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A masterpiece under the microscope

Old Masters uncovered 31 minute read

          The Lady in the Portrait appears to have been painted in the 19th century, her shoulders are draped in a thick red scarf and the flowers in her hair and on her lap suggest an orientalist touch indicative of the time. It is painterly, beautiful.

But all is not what it seems. What to the amateur appears to be a work from the 19th century was in fact painted 200 years earlier. When looked at closer, from behind, and even under a microscope, the painting’s deeper layers actually seem much more indicative of a 17th century masterpiece. 

The process of just how artwork is identified, authenticated, and restored was thrown into the spotlight last year with the $450 million sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi.” What exactly is it that experts behind the scenes do to help uncover the mysteries of these forgotten masterpieces? And how exactly do they do it?

For every time that a new painting by a grand master is discovered, there has been a painstaking process of discovery and investigation going on for sometimes years to enable experts to make their declarations. 

“As we began to look closer, the pigments and the look of The Lady in the Portrait were more 17th century and this was our first sign. We took a risk and began taking samples which we tried to match with similar 17th century painters,” said art historian and restorer Angelica Pediconi.

In a joint decision with the painting’s owner it was decided that they would together embark on a process of discovery and restoration to uncover the original history of a true masterpiece.

Previously unknown restored works can certainly fetch a good price, as the da Vinci sale in New York last year proved.

The painting of a Christ like figure holding an orb is one of only several paintings by Leonardo left. Christie’s in New York toured the painting in cities around the world, in front of the wealthiest and most interested buyers.

Eugene Pooley, Old Masters Specialist at Christie’s said, “Our sales in December (post-Leonardo) were very successful – but in truth we have seen really strong results for a few years. It is particularly true when we have pictures for sale that are ‘fresh’ to the market, i.e. haven’t been offered for several decades.”

It is hardly understood, however, just how rich and complicated the life of such a painting (from as far back as five centuries ago) is. Aside from an exciting discovery that often comes by a stroke of luck in an old ramshackle church or former palace, these paintings travel through to the hands of art historians, scientists, restorers, and auctioneers. They go under microscopes, x-rays and lasers and eventually onto the walls of institutions and private homes.

Oftentimes dealers hope to come across masterpieces which have been falsely labeled as imitations and have consequently been significantly undervalued. They acquire the painting for a bargain and invest in its investigation, passing the painting on to the historians and restorers who have the responsibility and as a result the power to bring a masterpiece back to life.

“Where authentication is concerned, we research pictures extensively, using our cumulative knowledge and the tools at our disposal (our book library, sale catalogues, and the increasing number of online picture databases) and where necessary consult outside experts,” Pooley said.

Before any process of intervention with a painting or object is designated and depending upon the owner or institution who will acquire it, extensive scientific research occurs. Lucia Burgio, Senior Scientist (Object Analysis) in the department of Conversation Science at the Victoria and Albert Museum, said, “When people have no clue whatsoever as to what I do, I ask them if they have watched CSI. In a nutshell, that is the type of work we do. We have cool pieces of kit, although no makeup or designer clothes, and we use forensics to date, authenticate, and find the provenance of objects.” 

Burgio’s work comes in mostly when curators at the world’s most renowned institutions require missing information about the history of an object. More so than that, her work is crucial for issues regarding conservation of such objects which have likely undergone corrosion or degradation and encounters with different elements over what may have been a history as long as 500 years old.

“We acquired an object two years ago, a casket, it comes from modern day Colombia but it was made in the first half of the 17th century. It was made using a material which is quite unusual. It is a resin, indigenous to that part of the world which used to be used by the Inca. It was chewed, purified, and then with the heat and the chewing action they were able to actually stretch the material like bubble gum to make a sort of cling film over the casket. When chewed with pigments it would become coloured.”

Burgio’s work on this object was crucial in identifying the difficult substance and key to securing its conservation and now permanent place in the V&A.

