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And the World’s Worst Restoration is…

WHICH COUNTRY, might you think, has produced the World’s Worst Restoration – Spain? Italy? The UK? India? France? China? Egypt? The United States? Consider the evidence.

THE EVIDENCE IS ABUNDANT and the answer is “All of the above”. There are more contenders than there are countries. No country and no professional stratum is free of recurrent restoration injuries. This evidence can only suggest that injuries are intrinsic to the practice of restoration. Manifestly, no restorers anywhere can “treat” a Renoir – or a Veronese – without injury (see below). Restoration error is the by-product of a singular un-regulated sphere where the distinct languages of art, aesthetics, technology and “science” are conflated in support of presumptuous would-be improvements to the works of others. The official response to demonstrations of error is not engagement but intensification of promotional hype. This dynamic must be reversed and the necessity of criticism ceded.
In response to the latest “restoration” blunder (on the classical heritage in Turkey) we revisit our accumulating chamber of horrors and invite nominations to for the title of The World’s Worst Restoration.

Contender No. 1: Turkey

The BBC reports that Turkey’s culture ministry is investigating claims that valuable Roman mosaics have been badly damaged during botched restorations at an archaeological museum:

“Authorities are looking into the claims of a local craftsman who raised concerns over the condition of at least 10 mosaics at the Hatay Archaeology Museum, the Hurriyet Daily News website reports. Mehmet Daskapan first spoke out in an interview with a local paper in February, but the news was only picked up by mainstream Turkish media on Monday. ‘Valuable pieces from the Roman period have been ruined,’ Mr Daskapan told the Antakya Gazetesi website at the time. ‘They have become caricatures of their former selves. Some are in an especially poor condition and have lost their originality and value.'”

Above, Figs 1 and 2: Before restoration (left) and after (right) photographs by Mr Daskapan testify to devastating iconographic, pictorial and plastic injuries during supposed “conservation” treatments of mosaics held in the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Turkey.

The Guardian reports that (as so often in these disputes) the restorers deny error and allege that the testimony of before and after photographs has been rigged by the press. However, a culture ministry official has confirmed that “erroneous practices” caused injury by adding pieces of mosaic. As always, the restorers further allege that today’s damage had been done by previous (French) restorers in the 1930s who added material which has now been removed because past practices have now been outlawed. The culture official confirmed that today’s restorers at the centre of controversy have had years of experience “including the restoration of the renowned mosaics at Zeugma Museum in south-east Turkey”. Notwithstanding this assurance, all restorations have been halted and investigation is underway. A spokesman from the opposition Nationalist Movement party (MHP) called the restored work a “massacre of history” and blamed the Islamic-rooted ruling AKP for a “bureaucratic scandal”. The BBC reports that the allegedly shoddy restoration “has been compared to an incident in Spain in 2012…[when an] attempted restoration rendered the image of Christ unrecognisable and became a global laughing stock.”

Above, Figs. 3, 4 and 5: The above STR/EPA photographs all testify to simultaneous enfeeblement and vulgarisation.

This below is not a “restoration” or a “conservation”, it is precisely what Mr Daskapan has claimed it to be: the travestying and rendering inauthentic of an ancient classical image.

Above, Figs. 6 and 7: Details of Fig. 1 showing the subject before (top) and after “treatment” (above). (Photos: Tamer Yazar/AP)

When horrendous things are done to art in the name of its “conservation” people struggle – vainly – to divine a possible motivating rationale. In the face of inexplicable actions, truly awful restoration abuses frequently provoke/generate humour. In Turkey, The Hurriyet Daily News reports that the botched restoration has indeed become a matter of humour: “Perhaps, the restoration’s target was to liken him to Erdoğan [President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – see Fig. 7b below],” joked famous cartoonist Selçuk Erdem, from the weekly magazine Penguen.” The Huffington Post fleshes out the joke with the photo sequence below. Doing so in Turkey might carry a risk. As the The Hurriyet Daily News adds, two other cartoonists at Penguen, Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan, were jailed for 11 months in March over a satirical piece on free speech in which they were convicted of including a hidden gesture that was considered to be “insulting” to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Contender No. 2: Spain

When a granny in Spain, Cecilia Giménez, indulged in a bit of do-it-yourself restoration in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain, the whole world fell about laughing. Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey”. The church threatened to sue and restoration experts from around the world converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone. This prompted thousands to petition for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. The publicity greatly boosted tourism and the church levied a charge on visitors. The “restorer” then sued in protection of her intellectual property rights. (See The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity and The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators.)

