The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In
The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting (see right and our posts of 1 April 2011 and 12 November 2012). That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering (see Appendix below). An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling (see caption at Fig. 4). As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors (see Fig. 1), these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.
Ironically, the “cleaning” of the ceiling, which arguably constitutes the greatest single restoration calamity of the 20th century, occurred at a time when picture restorers had skilfully rebranded themselves as safe, scientifically validated “conservators” of all that is valuable – even though Kenneth Clark had recently admitted to having founded the National Gallery’s science department in the late 1930s in order to dupe the public and wrong-foot restoration critics. A grandly titled “Laboratory for Scientific Research” had been created at the Vatican in 1922 on the “latest ideas” but during the 1980s Italian restorers admitted that running technical “tests” before restorations was professional “window-dressing” because it was always known in advance which materials were to be used.
Some restorers sincerely believed in the scientific hocus pocus that supposedly had trumped anachronistic and unacceptably “subjective” aesthetic responses. The appointed chief restorer of Michelangelo’s frescoes, Gianluigi Colalucci, was one such, insisting that: “Emotional and subjective considerations must not be permitted to intrude upon science”. At that time the Vatican’s curatorial and administrative authorities may not have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which every restoration of a great work of art is an accident waiting to happen: a collision of sublimity and incomprehension made tangible. In 1993, at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the JamesBeck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, we asked:
“If authentic painting by Michelangelo has been lost in the course of a scientific restoration, many questions need to be answered. Did a blunder occur because of or in spite of the use of a scientific approach? Has too great a dependence on scientific data undermined crucial powers of aesthetic discernment and judgement? Is the scientific method of restorers rigorous or slipshod? Is the scientific status of modern conservation legitimate or bogus? Do restorers always follow their own ground rules?”
In the last twenty years it has become clearer that the claimed scientific underpinnings of picture restoration methods were spurious and that an appreciation of the workings of art and its internal relationships is not to be gained through some analysis of material components in a laboratory, however highfalutin and expensive the “investigative” or “diagnostic” apparatus may be. Beyond its conceptually simplistic and aesthetically impoverished terms of reference, the very reporting of “scientific” conservation methods has lacked both critical rigour and methodological consistency. In practice conservation science has provided a flag of convenience under which fundamental artistic questions can be evaded while ever-more ambitiously grandiose, lavishly funded and spectacularly transforming projects are launched. The authorities at the Vatican seemed quite oblivious of the ease with which even the most modest restorations can escalate into dangerous and irreversible treatments.
In 1964 Dr Deoclecio Redig de Campos, the Vatican museums’ curator and director of restorations, launched a cautious cleaning of the 15th century frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandio, Rosselli and Signoreli on the lower parts of the Sistine Chapel’s north and south walls. After 15 years, that programme led to the cleaning of two minor 16th century frescoes by Matteo da Lecce and van den Broecke on the east wall. By that date, direction had passed to Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, the new curator (and soon to be, with Colalucci, the co-director of the Nippon Television Corporation-sponsored restoration of all of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes). As we reported in “Art Restoration”, Mancinelli decided that “Redig de Campos’s cautious policy of removing only part of the layer of grime and foreign substances…was not appropriate in this situation.”
What Mancinelli deemed appropriate was that the minor frescoes should be cleaned with the new aggressive cleaning compound AB 57, even though this would obliterate original painting applied a secco by the artists onto their frescoes when dry. Curiously, Mancinelli’s justification for this removal of authentic and historical material was primarily aesthetic. That is, he held that a cautious cleaning and repairing of the damaged original secco paints would give only “disappointing results” compared with what might be attained by what he termed “a more radical cleaning”. We should be absolutely clear: “radical” was a euphemism for stripping the paintings down to their bare fresco surfaces in order to introduce heightened (but inauthentic) colours. Although the programme was to prove unethical by restorers’ own professional codes, Mancinelli persuaded the authorities that the visual “gains” to be had by trading original material for chemically brightened colours on those two minor works would outweigh even a directly consequential need to “return to the side walls and [do] a more thorough job there too.” (Just as the slowest ship determines the speed of a convoy, so in decorated chapels the most brightly scrubbed surface sets the overall level of cleaning. Michelangelo’s fate was sealed.)
While restoring the east wall works in 1979, a single test of AB57 was made on one of Michelangelo’s lunettes (see Fig. 8 and, for the consequences, Figs. 4-7). Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, said in 1982 “the results were so encouraging that it was decided to take on the whole ceiling. By the summer of 1980 the work had begun.” As Pietrangeli told Patricia Corbett in the May 1982 Connoisseur, once AB57 was shown to deliver chromatically transformed frescoes, “No one was able to resist the temptation”. In 1987 Dr Walter Persegati, the Vatican Museums secretary and treasurer, said in the Bible Review “These tests brought forward such colours that we were both scared and excited…It was decided that the procedure developed for the cleaning of the van den Broeck and Matteo da Lecce was applicable to Michelangelo’s frescoes. Therefore, we decided we had to do it.”
Note that because it had been decided that it could be done, it was “therefore” also decided that it should be done. In Part II we investigate the means, the methods and the artistic consequences of that novel application of a new cleaning agent to the very old, very precious decorated surfaces of the Sistine Chapel. In doing so we also show why the Vatican’s curators were right to be scared.
“A major purpose of the conference was to underline a basic truth: the conservation of any work of art is doomed to failure unless equal emphasis is given to its past and its future vicissitudes…Scientists and historians worry that conservators can be too ready to intervene, too impatient of prior tests, and insufficiently heedful of future dangers.” ~ Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, reporting the proceedings of the “London symposium on the conservation of wall-paintings” in the November 1987 Burlington Magazine.
“There is therefore much concern about the future of the frescoes, given that no protective layer has been applied in this campaign (the controversial use of paraloid was abandoned at an early stage of the cleaning of the lunettes). The Vatican has decided to seal the windows and introduce an air-conditioning and filtration system. Doubts were expressed at the conference. Could the threat from faulty air-conditioning be worse than the threat from atmospheric pollution and mass tourism? ” ~ Caroline Elam, editor of the Burlington Magazine, reviewing the 1990 symposium on the Sistine ceiling restoration held in Rome to give preliminary consideration to the cleaning of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement”.
“A ‘drunken herd’ of ‘unruly’ tourists is damaging Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel paintings, one of Italy’s leading arts figures claimed as the pope prepared to mark the 500th anniversary of the iconic frescoes’ creation.
Some 5 million people visit the chapel every year – sometimes as many as 20,000 in a single day — and an increasing number of experts are now arguing that mass tourism is damaging the paintings.
