardo’s, might someone have made a full sized, exactly matching, oil-painted copy of the “Last Supper”? Besides which, in the current catalogue, Minna Moore Ede, when describing Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” as being with its “great clarity and three-dimensionality” the most faithful and accurate record of all, discloses that Giampietrino, just like Boltraffio, is now understood to have been a live-in apprentice who joined Leonardo’s workshop in the mid 1490s.
In the Technical Bulletin Keith/Roy saw “differences of palette” between the “more highly saturated local colour” of Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and a “pictorial unity produced by a tightly controlled, restricted range of tone and value” in the work itself. That reading has been dropped: Keith now sees (Leonardo exhibition catalogue entry, p. 70) that the “Last Supper” was, as Giampietrino’s copy had testified, executed in a “higher-keyed, lighter palette” than that of the London “Virgin of the Rocks”.
Even if Giampietrino’s work had been “essentially imitative, showing more of an attempted simulation of the painted appearance of Leonardo’s works than an understanding of his ideas”, as opposed to Boltraffio’s “more sophisticated” grasp, it might for that very reason leave him the more reliable guide to the original appearances of Leonardo’s paintings than Boltraffio in his more ambitious attempts to think and compose in the manner of his master and superior. In their 1996 account, Keith and Roy undermine their own slur that Giampietrino’s overall toning layer attempted a spurious impression of a Leonardesque suppressed colourism by explaining how, in his “Christ”, Giampietrino had covered his white gesso ground with “a stiffly brushed, rather opaque imprimiture of a light brownish grey”, while for his “deep red” draperies he had first applied “an unusual strongly coloured dense red-brown underpaint consisting of vermilion, red earth and black, with an increased proportion of black used under the shadow of the folds.” Those passages of painting were further reinforced with “dark red glazes”. Taken together, it was precisely admitted that (- and quite remarkably Apelles-like), “The overall effect is restrained in spite of the intensity of colour and creates a more naturalistic effect.”
The late-discovered existence of Giampietrino’s dark toning layer constituted a repudiation of the Gallery’s former head of science, Joyce Plesters, who (in the Burlington Magazine in 1962 – “Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”) had parodied the very idea as a “crude device of indiscriminately deadening all the colours by the application of an overall yellow, brown, or blackish varnish”. In 1996 Plesters was then still alive (as was a long-serving trustee of the National Gallery, Denis Mahon, who had joined her in attacks on Gombrich in the 1962 Burlington Magazine – “Miscellanea for the Cleaning Controversy” ). In 1996 I asked Gombrich if the Gallery had informed him of its discovery of an overall toning layer of “warm dark pigments and black in a medium essentially of walnut oil, with a little resin”. He said not but that he was pleased to learn of the Gallery’s “final conversion to an obvious truth”. We published our first account of this episode thirteen years ago (“The Unvarnished Truth”, Art Review, November 1998). Could it be that a continuing institutional desire to spare the posthumous blushes of departed Gallery players who bungled in spectacular fashion is permanently to blight an interesting artist’s reputation, retard the gallery’s own (in many respects admirable and generously shared) scholarship and thwart full recognition of the achievements of one of the most distinguished art historians to have made home in this country?
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