Above, top, Fig. 8: This shows the head of Christ before (left and centre) and after (right) restoration.

Above, Fig. 9: One of many spoofs carried on was this of the late TV painting instructor Bob Ross.

Above, Fig. 10: A satirical news blog ( saw a resemblance between Cecilia Giménez’s monkey-faced Christ and a newly discovered species of monkey…The Church has left the desecration of a sacred image in place.

Contender No. 3: Egypt

As shown here recently (A bodge too far: “Conservation’s” catalogue of blunders), whenever ineptitude strikes, those responsible – curators, conservators, trustees, art bureaucrats – run for cover, slinging blame to every other quarter. When news of a bungled repair to the beard of Tutankamun’s death mask in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum leaked out, three conservators, speaking anonymously, gave three different accounts of the injury, but all agreed that orders had come down for the repair to be made quickly. The Daily Telegraph reported that while some said the beard had been broken off by cleaners, other said that it had simply come loose. The Guardian’s account went as follows:

“Did bungling curators snap off Tut’s beard last year, and if so was it stuck back on with with the wrong kind of glue?
These are the allegations levelled at the Egyptian Museum, the gloomy, under-funded palace in central Cairo where Tutankhamun’s bling is housed. Employees claim the beard was dislodged in late 2014 during routine maintenance of the showcase in which Tut’s mask is kept…The director of the museum, Mahmoud el-Halwagy, and the head of its conservation department, Elham Abdelrahman, strenuously denied the claims yesterday. Halwagy says the beard never fell off and nothing has happened to it since he was appointed director in October.”

Although this gaffe caught the western world’s imagination (because of intense abiding interest in ancient Egyptian culture), the incident was of relatively trivial significance: neither the beard nor the head were damaged. When it emerged that “a few little conservation things had to be done” to Assyrian carvings from the Nimrud Palace after the British Museum had irresponsibly flown them to China, the international press looked the other way.

Contender No. 4: The United Kingdom

One of the greatest all-time serial offenders as pioneer in technically advanced but artistically destructive “total cleaning” techniqes has been the National Gallery, London. For an account of the falsifying art historical consequences of such aggressively intrusive restorations, see The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration.

Above, Figs. 11 and 12: A detail of the National Gallery’s Titian Bacchus and Ariadne, shown (top) before restoration by Arthur Lucas in 1967-69, and (above) after restoration. Notwithstanding such dreadful injuries throughout the painting, the restoration was hailed a triumph and the restorer took to boasting to painting students at the Slade School of Art, London University, (where he taught painting techniques) that there was “more of me than Titian in that sky”. One of Lucas’s “advanced” technical wheezes (which was concealed from the trustees and the public) was to iron the canvas painting onto a double laminate (‘Sundeala’) board of compressed-paper. Such boards were used on many of the gallery’s largest paintings and have now become unstable.

Above, Fig. 13: Titian’s Portrait of a Man (detail) at the National Gallery, before being restored by Arthur Lucas (left) and after restoration (right). As part of his preparation for repainting the subject’s head, Lucas hired a bearded student at the Slade School of Art to model for certain “preparatory” studies that he wished to make of hair and beards.

Above, top, Fig. 14: A detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas before cleaning in 1954.

Above, Fig. 15: The detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas after cleaning in 1954, showing pronounced solvent-induced paint losses and new cracking when the picture was barely seventy years old.

The Courtauld Gallery, London

That Renoir is exceptionally vulnerable to solvent-cleaning can also be seen in this example below from Courtauld Gallery, London.