Despite a major, 14-year-long restoration project in the 1990s, they claim that the breath, sweat, dust and pollution brought in by visitors dramatically changes the Chapel’s humidity and temperature – factors to which frescoes are particularly sensitive…” ~ Claudio Lavanga, NBC News, 31 October 2012.
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The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity
When news broke of the 81 years old painter Cecilia Gimenez’s disastrous restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, the world fell about laughing (see Figs. 2 to 5). The distressed restorer has taken to her bed as people queue to see the now infamous monkey-faced Christ and, wishing to preserve the hilarity, over 5,000 wags have signed a petition to block attempts to “return the painting to its pre-restoration glory” – as if such an outcome might credibly be in prospect.
With one honourable exception (Fig. 1) commentators failed to grasp that while this debacle is an extreme case it is not an aberration within modern art restoration practices. To the contrary, adulterations of major works of art are commonplace, seemingly systemic products of a booming, insufficiently monitored international art conservation nexus. In our previous post it was shown both how a steamboat painted by Turner sank without trace during two top-flight restorations at the US Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and, how Renoir’s oeuvre is being traduced across museums. Here, to show that it is not just in sleepy Spanish churches that paintings are risk, we reprise a few of the professional art world’s own most radically controversial – and officially sanctioned – restorations.
The Observer columnist, Barbara Ellen, having good sport with the Spanish Incident (see Fig. 2), hoped a wave of copycat vigilante restorations (“Let’s nip into the Louvre and give the Mona Lisa something to smirk about”) would not ensue. Her nightmare has been “virtually” realised – Fig. 3. When saying that Ms Gimenez perhaps had not realised “that, as a rule, professional art restorers don’t start work with a bucket of Flash and some Brillo pads”, she assumed too much. While Brillo pads were skipped at the Sistine Chapel, bucket loads of oven-cleaner-like substances were repeatedly brushed onto and washed from Michelangelo’s Ceiling frescoes to the artistically injurious consequences described below and at Fig. 23. As we reported on April 1st 2011 – and that was no joke – the Vatican’s restorers’ own account of their experimental fresco cleaning method read as follows:
“…Removal of retouchings and repaintings with a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water. Mixture acts on contact. The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
“First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours.
“Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
“In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…
“Final treatment: the thorough, complete and overall application of a solution of Paraloid B72 diluted to 3% in organic solvent, removed from the surface of the pictorial skin by the combined action almost simultaneously of organic solvent and distilled water, which coagulates the surface acrylic resin dissolved by the solvent.”
A quick rinse with Flash might have been kinder.
There are three component parts in the professional restoration armoury: taking material off; putting material on; and, defending and promoting the said removals and additions with techno/aesthetic reassurances. Notwithstanding all supposedly science-validated self-justifications (reports on restorations are invariably written by the restorers themselves), the proper and appropriate test of a restoration is aesthetic appraisal of the resulting changes. It is reassuring that so many recognise that the transformation made to the Spanish painting shown at Fig. 5 constitutes a gross artistic injury. Perhaps the less extreme but also gratuitous injuries recently inflicted by restorers at the Louvre on the Veronese figure and face shown at Figs. 6 to 10 (and here reported on December 28th 2010) might also be acknowledged as the very crime against art and history that they constitute.
As shown at Fig. 10, even when the Louvre’s restorers were caught having secretly re-repainted the already repainted and publicly criticised Veronese face, the museum maintained a brazen official insouciance. The authorities do these things because they can and, presumably, because they do not know better. They ignore criticisms because they can and again, presumably, because they do not comprehend their force and their gravity.
In Figs. 11 to 26 we show the variously unfortunate consequences of restorers taking off and putting on material. (Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every unhappy restoration is so in its own way.) It is widely recognised in the art trade that pictures untouched or rarely touched by restorers enjoy better conditions than many-times restored works. For that reason, a high premium is placed on such rare but fortunate works. This reality notwithstanding, nothing seems capable of restraining the tide of restorations.
In Figs. 11 and 13 we see two successive restorers at work on the same figure in the same mural, Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, in Milan. It is a long-standing complaint that restorers thrive by undoing and redoing each others’ handiwork. In Fig. 11 the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli is removing paint with a knife. His restoration, the first post war intervention on the notoriously unstable mural, was highly acclaimed at the time. His philosophy had been to remove earlier restorers’ repaint where it concealed original paint-work by Leonardo, but to leave it in place when covering only bare wall (- see our post of February 8th 2012). In Figure 13 Pelliccioli’s former student and assistant, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, is seen repainting Leonardo’s mural (- or, as restorers prefer, “reintegrating” the remains of original paint with fresh additional paint). Given that an estimated 80 per cent of Leonardo’s work had been lost and that Barcilon had aimed to remove all previous restorers’ handiwork regardless of whether or not original Leonardo paint survived underneath, she had to do massive amounts of repainting during her agonising two decades long restoration (see our post of March 14th 2012).
In Figs. 12 and 14 we see how dramatically differently two professionally linked Italian restorers, working just one generation apart, left the very same principal figure in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. (What might be expected to survive or emerge from the next two restorations?) Like the 81 years old Cecilia Gimenez, Barcilon exercised artistic licence – albeit to a far lesser degree – during her painterly interventions on Leonardo’s remains. Where the cuff of Christ’s right sleeve had originally hung below and behind the table, for example, she painted it resting upon the table. To Christ, she too gave a new face and expression. The sole commentator to have recognised such continuums between extreme and lesser restoration injuries, the Sunday Telegraph columnist, Alasdair Palmer, wrote: “while the gulf between what modern restorers do and the dreadful hatchet-job done by Cecilia Gimenez is large, it is not always as vast as restorers would like us to believe”. He noted that while Pinin Brambilla Barcilon had done some magnificent work in recreating what she took to be Leonardo’s original picture, “it wasn’t a restoration because most of the paint applied by Leonardo had long ago disappeared”, and he cited an art historian who holds precisely that “The Last Supper is now a first-rate example of Barcilon’s work. It is not a Leonardo”. Palmer further notes that some of the most severe critics of recent restorations are other restorers:
“‘A great deal of restoration is incompetent,’ maintains Bruno Zanardi, professor of the theory and practice of restoration at the University of Urbino, and one of Italy’s most distinguished restorers. ‘Many of those who are let loose on great works of art do not know what they are doing: they have not been properly trained, and do not understand how fragile old pictures are.’”