One of the most difficult and shared tasks for researchers, scientists, and restorers working with such old artefacts is to avoid any intervention which could potentially damage the visual effect and durability of the original work.

I get to physically touch history everyday. Lucia Bergio

“For something like the casket, which is so unusual, we need to find out as much as we can. The first thing to consider is non intrusive techniques. One of the things that can be done is x-rays, we have XRF (x-ray fluorescents) which gives you elemental information about an object, like if there is copper or if there is lead or if there is gold. If you have something like lead, the x-ray won’t go through the surface but if you have something like a pine resin which is carbon and oxygen and hydrogen the x-ray goes much deeper.”

For even deeper investigation, it is necessary for the several layers of an object with multiple histories which may have faced multiple interventions to be analysed using technology like Raman spectroscopy which as Burgio describes is a, “Beautiful, non invasive technology.” Raman uses lasers to interrogate the material but it requires scientific knowledge and precision.

“If used wrongly these technologies and lasers could ruin or blast holes through objects which could easily become lost to history,” Burgio said.

The public recently got a glimpse of these techniques at the Dentro Caravaggio showcase at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Without the use of non-invasive technologies our knowledge of Caravaggio’s iconic style and history, one of the most formative in the Baroque period, may have had significant gaps. For example, one of the paintings, The Fortune Teller dating to 1594, when analysed under x-rays shows horizontally beneath the surface incisions used to outline a Madonna adorned with hands clasped and a halo atop her head. Aside from revealing that Caravaggio would often re-use his canvases, this x-ray and reflectography shows the changes that the specific painting has undergone both in the studio of Caravaggio and over centuries.

It was only the latest procedure of restoration on Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller which revealed the detail of a gold ring being snatched from the young boy’s hand as the gypsy pretends to read his palm.

In the above version, the aforementioned ring is invisible, as previous years of restoration had still yet to uncover it.

Perhaps the most important but often overlooked step in the journey of a masterpiece is the process of restoration. Pediconi and her business partner Fabio Mazzocchini restore works of art in their studio set in London but more reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance.

“Growing up in Rome, I was surrounded by visually interesting things, both in the architectural context and in the domestic context. I come from an architects family so there was always an interest for visual culture but I also had a more scientific side,” Pediconi said.

Pediconi received her degree in history of art along with an additional degree in art restoration and conservation.

“Since a very young age, maybe 15 or 16, I started going to the flea markets in Rome. Imagine it’s a Sunday and there’s a little art market, very simple, and I would go through things and see perhaps a little painting and there was this sense of discovery and this chance that maybe this object was something really special that only I would be able to understand,” Pediconi said.

The Lady in the Portrait was brought to the studio of Pediconi and Mazzocchini by its private owner.

“It did not seem to suffer as much trauma as some of the other paintings that we see but because of stylistic discrepancies it was worth looking into,” Pediconi said.

“When a new painting comes to the studio, there is always a lot of excitement because it’s like a new friend, sometimes you have immediate great empathy or sometimes less.. it’s like how you are with people. Sometimes you really fall in love at first sight and sometimes it takes you a little bit longer. When a painting first arrives I have to note the measures, the technique, all of the elements of the painting,” Pediconi said.

Pediconi mentioned that there are often elements of a paining which are overlooked, for example, the back of the canvas.

“We often have to see paintings from the back. The back of the canvas is sometimes even more important than the front because there are hand writings or there are signatures or numbers and then they can be very, very old and they might be written 16th century French or 16th century Italian,” she said.

Often it is by looking at the back of the canvas that restorers and historians are able to identify or begin to speculate about the attribution of the work or the period that it came from. After inspecting a canvas and taking all of the necessary measurements, damage to the structure of a canvas must be repaired.

“Some paintings require more intervention than others. When a painting on a canvas is linen or cotton, sometimes there can be a slash or big cut in it. When a portrait is created on a wood canvas, it is usually composed of two or three planks which have likely bent and cracked over the years,” Pediconi said.