Above, Figs. 16 and 17: A detail of Renoir’s La Loge, as seen (top) in 1938, and as seen in the Courtauld Gallery’s 2008 exhibition catalogue “Renoir at the Theatre – Looking at La Loge“.

Contender No. 5: China

On 23 October 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported the outcome of a Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration during which a Qing dynasty temple fresco was entirely obliterated by luridly colourised repainting. This crime against art and historical patrimony only came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple described the restoration as “an unauthorised project”. Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration from the Dunhuang Academy, had said the intervention could not be called “restoration, or [even] destructive restoration” because “[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist”. It was noted that the case had echoes of a headline-grabbing incident when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja (- as shown above at Figs. 6, 7 and 8 ). One Chinese website user echoed charges made against the restored Sistine Chapel frescoes of Michelangelo: “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”

Above, Figs. 18 and 19: The devastating falsification/obliteration of ancient temple murals in China.

See Qing dynasty fresco ruined in botched restoration which makes work look like garish cartoon; and China sackings over ruined ancient Buddhist frescos; and, A restoration project that turned a Qing dynasty fresco into a series of “sloppily drawn” modern paintings has drawn outrage in China; and Assaults on History: Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence.

Contender No. 6: Austria

Below, Fig. 20: A detail of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (the figure Poetry), as seen before 1956 (left) and today (right), as featured on the cover of the Spring 2008 issue of the ArtWatch UK Journal.

Contender No. 7: France (principally, and Spain)

Picture restorers inflict two kinds of injury by first removing material that is integral to paintings and then by adding their own repainting so as to bring works up to what they consider to be acceptable degrees of finish and artistry. When paintings suffer this double combination of subtractions and (“corrective”) additions, the impositions frequently betray gross artistic and anatomical ignorance. This deficiency is found not just among jobbing restorers at the bottom of the art trade, but in even the most technically advanced, scientifically supported, and institutionally prestigious institutions such as the Prado and the Louvre, as we explored in the Journal No 26, shown below. (See also: A spectacular restoration own-goal: undoing, re-doing and (on the quiet) re-re-doing a Veronese masterpiece at the Louvre Museum, and From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures.)


Above, Figs. 21, 22, 23 and 24. These illustrations show, respectively, from the top down:
1) The ArtWatch UK Journal No. 26 with before and after restoration details of Titian’s Empress Isabella at the Prado and Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs at the Louvre;
2) A face from Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs, as seen before the first of two restorations in five years;
3) The same face from Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs after the first restoration (that is, after the first stripping down and subsequent repainting);
4) Press coverage (in The Week) of the controversy over the two botched repaintings of the Veronese face that had been monitored and disclosed by Michel Favre-Felix, the painter and president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix’s discoveries had been laid out here on 29 December 2010.

…meanwhile, in London:

An implicit acknowledgement by restorers of certain professional insecurities in this area was made in the above 2010 book on different “approaches to” the retouching of cleaned paintings. This publication was a by-product of three one-day workshops organised by two restoration groups, the Icon Paintings Group and the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR). The organisers were taken aback by the demand for the events which “exceeded our expectations. The lecture theatres were packed…” It was explained in the book’s Foreword that the subject of the three events emerged because, athough it could have been:

“…consolidation – or structural work…the general consensus in the brainstorming sessions was that retouching (or inpainting for those across the pond) was the topic for which there was a burning desire to expand knowledge, exchange ideas and gain more practice. There was a need for a practical kind of conference, dealing with the actual techniques involved in the conservation of paintings. With retouching, every conservator-restorer tends to harbour preferences for materials and practices based on experience, types of artworks as well as what is available to hand. This series of events was envisioned as a showcase for the knowledge and skill of individuals in a welcoming and supportive environment that would provide an opportunity to learn by listening and looking (in the morning lecture series) and by doing (in the afternoon practice sessions)…”

The conscientiousness of the participants is not in question and the enthusiasm brought to the task is touching. What is alarming is the sense that emerges of the absence of any artistic and anatomical expertise and guidance. The preponderance of activity addressed the acquistion of technical skills not of artistic comprehension. Some indication of the sense in which conservator-restorer speaking unto conservator-restorer is tantamount to the artistically blind speaking to the artistically blind is found on p.127 in one of the case histories (the conservation-restoration of a painting at the Rijksmuseum):