To French and Italian transgressions many British and American ones might be added. At the National Gallery, London, it has been officially acknowledged that changes are made to pictures “primarily for aesthetic reasons”, and that while these aesthetic changes rest on the judgements of individual restorers whose “different aesthetic decisions” may result in pictures which “look very different”, all such results are considered “equally valid” (see “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”). In Figs. 15 and 16 we show a detail of the National Gallery’s Holbein, “The Ambassadors”. During its restoration (which, like that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Capel Ceiling, was a televised and sponsored event) the then head of conservation, Martin Wyld, took the opportunity to improve and, on “experts” advice, to change the surviving design of the Turkish carpet. In doing so, he paid scant regard to the aerial perspective that had previously been found in the picture. Ignoring the shadows that had previously been cast on the carpet, Wyld introduced a crisper, cleaner, flatter, more “on the picture surface”, altogether more abstract, modernist and, therefore, ahistorical version of Holbein’s original depiction.
More egregious were the changes made to Holbein’s anamorphic skull (Figs. 17 and 18). The cleaning exposed many losses of paint on the skull which bewildered the restorers and caused them to introduce – for the first time, to our knowledge – a piece of painted “virtual reality”. As we put it in a letter to the Independent (“Virtual reality art”, 29 January 2000):
“When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull.
“This bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ on to an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer ‘more scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s image had originally been generated.
“The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual cracks.”
In Figs. 19 and 20 we see the liberties taken by Wyld’s predecessor, Arthur Lucas, on Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. Lucas boasted to art students at the Slade School of Art that “there is more of me than Titian in that sky”. In thrall to new technologies and materials, Lucas took the trustees’ permission to reline the canvas, as authority for ironing the picture on to a double board of compressed paper. Such boards are today found to be unstable and will doubtless serve to licence further “urgent” conservation treatments.
In Figs. 21 and 22 we again show the startling changes made to a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington during the course of two restorations. During the first, as seen on the right of Fig. 21, a general weakening of values occurred. The woman’s necklace, for example, was dimished. As seen on the left in Fig. 22 , during a further restoration, part of the necklace disappeared. Rather than paint it back in, the restorer painted out the surviving section, as can be seen on the right.
When specific bits of paintings disappear restorers often claim that they were only additions made by earlier restorers. If such claims sometimes provoke scepticism, in the case of overall losses and degradations restorers usually offer no defences, seemingly hoping that curators, trustees, art critics, scholars and members of the public will be delighted or distracted by brightened colours and lightened tonalities. In Fig. 23, on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, we see both the general lightening and brightening that attends an aggressive cleaning and losses of specific features and pictorially strategic values. Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based painting but because the Vatican’s restorers held this to be either dirt or earlier restorations, it was all removed. Michelangelo had redrawn and remodelled the drapery seen on the left hanging from the figure’s right shoulder. It was washed off. The removal is shown to be an error by the testimony of earlier copies of the ceiling. (Rubens had copied the drapery as it was found before the recent cleaning.) Michelangelo sought to enhance sculptural effects to his painted figures by adding shadows that were seemingly cast by the three dimensional bodies he had depicted with contrasting brightly lit forms and dark, shadowy recesses and nooks. The latter, too, were lost.
Back at the National Gallery in London, we see in Fig. 24 similarly catastrophic general losses (in the course of another single restoration) of tonal gradations and modelling. In the case of the horse’s right nostril, we see the loss of the very aperture which formerly had carried air to the creature’s lungs. Alasdair Palmer points out that a comparison of the National Gallery picture with its sister panel in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shocking to behold. It is the more unforgivable because the National Gallery restoration was prompted by an earlier one of the Florence picture that had not flattened and weakened the horses.
The National Gallery’s great Velazquez, “The Rokeby Venus”, suffered dreadful injuries in 1914 at the hands of a suffragette (Fig. 25). That damage was as nothing when compared with subsequent injuries inflicted by restorers who here too (Fig. 26) were blind to artists’ manipulation of space; creation of atmosphere; rendering of form through calibrated tonal gradations. Before the gallery’s restorers had done their Cecilia Gimenez-esque worst, there existed a parity of brilliance in the two figures, with both displaying the seeming self-illumination of divinities. What sense of that miraculous evocation survives today? Little wonder that the previous owner of the picture made a scene at the National Gallery on sight of its “restoration” and protested that, had he known how it would be treated, he would never have sold it. His grievous personal loss-through-restoration was of a single picture. What price the world’s continuing collective losses at the hands of restorers?
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Could the Louvre’s “Virgin and St. Anne” provide the proof that the (London) National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” is not by Leonardo da Vinci?
When the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” was pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo we were left reeling with incredulity. Picture restorers rarely decline opportunities to claim “discoveries” but could they really be claiming an ability to make a picture an autograph Leonardo simply by thinning its varnish? During the media frenzy of the National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo blockbuster, its chief restorer, Larry Keith, was asked if a distinctive Leonardo brushstroke had emerged. “No”, he said, proof of authenticity lay in the picture’s internal relationships. Given that those relationships differ markedly from the ones present in the Louvre’s unquestionably autograph “Virgin of the Rocks”, what accounted for the discrepancies? The then curator, Luke Syson, replied that Leonardo’s style had, in the London copy, become abstracted, less naturalistic and more “metaphysical”. This seemed fanciful: had not all of Leonardo’s pictures carried a beguiling air of the metaphysical – and had this quality not derived from the artist’s preternaturally intense engagement with natural phenomena and the mysterious powers which operate through them? Had a new corroborating body of drawn studies emerged? The Gallery admits that not only is there no identifiable Leonardo brushwork but that the picture itself 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”. When we asked if any securely autograph Leonardo paintings shared these newly claimed characteristics, Syson said that they were also found in the “Last Supper”, when only 20% of that large, fragmented, degraded, many-times restored, de-restored and re-restored mural survives – and when its recent restorers “discovered” that it had originally been choc-full of tiny naturalistic details (curtain hooks, slices of lemon, reflections on glassware, tablecloth patterns and so forth). Above all, the National Gallery’s latest upgrade flew in the face of – and seemingly sought to circumnavigate – a landmark 1996 article by a geologist (and now art historian), Ann Pizzorusso, who has shown that while the rock configurations in the Louvre version were entirely consistent with precise formations found in nature and in Leonardo’s own studies, those seen in the London version were found in neither. (See Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, The MIT Press, Vol. 29, No. 3, and “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, in Leonardo Magazine, Vol. 29. No. 3, 1996, pp. 197-200.) Here, Pizzorusso presents further elegant demonstrations of the London picture’s non-autograph status that are manifest in the (recently restored) late Leonardo masterpiece, “The Virgin and Child with St Anne”.