To cope with such complications, Mazzocchini developed a technology called “glueing jig.”

“Because the planks of wood are often broken we have to open them and join them back together again. Glueing jig, this machine of precision, helps to rejoin the planks together. Even though they will never be perfect they are aligned in a way that restores the main visual enjoyment of the painting. Glueing jig will also prevent the creation of more cracks,” Pediconi said, “Imagine the corset of a lady used to keep a back straight and upright. Often we also have to add structures like this to the back of a canvas.”

Pediconi is also a specialist in a technique known as “thread mending” which she explained to be much like stitches to a painting.

As in The Lady in the Portrait, Pediconi and Mazzocchini noticed that the back of the paining was realigned using a 19th century canvas, but hidden beneath was actually a 17th century canvas, which Pediconi says is completely different than a 19th century canvas.

The first step major step in the process of restoration is the cleaning process. This process will differ depending on the painting or “patient” as Pediconi calls them and each “patient” requires a different treatment.

“I have my patients that I take care of, like a doctor in a way or a nurse or a therapist or a trainer! I take care of these patients which are objects that have a history and a life of their own. I help them live for us and for future generations.” Angelica Pediconi

“The cleaning depends on the age of the painting, the style, the school, so you would want to use certain chemicals or rather use less chemicals but more water based solvents or something that is in between. Let’s say you have a beautiful Madonna, and of course you are dying to put your hands on her cheeks but you have to go to some peripheral areas to take some samples,” Pediconi says.

Ultimately, it is the goal of a restorer to be sure that anything done to a paining is reversible to help future restorers, and to aid conservation, so the cleaning step , the chemicals or solvents that are used, are crucial. The cleaning of a painting is the only step in the process that is irreversible.

“Not only do you have to select and choose the materials that you clean with and the kinds of solvents that you use but you also have to choose very importantly until what level you clean. What you clean is usually what you really see, like an oxidised varnish which is very brown and which doesn’t allow you to see the true colours or the pigments as they were originally,” Pediconi said, “You have your stick with your cotton butt and you use a solvent to remove the old layers of varnish. Once they are gone, they are gone.”

A theory of restoration was created at the beginning of the last century by Cezaare Brandi, an art historian in Italy who also founded the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome in 1939.

“At the time, conservators were painters who couldn’t survive as painters and so they were practicing without real technique or knowledge. One of the things that was very difficult then (and now) to deal with is what is real and what is false. This is why you have to use material that is distinctively different from that which the painter used, otherwise you create a ‘false'”, Pediconi said.

The goal is for any work on a painting to be visually identical but reversible so you have to use different material. “The idea of Cezaare Brandi was that you can not attempt to use your 21st century brush to compete with a 16th century brush. You can not compete with the original painter or master,” Pediconi said.

In The Lady in the Portrait, the more cleaning that was done, the more excited that Pediconi and her colleagues became. 

Pediconi describes old layers of varnish on a painting like nail varnish. She said, “Imagine after only one week, nail varnish on finger nails begins to decay. This varnish has covered a given painting for hundreds of years! Once you begin to clean more of the layers of old varnish from previous restoration, you begin to notice with your magnifying glasses the craquelure, a pattern of cracks as a result of the natural drying. This is when you know you are getting closer and closer to the original painting,” Pediconi said.

“The more we cleaned, the more details that came out. The original 17th century composition began to come out and what we noticed was this hand. The 17th century hand had a bracelet on it and the hands were clasped, unlike the 19th century hands which are holding flowers and without jewellery.”

Oftentimes ultra violet lights are also used in the cleaning stage to see the places where there are still resins of the varnish and perhaps the layers of dirt that have been contracted from many years in a candle lit church, for example.

After the cleaning was completed more of the 17th century painting began to emerge. “In fact, underneath the red which was quite well painted for a 19th century painter, we could see this grey/green/blue superb fabric,” Pediconi said.