“…shortly after purchase [in 1976] the picture was cleaned to remove some discoloured varnish layer(s) [- the presence of which material is the most frequent pretext for restorations] and some clearly visible retouches. At the time of the restoration under discussion here, the only known record of how the painting looked before the cleaning was a black and white photograph taken at the Rijksmuseum. It was during that initial cleaning that the restorer [not Arthur Lucas] removed the clouds from the sky exposing blue underpaint. Though he claimed to be removing only over-paints, a shocked curator stopped the restoration and the picture remained in storage until 1995 when it was decided to examine and subsequently restore the picture for an exhibition planned for 1997…since the restorer who had cleaned the painting died in the late 1980s and left no account of the cleaning it can never really be known what had been removed or how…”

On the absence of artistic expertise among conservator-restorers, see Review: Who Cleaned the Queen’s Windows and the Lady’s Pearls?

Contender No. 8: Italy ~ The Vatican

The most controversial restoration in modern times has been that of Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, a subject on which we have published many times. In addition to the restoration injuries, the fame of the restored frescoes has drawn (paying) crowds to the chapel of such magnitude as to imperil the physical fabric of the frescoes. For a summary listing of our previous coverage on all aspects of that continuing debacle, see Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes.

Above, Figs. 25 and 26: Details of Michelangelo’s Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before restoration (top), and after restoration (above). The explanation for the otherwise inexplicably profound changes that occurred during this cleaning, is that Michelangelo had finished off and elaborated his frescoes (when dry) with painting consisting of pigments bound in animal glue or size. With this painting Michelangelo adjusted and enriched his colours while, at the same time, greatly increasing their dramatic lighting and shading. (The revolutionary nature of this theatrical lighting is explored in this post: Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times.) However, on the authority of technical analysis of the glue-paint, the Vatican treated all of this surface painting by Michelangelo as if it were dirt and soot and washed it off. In this comparative detail above, the loss of shading on the bag and around it is immense.

Above, Figs. 27 and 28: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration (top) when showing Michelangelo’s systematic and consistent modelling of forms via a transition from light to dark from the top of the head to the neck and shoulder, as it had survived from 1512 until 1980; and (above), after the restoration in which all of Michelangelo’s supplementary painting had been removed.

Contender No. 9: Italy ~ Milan

If any Renaissance mural might be thought to rival the importance of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling it would be Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately this great work has suffered badly from its experimental technique and subsequently from multiple restorations over the years. It was thought, by Bernard Berenson among others, to have received the best-possible, final and definitive act of rescue in a two-part restoration of 1947-49 and 1952-54. (See The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – Part 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns and The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Part 2: A traumatic production of “a different Leonardo”.)

Just twenty-one years later in 1975 a former student of the previous restorer reported falling fragments of paint. Two years later another (and $8m Olivetti-sponsored) restoration began with the express intention of undoing every trace of all previous restorations. In entirely predictable consequence, vast areas of bare, pictorially disfiguring wall were exposed. To return a semblance of iconographic coherence and legibility to the by-then devastated sacred images, the restorer colourised all of the exposed wall (which constituted most of the mural), not in any semblance of Leonardo’s original pictorial method, but flatly, “abstractly” with water-colours that took their values from the local colours (but not the forms) of adjacent areas. This technique, therefore, imposed an entirely alien and ahistorical modernist sensibility on the remains of a once-supreme Renaissance evocation of real figures, in action, in real spaces. The operation thereby constituted an artistic misrepresentation and a cultural falsification: once-living theatre was effectively pulled onto a decorated backdrop. Aside from the conceptual unaptness of the enterprise, the restorer made errors – or took liberties – within her own terms of operation. (See below.) This was not a restoration and nor was it a recovery. Moreover, as an imposition of a markedly 20th-century sensibility and mindset, it will “date” rapidly and therefore licence those who will next wish to intervene on a world renowned work.