Ann Pizzorusso writes:
London’s National Gallery recently announced that its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, previously attributed to various artists who worked in Milan, was now, after being cleaned, solely the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The National Gallery supports its claims by stating that the work represents a change in style and that the geology in the picture is rendered in a more abstract, monumental style (see Appendix A).
While art historians have long discounted the National Gallery’s version as one by Leonardo, the Gallery has now discounted centuries of scholarship with their new interpretation and subsequent attribution of the painting to Leonardo. What is most ironic and troubling about the National Gallery’s position is that there are reams of contractual documents which still exist today documenting a 25 years long lawsuit concerning the two versions of the painting and which show, unequivocally, that Leonardo did not paint the version in the National Gallery. Prof. Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, London, and an expert in notarial Latin states that there is no doubt that Leonardo painted the first version and not the second (New York Review, 9 February 2012).
While we may be able to forgive the National Gallery for not being up on notarial Latin, there is no excuse for their proposal that Leonardo changed his style. In the decades in which I have studied Leonardo from all aspects (we must remember, Leonardo did not consider himself primarily a painter) one thing stands out in all his works—a fidelity to nature and a lifelong effort to depict natural objects as realistically as possible.
The father of Leonardo studies, Carlo Pedretti, in his book analyzing Leonardo’s nature drawings, “Leonardo da Vinci Nature Studies from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle” (with a forward written by Kenneth Clark, a former director of the National Gallery in London), devotes the entire volume to discussing Leonardo’s preoccupation with natural objects and his fanaticism in attempting to depict them as realistically as possible. This passion was imparted to his students, Francesco Melzi, Cesare da Sesto, Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono. So much so that a drawing of a Tree (RL 12417), long thought to be by Leonardo, was later attributed to Cesare da Sesto and a view of Amboise (RL 12727) to Francesco Melzi. In analyzing the works of Leonardo’s students one can see that they have followed Leonardo’s technique and depicted natural objects as realistically as possible. They had obviously heard quite a bit of ranting by Leonardo about “Botticelli’s bad landscapes” (see Appendix B).
Another reason why Leonardo’s approach is reflected in his art is that he was born in the transitional era of the late Middle Ages, an age still filled with superstition and fear, especially about such things as mountains, natural catastrophes and death. He grew up leading the way into the Renaissance, faced all these fears, and debunked them. He travelled extensively in the Alps outside of Milan taking note of nature and geology. He noted landslides and torrential flooding with its associated damage (see Figs. 3 & 4), he dissected corpses to provide the most accurate depiction of human anatomy we have ever had until relatively recent times. His work as engineer, geologist, botanist and astronomer cannot be disconnected from his work as an artist (see Figs. 8 & 9). To understand Leonardo, one must understand him completely. And to understand him completely is not difficult. He has written everything down. He was faithful to nature. If one applies just that one rule to Leonardo da Vinci, looking at his work from a scientific standpoint, the answer is crystal clear: fidelity to nature is a Leonardo trademark that can be used to determine the authenticity of his work.
Now that we have seen that the National Gallery has preferred not to acknowledge the work of many esteemed Leonardo scholars, maybe looking at the recently cleaned “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” in the Louvre will change its mind (see Figs. 1, 7, 10, 11, 14, 17, & 21). The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, dated to about 1510, came later than the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”. We do not know how much later, as the National Gallery has now dated the initiation of its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” as 1491/2-9 and its completion to 1506-08. Professor Hope, in his review of the notarial documents regarding the lawsuit states that the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” could not have been painted before 1508.
If we use the 17 year time period (1491-1508) which the National Gallery cites for its “Virgin of the Rocks”, it would mean Leonardo was painting the “Last Supper” (1492-7/8), completing the Burlington Cartoon (1499-1500 or 1506-08) and the “Virgin of the Rocks” at the same time. On page 96 of Kenneth Clark’s book entitled “Leonardo da Vinci” he indicates that Leonardo was exceptionally busy. Apart from the first “Virgin of the Rocks” his time was taken up with work for the court. He was the court limner and also painted two portraits of the Duke’s mistresses Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli. With these portraits, we would be up to five major works in progress by Leonardo if we include the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.
This being said, all of these works being done at nearly the same time gives us the perfect opportunity to appraise, determine and evaluate the stylistic traits of the artist at that period of his career. In looking at the Burlington Cartoon and the “Virgin and St. Anne”, both are rich with geologic detail and accuracy. Leonardo has risen to new heights in his portrayal of landscape elements. His talent and passion are vividly displayed in the Burlington Cartoon and he reaches a level of sophistication, subtlety and accuracy in rendering the geology in the “Virgin and St. Anne” which had never been seen before (see Appendix C).
The St. Anne is a geologic tour-de-force. In fact, Leonardo experimented extensively on developing paints and a technique for depicting the pebbles of agate, chalcedony and marble at the feet of the Virgin and St. Anne (see in particular, Figs. 1 & 21). Leonardo writes in his notebooks about his efforts and how satisfied he was to have developed an approach to rendering the pebbles in such a realistic fashion. In fact the entire painting is one geologic treat after another. He had spent years in the Alps so he knew the landscape and geology exactly. With his newly developed technique for painting marbleized pebbles he was delighted (- see Appendix D).
Using a date of 1510 for the “Virgin and St. Anne” and a date of 1483-86 for the “Virgin of the Rocks”, both in the Louvre, we have proof that Leonardo did not change his style, and that, if anything, he became more fanatical in his quest for geologic accuracy, developing new paints and techniques for natural depiction and driving his students to deliver the most accurate depiction of nature in their own works.
So we must ask the question “How and why could Leonardo have changed his style to produce a work so lacking in geological and botanical accuracy as the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ in the National Gallery in London?” There is no evidence Leonardo changed his style and now, with the recently cleaned “Virgin and St. Anne”, we have that proof. We also know that his students were inculcated with his passion for accurate depiction of natural objects so we must also exclude his students as authors of the National Gallery work.
It would be best for the National Gallery to reopen the case for the attribution of the work to Leonardo. Hundreds of years of scholarship by Leonardo critics as well as the words and the works by Leonardo himself should not be discounted. The National Gallery does a disservice to those who have worked so hard to come up with incontrovertible evidence regarding the attribution of this work and most of all the National Gallery does a disservice to Leonardo himself.