Soon after completion of the cleaning stage, discrepancies in the painting are revealed so that the restorers can begin to re-touch areas of the painting.

“I have to prepare the surface of the painting to receive the pigments that I am going to apply where and if there are missing pieces. In Italian we call this ‘lacuna’ which means a hole which might disrupt the visual value of the painting,” Pediconi said.

“In Italy, virtually almost every museum uses a technique for retouching which is called ‘trateggio verticale’ which means very fine lines, one after the other. This is a technique that was use to retouch paintings by drawing very fine lines that by vibrating together will create this new colour. It is a technique that you are using to fill the gaps,” Pediconi said. “When you work for a museum in Italy you would only use this technique. When you work for the commercial market or a private owner, they prefer not to use this technique.”

Pediconi and her colleague, another restorer, Erica Testa, agreed that the retouching stage is the most enjoyable, as it is when you really see a painting come back to life.

“That balance and sensitivity and sensibility, you have to know the painting and there is really a sense of great empathy. It is a little bit like with music, of course, you tune your ears and you can become more and more sophisticated and it is the same with visuals. At first you may think that a painting needs a big intervention and then you see that actually you need very little. The more that you see, the more more that you understand and your eye becomes fine tuned just like the ear might when you listen to a lot of music,” Pediconi said.

What changed in The Lady in the Portrait? 

“The 17th century, originally painted lady had this green, very shimmering silk scarf and a beautiful bracelet. In the 19th century they were using this orientalist fashion which is probably why she ended up wearing a red outfit. The 17th century painting is much more austere. The 17th century image is more elegant and perhaps stately,” Pediconi said.

The Lady in the Portrait was altered as it was passed down through the generations and centuries. Perhaps its owner in the 19th century decided that the woman should be wearing red and holding flowers, because that is what was fashionable at the time.

“After the re touching is complete you have to decide how much you want to varnish the painting because the varnish is the final layer. It is like a film of protection,”  Pediconi said.

Sometimes the progression that a painting makes is drastic from its initial cleaning all the way through to the final retouch.

“The history of a painting is going to be written and re written sometimes for many future generations. An artist which could have been less important at the beginning of the century might be very important for the next. You really need to imagine what it would be like to look at a given painting in the 16th, 17th, or 18th century,” Pediconi said. 

Old Masters paintings have more than just economic and historic cultural value. Many young, contemporary painters are still greatly influenced by the Old Masters. Cathy Tabbakah, a young painter trained in France and specialising in abstract portraiture said: “The Old Masters are important because there was no such thing as a photograph in the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries. These painters were the only individuals to visually capture their own time and our history as we see it. It is important for not just artists and historians to study and appreciate the masters but also for society as a whole.”

“Personally I find Old Masters an endlessly intriguing field: we spend a lot of time researching attributions, from 14th century gold grounds to 18th century portraits, and it is the pleasure of continuing to learn every day that I enjoy most, discovering pictures and recognising artists’ hands. I consider myself lucky to be able to do that every day,” Pooley said.

I think the study of pictures is a virtuous circle: the more we uncover, the more we can apply that knowledge going forward. Eugene Pooley

If it were not for the work of Pediconi and her team of restorers and art historians, the original 17th century Lady in the Portrait would have never been unearthed.

“The painting is in fact being studied and can now be attributed to the very important French Baroque painter, Simon Vouet, of the early 17th century,” Pediconi said.

Vouet was best known for introducing the Italian Baroque style to France.

“Had the owner of the painting not brought it in for restoration, part of its story, and our history, would be missing,” Pediconi said. 

The Lady in the Portrait is now back with its original owner and it is assumed that the lady depicted is the artist’s sister in law, Ursula Da Vezzo. Where the painting will travel to in future generations remains unknown, a part of its story still waiting to be told. 

“Empathy and love for a painting is of course at the heart of it all… and that makes it difficult to say goodbye!” Pediconi said.

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