Above, Figs. 29, 30 and 31: The central section of the Last Supper is here shown (top) before the last restoration; during restoration (middle); and (above) after restoration and repainting. One error made at the repainting stage was to the central figure – Christ. Leaving aside what happened to His Face, the restorer decided against all historical testimony (see below) that Leonardo had painted the drapery of Christ’s right arm so that it came to rest on the table cloth among the food and crockery. When our challenge to the decision was reported in the press, Professor Pietro Marani, the Leonardo expert who directed the Last Supper restoration, sarcastically downplayed the criticism – “A small piece of drapery. Oh, my God.” (See Have art restorers ruined Leonardo’s masterpiece?). It might have seemed a small error to the director of the restoration, but it has left drapery in place that Leonardo had not painted. How seriously, then, should we take assurances about the high “ethical” standards of today’s restorers?

Above, Figs. 32, 33, 34 and 35: Details showing (top) the restored [sic] drapery of Christ’s right arm and, below it, two copies of the original arm, as painted by Leonardo’s associates Andrea Solario and Giampietrino (whose copy is shown above in colour and in greyscale).

Contender No. 10: The United States ~ The Clark Institute

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, has high scholarly aspirations and was generously founded on Sterling Clark’s passionate and well informed love of art. In his will of 1946 Clark expressly prohibited any restoration of his own to-be bequeathed pictures:

“It having been my object in making said collection to acquire only works of the best quality of the artists represented, which were not damaged or distorted by the works of restorers, it is my wish and desire and I request that the said trustees…permanently maintain in said gallery all works of art bequeathed hereunder in the condition in which they shall be at my death without any so-called restoration, cleaning or other work thereon, except in the case of damage from unforeseen causes, and that none of them be sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of…”

Sterling Clark’s greatest love was for Renoir – he owned thirty-eight of his paintings, including the once magnificent A Box at the Theater (At the Concert) shown in two details below. Sterling died first in 1956 and his widow Francine died in 1960. Within three years of her death, pictures from the collection were being “restored” and (some) sold in breach of the terms of their generous bequest. The consequences were as horrendous as the deeds treacherous.

Above, Fig. 36: A detail (top) of the Clark’s Renoir A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), as seen as recently as in the Clark’s 1996/7 exhibition catalogue “A Passion for Renoir: Sterling and Francine Clark Collection, 1916-1951″,

Above, Fig. 37: A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), as seen in the 2008 Courtauld Gallery catalogue “Renoir at the Theatre” exhibition. In all likelihood, the (typically disastrous) Renoir cleaning will have been carried out in so-called preparation for travel to and from the London Exhibition – and in all probability, this would have been the first time the picture had been cleaned and “restored”. (For more information on the systematic institutional abuse of the Clarks’ bequest, see Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners.)

On Francine Clark’s death the first of what were to be two radical and utterly deranging restorations of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water was under way at the hands of a then leading restorer, William Suhr (below, Fig. 38) after which only traces of the nearer steamboat survived.

Above, Fig. 39: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights… after its 2003 restoration by David Bull during which the last traces of the nearer steamboat were removed.

For every restoration there is an apologia. With this picture’s second restoration in forty years (which restoration, once again, preceded a loan across the Atlantic) the story went like this: The painting had been falling apart; and, besides, seventy-five per cent of it consisted of earlier restorers’ repaint which had been applied to “disguise the evidence of some unknown earlier trauma”. Only by removing most of the present paint, could “a full understanding of what lay beneath” be achieved. After the removal – on the authority of the Clark Institute’s trustees – all parties responsible proclaimed a “resurrection” which had created “effectively a new picture”.