The National Gallery’s claimed shift within Leonardo’s oeuvre
“We know that Leonardo’s painting technique gave priority to the figures. The Virgin is designed first, as she is in so many of his drawings, and the landscape seems to flow from her. Since Leonardo saw the painter’s acts of creation as analogous to God’s, his generation of the landscape in the Virgin of the Rocks and the absolute, unalterable perfection of the Madonna at the center could be understood as precisely connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But the appearance of the Virgin and her companions, and of the plants and rocks, are different, in the two versions: the theological meaning of his stylistic choices has shifted slightly. In the Louvre picture Leonardo relies on entirely naturalistic tactics to give the picture its spiritual flavor: the sinless beauty of the Virgin becomes the same kind of truth as the natural beauty of the irises nearby. But in the London Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Christ are supernatural, the world around rendered notably less naturalistically, the rocks are straightened to become great columns; the flowers appear to be ideal composites of the leaves and petals of real plants. Tackling the theme for a second time, Leonardo chose to show the viewer not just a vision of the Virgin Mary, but Gods’ perfect ideas for everything around her. What we are shown here is an ideal world made before the physical creation of our own imperfect cosmos, before the need for humankind’s salvation.”
The National Gallery catalogue, “Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan”, page 174.
Leonardo on Botticelli’s bad landscapes
“He is not universal who does not love equally all the elements in painting, as when one who does not like landscapes holds them to be a subject for cursory and straightforward investigation-just as our Botticelli said such study was of no use because by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape.”
Leonardo da Vinci, from: “Treatise on Painting”, the chapter on Criteria and Judgments, the subsection “How a painter is not worthy of praise unless he is universal”.
“Saint Anne–that delicate place, where the wind passes like the hand of some fine etcher over the surface, and the untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green with grass, grown fine as hair. It is the landscape, not of dreams or of fancy, but of places far withdrawn, and hours selected from a thousand with a miracle of finesse. Through Leonardo’s strange veil of sight things reach him so; in no ordinary night or day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water.”
Walter Horatio Pater, “The Renaissance, Studies in Art and Poetry”, The Echo Library 2006, page 54.
“The movement of the fifteenth century was twofold; partly the Renaissance, partly also the coming of what is called the ‘modern spirit’, with its realism, its appeal to experience. It comprehended a return to antiquity, and a return to nature. Raphael represents the return to antiquity, and Leonardo the return to nature. In this return to nature, he was seeking to satisfy a boundless curiosity by her perpetual surprises, a microscopic sense of finish by her finesse, or delicacy of operation, that subtilitas naturae which Bacon notices. So we find him often in intimate relations with men of science – with Fra Luca Paccioli the mathematician, and the anatomist Marc Antonio della Torre. His observations and experiments fill thirteen volumes of manuscript; and those who can judge describe him as anticipating long before, by rapid intuition, the later ideas of science. He explained the obscure light of the un-illuminated part of the moon, knew that the sea had once covered the mountains which contain shells, and of the gathering of the equatorial waters above the polar.
“Notebooks and sheets of about 1508 contain a number of notes on ‘mistioni’ (mixtures), a plastic material of his own invention with which he aimed at imitating the colour and design of semi-precious stones. He describes his production process and how, once the objects were thus produced, he spent much time finishing them with his own hand to a smooth and glossy surface…At the same time he was much taken by anatomical studies, so that when he described the production process of his ‘mistioni’ he came to specify the effect that was to be achieved: ‘…then you will dress it with peels of various colours, which will look like the mesentery of an animal’.
“In 1502, Francesco Malatesta wrote Isabella d’Este that Leonardo had looked at many of the Medici gems and objets d’art made of stone. Leonardo praised ‘the one of amythyst or jasper as Leonardo baptized it, because of the admirable variety of its colours’”.
Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo, A study in Chronology and Style, London, 1974, pages 132-137.
For an in-depth comparison of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks see:
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Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration
ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.
Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.
On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.
During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).
That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.
A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.
Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.
Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)
Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”
Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.
The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:
Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”
What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”
The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”
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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 Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – Part 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns
The restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” (1977 -1999) was defended last month at the National Gallery symposium on the artist’s methods and influence, by Pietro Marani, the Leonardo scholar who co-directed the restoration from 1993 onwards. When we pointed out that while the previous restoration had been praised for recovering all of Leonardo’s authentic paintwork, the last restoration had in fact introduced vast areas of new painting, Marani held that restorers and curators may impose their own generation’s values and interpretations. Appeals to the authority of one generation cuts little ice given how happy each proves to be to undo and redo its predecessor’s work – and, besides, given that on past form we are already half way along to the next generation’s “Last Supper” restoration, the one presently being defended is already approaching its own “sell-by date”.
In its early days, the last restoration was presented as a near miraculous liberation of the original and entirely unadulterated handiwork of Leonardo da Vinci, when that claim, far from being a novel one of its day, was, as mentioned, a re-run. In 1958, John Canaday, the art editor and art critic of the New York Times, reported how, following the war-time bombing of the refectory housing the mural in Milan:
“When the sandbags were removed…the ‘Last Supper’ was in such pitiful condition that historians were ready to list it as a war casualty. But since then the picture has been gone over as definitively as the combination of exhaustive scholarship and high technical skill make it possible to preserve once and for all whatever is discoverable of the original work. The results are better than anyone expected, although the painting still suggests a ghost at best or, at worst, an embalmed relic…”
Taking their cues from restorers, commentators often dismiss past treatments and celebrate more recent scientifically under-pinned “definitive”, “once and for all” and “miraculous” ones. (Just this week, a Rubens – his “Cain Slaying Abel” – that has been restored at the Courtauld Gallery with funding by the Bank of America, is said in a press release to have stabilized the painting for nothing less than “the next one hundred years”.) The “Last Supper” rescue operation took place in two stages in 1947-49 and 1952-54. In the first, the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli (see Fig. 1) supervised by a former Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan, Fernanda Wittgens, anchored the disintegrating paint with shellac. As Wittgens’ wrote in the Christmas 1954 issue of Art News, “This was not ordinary shellac, of course, but an absolutely colourless one recently produced in England by a chemical process that removes all wax.” With this shellac, Wittgens went on, Pelliccioli performed his wonders:
“…it produced the greatest miracle of the entire restoration. The reattachment of the painted surface was achieved to perfection, and the colours acquired a new consistency as though they had been actually rejuvenated by the shellac that made them adhere to the wall…Mauro Pelliccioli, by doing away with all glues soluble in water, had permanently eliminated the danger of mould: he had at last hit upon a tremendously strong, transparent adhesive impervious to humidity.”
When the shellac was settled, Pelliccioli began scraping off the repaints of earlier restorers. Bernard Berenson visited the scaffold and later reported how, with no more than a penknife, a razor and a drop of turpentine, Pelliccioli had “touched bottom” by removing the “multiple restorations of centuries” and allowing the paint of Leonardo, “deteriorated by the centuries but no longer deturpated by incompetent hands” to be seen once more. In his diary note on October 21st 1953 Berenson said that Pellicciolli had known precisely “where to scrape” – a point echoed and amplified in H. H. Pars’ 1957 “Pictures in Peril”:
“Pelliccioli was able to distinguish those parts of the painting where nothing of the original painting was left, and those parts where overpainting and restoration concealed Leonardo’s own brilliant colours. Step by step these were revealed in the now firmly-fixed painting until we are now able to see Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ in better preservation than for many generations, deteriorated through the centuries it is true, but no longer marked and deformed by incompetent hands.”
Thus, to everyone’s satisfaction, the work had been physically rescued and what authentic Leonardo paintwork could be exposed to view had been liberated. Earlier restorers’ repainting was left in place only where it covered bare wall. Just twenty-one years later in 1975, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, a former student of Pelliccioli’s, reported that fragments of paint were falling off the mural. Two years later, following tests, she began re-securing those parts of the paintwork that were becoming detached. Her minimal and straightforwardly necessary conservation measure was to mushroom, in parallel with the restorations of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, which began in 1980, and Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel frescoes, which began in 1981, into one the most protracted radically ambitious, corporately-funded and controversial restorations of modern times.
It can now be seen that 1977 marked the high water mark of confidence in the recuperative powers of restorers and in the legitimacy of their increasingly bold and experimental methods. In the previous decade, heroic actions in wake of the floods in Florence had carried restorers to unprecedentedly high levels of public respect (even when they opted to strip frescoes from walls). In Britain, following a spuriously engineered triumph with the restoration of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” at the National Gallery, criticism had been declared dead by the victors. The National Gallery launched its Technical Bulletin in 1977 and in it, the Gallery’s head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, mused complacently: “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. In the same year, Kenneth (Lord) Clark published his two volumes memoir “Another Part of the Wood” and “The Other Half” in which he pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed credit for having taken the first steps, as director of the National Gallery (1934-1945), by installing a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus”. He had done so not because he believed in the “application of science to the problems of cleaning”, but because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Duping the public in such manner occurred in Italy. In 1981, a year after the start of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in Rome, the restoration of the Brancacci Chapel commenced. Speaking of the prior tests made in connection with that restoration, the author Ken Shulman cites an Italian art historian (“Anatomy of a Restoration”, p. 156), who had said:
“Let’s be honest and admit what all restoration directors will say in private. At the beginning of any restoration, you order as many tests as you can imagine, fully aware that only about five per cent of them will be of any use during the restoration. The rest of the analyses are merely window dressing.”
With Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, amidst all the preliminary testing, no-one seemed concerned by the fly that was present in the ointment of Pelliccioli’s celebrated reductive, purist restoration: his liberation of Leonardo’s paintwork had come at a cost in terms of artistic legibility. A law of diminishing returns had been set in motion that would (as we will see in Part 2) produce panic and confusion among the restorers and their supervisors.
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What Price a Smile? The Louvre Leonardo Mouths that are Now at Risk
There is an air of confusion, and even a whiff of crisis, in today’s international art restoration community. At the National Gallery’s CHARISMA symposium on Leonardo’s technical practices and influence (January 13-14), many fascinating and highly informative demonstrations were made of non-invasive imaging techniques. A ground-breaking paper by Ana González Mozo revealed how the Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa had faithfully tracked Leonardo’s own revisions on the original work. Imagine – a copy not so much of the finished masterpiece but of its very genesis. The proceedings, happily, are to be published. Unfortunately, at this richly rewarding and even-handedly conducted event, two critically serious weaknesses emerged during the proceedings and discussions that seemed linked and together to constitute a wider international art conservation faultline.
That is, firstly, there are manifest deficiencies of understanding on the crucial relationship between the discoveries that are being made through advances of technical analysis, and the original painterly/artistic means by which the art-objects-under-investigation were produced by artists in the first place. This single shortcoming carries profound cultural and professional consequences and is, we believe, a root cause of many of the controversies which arise in the field. Secondly, and concerning these controversies, a number of speakers (particularly Italian speakers, as it happens) used their papers to dismiss critics of their (sometimes long-past) restorations. Such combative unrepentance suggests how hard the task remains to establish some proper and effective systems and habits of disinterested critical appraisal in what is becoming an alarmingly expanionist and self-authorising and validating field. Much might be gained if restorer/conservationists themselves would devote more energies to those fruitful knowledge-advancing studies that leave vulnerable and uniquely precious historical works of art intact and free from what too often seem injudicious or debilitating interventions.
For some speakers, “virtual” indications of changes within pictures, seemed to be taken in themselves as invitations to swabs-on interventions. Certainly it seemed tactless and provocative when, at a time of great disputation, a Louvre curator, Vincent Delieuvin, ended a talk on non-invasive examinations of the museum’s Leonardo “Virgin of the Rocks” with the bald declaration “Restoration of the painting is possible”. Possible? No doubt it is politically so today at the Louvre, but desirable even under the present controversial circumstances? And what exactly has made this hitherto untreatable picture (see caption at Figs. 2 and 3) treatable? Must every restored masterpiece immediately trigger another? Will curators and their restorers never allow decent intervals for the fumes to evaporate and for their handiwork to be evaluated with due attention and consideration after the inevitable PR media barrages that nowadays accompany all major restorations? For that matter, is no one in authority concerned by the general and wider risks that are being incurred in the current Leonardo binge in which the oeuvre itself is being speculatively “grown” even as its most secure works are being recast by today’s more adventurous generation of technicians?
Concerning the Louvre fracas, Didier Rykner, surprised and disappointed us in his Art Tribune post of January 7th by disparaging the international debate on the restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, that followed a Guardian report. Headed “A follow-up to the Debate…” that somewhat churlish post afforded a proxy defence of the Louvre’s current policy. Of the momentous resignations of Sègoléne Bergeon Langle, the former director for conservation at the Louvre and France’s national museums, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, a former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s own international advisory committee, Rykner complains that the restoration has sparked a debate “when in fact nothing new has happened since since the month of October (see our article in French).” One thing that is new is that everyone now knows (thanks to the diligence and reach of the international press) what very few previously appreciated: a profound schism exists over picture restoration methods at one of the world’s greatest museums – in truth, the world’s greatest single museum – and, that the restoration of a major work of the world’s most famous artist is the centre of that dispute.
Rykner characterised the “Virgin and Child with St Anne” restoration as one in which only “three points had to be solved”, when, far from being some problem-solving exercise, this is a debate about the very nature and legitimacy of actions that might be made on an immensely complex, unfinished, ancient and precious masterpiece. Restorations never take place in antiseptic clinical spaces. They always reflect philosophies, interests and professional inclinations or dis-inclinations towards radical interventions. Conflicts in this arena are far from trivial and it is desirable that they should not take place in the dark.