Brass cheek does not come bolder than that. This was indeed a new picture, no longer a Turner, more a Suhr-Bull. For one thing, one of the picture’s two original storm distressed coal-burning steamboats had disappeared under the waves with its former belching smoke converted nicely into a white water funnel. When our criticisms (initiated by the painter Edmund Rucinski) were first aired, a feeble, soon-abandoned, claim was made to the effect that the disappeared steamboat had been a 19th century restorer’s addition – another brazen defiance of reality given that the picture’s original title refered to boats, not boat, in distress. The evidence of there having indeed been an original second boat was overwhelming (see below) but there was no apology. Instead, the entire museum establishment, as if in complete solidarity with the Clark Institute (which lends loads of paintings), bigged-up the official line that this was somehow-still-a-Turner by proclaiming that the manifestly wrecked work had now become an especially desirable Turner.

At the time of the UK trip, the Tate Gallery issued a press release claiming that the picture comprised “one of the stars of the show…[having] recently undergone major conservation”. Credulous British art critics lapped up and regurgitated the claims. And they did so once again when this “Turner” returned to the UK for a Tate Liverpool show where Cy Twombly’s solipsistic scribbles and dribbles were flatteringly permed with works by Turner and Monet, no doubt helping the former’s reputation more than Turner’s or Monet’s. We repeated the criticisms to no discernable effect. In 2014 an extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – yes, the now notorious Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to celebrate that particular wrecked and critically challenged work had passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observed in the spring 2014 issue of Turner Society News:

“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights… The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”

By this point the museum establishment had, in truth, passed beyond all reason. The wreck was not just billed as a star of the show, it was flaunted in every advertisement, publication cover, billboard and online marketing venue – see From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures. The message to critics seemed Clinton-esque: “We do it, because we can”.

For the record: Proofs that Turner really had painted two Steamboats

Above, (top) Fig. 40: Detail of an 1852 (14 stages) chromolithographic copy by Robert Carrick of Turner’s 1840 oil painting Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water. Note particularly the detailed depiction of the distressed steamboat and crew members on the right.

Above, (centre) Fig. 41: The steamboat as recorded in a photograph of 1896 (shown by courtesy of Christie’s).

Above, Fig. 41: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights… (detail) after its 2003 restoration by David Bull when the last traces of the nearer steamboat had been removed and the painting was fast approaching the appearance of a 20th-century abstract painting.

Contender No. 11: Location unknown

We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On 16 June 2012, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s Baigneuse of 1888. Even on the evidence of a single de-saturated newsprint reproduction it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often.

Renoir’s Baigneuse had been given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale. While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs were identified in the picture’s literature, none was reproduced. It was disclosed that the Renoir was to be included in a forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.

On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive – and quite stunningly fetching – pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members. We wondered whether the present condition of the picture might have contributed to the withdrawal. Without any knowledge of by whom the picture is owned, or by whom and how often it might have been restored, we are content to leave the photo-evidence of condition to speak, as it properly should, for itself. The three then and now pairs of photographic details below (Figs. 42-47) are drawn respectively from Michel Drucker’s 1944 “Renoir” and the 2012 Christie’s “Impressionist/Modern” sale catalogue cover.

Michael Daley – 8 May 2015.

A bodge too far: “Conservation’s” catalogue of blunders

Throughout the world, Museum folks will go to any length to achieve a “good press”. Press releases are never issued announcing freshly dropped, smashed, trampled or restoration-injured works of art but are confined to Good News stories. Bad news about the condition of works only ever…leaks out.

Accidents in museums are concealed for as long as possible or are artfully spun when disclosure is unavoidable. The National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, disclosed in 2000 that “museum employees are obliged to stifle their anxieties”. When, for example, a brand new state-of-the-art conservation standard synthetic board plinth collapsed under the weight of an important Renaissance marble sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, smashing it into a thousand pieces, photographs of the injuries were withheld and a suave assurance was given that all would be put back together within a couple of years. In the event, it took twelve years not two to reassemble this irreplaceable Humpty.
In museum circles even prolonged setbacks in conservation treatments provide eminently spinnable opportunities.
When restorers at the National Gallery in London were unable to reconfigure a skull they had stripped down during a BBC televised restoration (see The new relativisms and the death of authenticity), a long research programme was launched which resulted in a piece of computer-generated virtual reality being painted (along with fake lines of craquelure) into a Holbein picture.
At this very moment, the Met’s prolonged patch-up is being celebrated as a triumph of modern conservators’ scientifically aided collective brilliance. It is being said that the world is now much better prepared for the next marble figure to fall off its plinth. (It might be preferred that conservators build structurally sound plinths in the first place – or leave ancient sculptures on their ancient, period plinths.)