There is great irony in the present situation. For many years after the Second World War, the Louvre occupied the virtuous conceptually elegant and restrained end of the restoration spectrum. And it did so in explicit opposition to the brutal simplistic campaign of “total cleaning” launched at the National Gallery by the restorer Helmut Ruhemann, who insisted that “important paintings should be thoroughly cleaned before we theorise about them”. Ruhemann’s influence at the National Gallery was under-written by the long-serving post-war director Philip Hendy, who wrote in the catalogue to the didactic 1947 exhibition of pictures cleaned (in secret) during the war: “The purpose of this exhibition is not only to do justice to the cleaned pictures, but, by extending the knowledge of their condition, to bring about a higher standard of criticism in this all-important subject.” By 1958 Bernard Berenson had been persuaded that “the recent restorations of pictures in the National Gallery are defended by most English people against the almost universal disapproval of continental craftsmen and critics.”
Berenson was right about the continental opposition but, perhaps being overly-reliant on the reports of Kenneth Clark (who had launched the National Gallery’s cleaning blitzkrieg in the late 1930s when he had hired “the brilliant Ruhemann”), he had quite missed the scale and the ferocity of opposition within England. In 1947 Hendy had made the self-defeating claim that: “There would not in all probability have been so much criticism of the appearance of the pictures cleaned since the war began if the public had been kept waiting until the cleaned pictures could be shown as they are shown [all together] now. Instead, they had to be scattered among the dirty pictures upon walls which there had been neither time no labour even to brush down after six years of increasing exposure to the elements.” If Hendy could not see the force of a widespread preference for “dirty” over “cleaned” pictures, by 1977 his predessor director, Kenneth Clark had quite forgotten the controversy the returned pictures had provoked: “A cleaned picture often looks very bright when first it is finished, but it loses its shine after a year or two, and I was fortunate in that the pictures I brought back for the reopening of the Gallery, all of which had been cleaned, had had time to ‘settle down’. No one complained about them.”
For a concrete example of the war-time consequences of Ruhemann-esque preludes to theorising, see Figs. 9 and 10. For a discussion of the role of the German restorer, Johan Hell, whose highly restrained work in Britain earned much support among artists and private patrons, see this author in the June, July/August and September 2006 issues of the Jackdaw. Hell’s great influence in Britain (he restored the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery to acclaim) was carried to the United States, albeit in dilute form, by his sometime student, John Brealey. In 1951, René Huyghe, the Louvre’s chief curator of paintings and drawings advised restorers and curators “If there is the slightest doubt, stop; for in this matter it is inadmissible to make a mistake. Excessive prudence leaves the future open without compromising it. But mistakes made by presumption are irreparable.” In the Sunday Times (15 January 2012) Bergeon Langle said “We prefer the most moderate cleaning possible. But my views weren’t taken into consideration.”
Not heeded, perhaps, but widely noted nonetheless. The debate that has been opened by the two Louvre resignations shows no sign of abating. In a recent article Bergeon Langle has further explained: “I deemed that the restoration was not being carried out in line with what I imagined was necessary for this Louvre painting. That is my firm belief.” We now learn through such increasingly frequent press reports and the assorted leaks and briefings on this schismatic dispute within the museum’s twenty members strong advisory committee, that the Louvre’s present curators, with the encouragement of certain English and Italian curator and conservator members of that committee, are resolved to pursue more radical, less precautionary treatments. What makes this dispute-among-experts so alarming is that evidence of the consequences of the shift from caution and physical restraint within the Louvre already exists – we don’t have to read the book (and the official accounts, should they ever be made available), we can simply look at the pictures: as previously shown, restorers at the museum may now change and then re-change the expressions on old master faces without even being required to record their adulterations in the museum’s dossiers. This, by any standards is an already extraordinary and indefensible position.
News of the Louvre resignations comes just seven months after the shocking disclosure of its cosmetic facial exercises and at the point where the cleaning of the “St. Anne” is completed and the perilous stage of retouching begins. It so happens that the expression of St. Anne’s mouth is interrupted by a panel join (see Fig. 1) which might provide another temptation for a little cosmetic surgery with the retouching brushes. We were not reassured when the Louvre’s present head of painting, Vincent Pomarede said recently that the retouchings would be “reversible”. “So what?”, we would ask. As shown right (Fig. 5), the Louvre recently made two egregious errors on a single Veronese face. That the second falsification – which is still in place – is theoretically as removable as the one it superseded does not mitigate the presently persisting offence and lapse of curatorial vigilance. The two members of the Louvre advisory committee from the National Gallery who have been enthusiastic supporters of the current restoration (the then curator Luke Syson, who has moved to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the head of conservation, Larry Keith), happen themselves to have been responsible on their own patch for another incomprehensible, initially unacknowledged (- even in the Gallery’s own Technical Bulletin report) but again “reversible” alteration to a (Leonardo) mouth – see Figs. 6, 7 and 8.
One of the more monumentally controversial restorations defended at the National Gallery symposium was that of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon. Sponsored by the Olivetti corporation, the restoration had been directed by the distinguished Leonardo scholar Pietro Marani, who is a member of the Louvre’s “St. Anne” advisory committee, and like Syson and Keith an enthusiastic supporter of the present restoration. When we pointed out at the conference that the previous restoration of the “Last Supper” in the 1950s had been praised at the time by Bernard Berenson as an ultimate recovery of all the surviving authentic Leonardo paintwork, Pietro Marani countered by claiming a right for each generation’s restorers and curators to impose their own values and interpretations on historic works of art. The consequences for Leonardo’s “Last Supper” of the claimed (“Buggins’ Turn”?) right to undo and redo every great work of art, will be examined in our next post.
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Perhaps the last word should be given to
Sègoléne Bergeon Langle who has recently commented:
“As a general rule, I prefer old works to be cleaned only very lightly. You can never retrieve the original colours, what you get instead is the current state of the painting materials. Leaving a slight veil over the work makes it
How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich
History has repeatedly shown that scholars and art-lovers (no matter how distinguished and mild-mannered) who put themselves between museum picture restorers and their professional ambitions, run high risks.
In 1950 Ernst Gombrich drew attention, in a Burlington Magazine letter, to Pliny’s description of wondrous effects achieved by Apelles when finishing off his paintings with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure when stripping off “varnishes” today, he asked, that no Renaissance masters had applied toned varnishes to their own works in emulation of antiquity’s fabled painter? He received silence.
When he repeated the question in his seminal 1960 book Art and Illusion, his scholarly reputation and position as director of the Warburg Institute at London University commanded an answer. One came from Helmut Ruhemann, the National Gallery’s consultant restorer and author of its notorious “total cleaning” policy. Ruhemann insisted in the British Journal of Aesthetics that there was no evidence whatsoever “for anything so improbable as that a great old master should cover his picture with a ‘toning-down layer’.”
Gombrich returned play in a 1962 Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny”). The discovery of a single instance of a tinted overall varnish, he suggested, would undermine the dogmatic philosophy of the National Gallery’s restorers. A dual reply came from the gallery’s “heavy mob” – its head of science, Joyce Plesters (who was married to the restorer Norman Brommelle), and the pugnacious former trustee and collector, Denis Mahon, in two further Burlington articles.
Plesters herself dismissed Gombrich on two fronts: for lacking “technical knowledge” and for displaying incomplete and misinterpreted scholarship. The entire documented technical history of art, she claimed, showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ legendary dark varnishes. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was merely a matter of “academic rather than practical importance”. She offered to “sift” and “throw light upon” any future historical material that Professor Gombrich might uncover – should he but present it directly to the National Gallery. Her technical rank-pulling was underwritten (as perhaps was her article in part) by the director, Sir Philip Hendy, who disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians” in the gallery’s annual report.
In reality Plesters was a technical incompetent. It was she who claimed that the Raphael cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum were stuck onto “backing sheets” when there are none. It was she who described the large (150 cms wide) panel The Entombment, which is attributed to Michelangelo, as a single massive plank when it is comprised of three boards held by butterfly keys. It was she who counted six boards on the large panel Samson and Delilah, which is attributed to Rubens, when there are seven.
Her errors were products of a then unchecked institutional culture of technical adventurism and gross aesthetic recklessness. Great Renaissance paintings were ironed onto boards of compressed paper (Sundeala board) which today are too unstable to be moved. One such was Sebastiano del Piombo’s The Raising of Lazarus. That painting, originally on panel, had been transferred to canvas. When decision was made to re-attach the canvas to a Sundeala “panel”, technical examination identified three further “backing” canvases. When these three “backings” were duly removed it was discovered that no fourth and “original” canvas existed and that the surviving paint was attached only to a layer of disintegrating paper. But that crisis-of-their-own-making provided the gallery’s restorers with opportunity to play what Professor Thomas Molnar here called “demiurge” and improve upon the artistic content of the painting. In order to stabilise the paint layer which they had left loose and unprotected, the restorers embedded it from behind with terylene fabric attached by lashings of warm, dilute wax-resin cement. Because Sebastiano had painted his picture on a warm-coloured ground and because paint becomes more translucent with age and allows the tone of the ground greater influence on the picture’s values, the restorers decided to brighten things up and give the picture a brilliant white ground (like that of a Pre-Raphaelite painting) by adding highly reflective pigments to their own remedial wax-resin cement applications.
Plesters died in August 1996. Earlier that year, the National Gallery had published a report in its Technical Bulletin on the cleaning of two paintings by a Leonardo follower, Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had clearly suffered the Gallery’s trademark restoration losses of modelled form (see right and below), but his Christ Carrying the Cross was miraculously unscathed. Moreover, that picture was found simultaneously to display an “intensity of colour” and a restrained “overall effect” – precisely the paradoxical combination attributed by Pliny to Apelles but that had been pronounced technically preposterous by Ruhemann, Plesters, Mahon, Hendy et al.
It further emerged that Giampietrino, having first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, had, again just as Pliny had said of Apelles, deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with a “final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black in a medium essentially of walnut oil, with a little resin”. Sir Ernst, nearly half a century on, had finally been vindicated but the report, inexplicably, made no reference to the dispute of the 1960s – to the very dispute which in 1985 had been described by the Burlington Magazine’s then editor, Neil MacGregor, as “one of the most celebrated jousts” ever. Had the National Gallery, having ridiculed Gombrich in the 1960s, not told him of its own remarkable technical/art historical discovery and of his own vindication? It had not. When we reported the findings in June 1996, Sir Ernst was approaching his 87th birthday. He replied:
“I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t see the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin, and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth…”
Gombrich’s vindication proved a double one. Not only had the gallery discovered a technical/physical corroboration of the scholar’s astute original supposition, but the survival of a Renaissance artist’s final toned coating served further to corroborate Gombrich’s general criticisms of the gallery’s over-zealous picture cleanings. Because the two Giampietrino works were restored at the same time in the same gallery, but with the surface of the one being protected from solvent action by an ancient oil-film, while that of the other was unprotected, an unwitting laboratory experiment had been conducted on the gallery’s own “cleanings”. We can now compare the appearance of the restored but protected painting, with that of the restored but unprotected one (see right and Michael Daley, “The Lost Art of Picture Conservation”, The Art Review, September, 1999). As can be seen here, the unprotected painting (the Salome) suffered clear and dramatic losses of modelling and weakening of forms.
For a number of years after the twin Giampietrino restorations, it was possible to examine the two cleaned specimens side by side and to demonstrate the unequal effects of the treatments they had received. That is no longer possible. One of the pair has been relegated to the ill-lit basement of the reserve collection which is accessible to the public for only a few hours a week on Wednesday afternoons.
The relegated work is not the restoration-injured Salome, but the miraculously preserved Christ, the very picture which now arguably constitutes the best-preserved example of a Renaissance artist’s technique in the entire collection. This picture, which might be expected to enjoy pride of place in the main galleries, shares its new dungeon exile with another recent National Gallery Embarrassment – the Beccafumi panel painting Marcia which was dropped and smashed at the Gallery when being “de-installed” from a temporary exhibition. We had hoped and suggested that the Christ might make a return to daylight on the occasion of the Gallery’s forthcoming Leonardo blockbuster exhibition, but it seems that it will not do so – not even to join Giampietrino’s full-sized faithful copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. (For many years, that Giampietrino mouldered in the Royal Academy’s basement as embarrassing relic of the institution’s former artistic interests.) When the last restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper got into difficulties, the copy was taken to Milan so that full-size tracings of Leonardo’s figures might establish the limits of the restorer’s own substantial watercolour in-painting.
It seems fitting that last word be given to Sir Ernst, who died on November 3rd 2001. In another letter in 1988 he had recalled:
“I believe it was Francis Bacon who said ‘knowledge is power’. I had to learn the hard way that power can also masquerade as knowledge, and since there are very few people able to judge these issues, they very easily get away with it.”
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