In Egypt a lightning-swift but mysterious treatment of an injury far less serious than those at the Metropolitan Museum – where plinths collapse and sculptures fall off walls – has captured the imagination of the world’s press (see below). It would seem that by grossly over-selling modern, “scientifically” armed conservators as infallible miracle-workers, museums have succeeded in making their routinely and successive mishaps all the more newsworthy and ever-richer providers of public merriment.

Above: a detail showing a repair to the beard of Tutankamun’s death mask, which is housed and displayed in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The Daily Telegraph reported that while some say the beard had been broken off by cleaners, other say that it had simply come loose (“Museum’s quick fix for King Tut’s broken beard: stick it back on with glue”). Three conservators, speaking anonymously, had given three different accounts of the injury, but all agreed that orders had come down for the repair to be made quickly. A tourist reported that the (“slapstick”) repair had been made last August in the museum, in front of a large crowd and without proper tools, as seen the Associated Press photograph below.

Above, top, the death mask before the accident.

Above, centre, the beard being re-attached to the mask. The Daily Mail reported:

“This is the moment the blue and gold braided beard on the burial mask of famed pharaoh Tutankhamun was hastily glued back on with the wrong adhesive, damaging the relic after it was knocked during cleaning…
The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,’ they added.
The curator said that the mask now shows a gap between the face and the beard, whereas before it was directly attached: ‘Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow’.
Another museum curator, who was present at the time of the repair, said that epoxy had dried on the face of the boy king’s mask and that a colleague used a spatula to remove it, leaving scratches.
The first curator, who inspects the artifact regularly, confirmed the scratches and said it was clear that they had been made by a tool used to scrape off the epoxy.”

Above, the repaired mask showing the ugly and disfiguring bodge. Mystery fuels both speculation and conflicted accounts. The Guardian’s take went as follows:

“Did bungling curators snap off Tut’s beard last year, and if so was it stuck back on with with the wrong kind of glue?
These are the allegations levelled at the Egyptian Museum, the gloomy, under-funded palace in central Cairo where Tutankhamun’s bling is housed. Employees claim the beard was dislodged in late 2014 during routine maintenance of the showcase in which Tut’s mask is kept…The director of the museum, Mahmoud el-Halwagy, and the head of its conservation department, Elham Abdelrahman, strenuously denied the claims yesterday. Halwagy says the beard never fell off and nothing has happened to it since he was appointed director in October.”

Above, the Daily Telegraph’s (incomparable) “Matt”, 24 January 2015. See also: “By Tutankhamen’s beard: worst ever botched restorations”; and, “King Tut’s broken beard and other art disasters”; “King Tut’s beard ‘hastily glued back on with epoxy'”.

Above, the Times (“Tut’s beard in restoration comedy”) produced the most elaborate accompanying graphics, showing (top) a fresco from Tutankhamun’s tomb that is being devoured by the pollution and humidity introduced by as many as 1,000 visitors a day, as well as the mask and its injury to the beard. In the April 19/20 FT Weekend Magazine, Peter Aspden (“Welcome to the age of ‘Facsimile tourism'”) described an attempt to thwart the destructive cycle of decay and damaging restoration inside the tomb by diverting its visitors to a life-size three-dimensional facsimile. (Our complaint that restorers have long been “turning unique and irreplaceable artworks into facsimiles of their supposed original selves” was cited in the article.)

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 “The ‘World’s worst restoration’ and the death of authenticity”). The distressed restorer took to her bed as people queued to see her infamous monkey-faced Christ and, wishing to preserve the hilarity, over 5,000 wags signed a petition to block Professorial Conservationists attempts to “return the painting to its pre-restoration glory” – as if such an outcome might credibly be in prospect.

When Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of Ecce Homo – Behold the Man caused the work to be dubbed Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey the Church authorities threatened to sue – and then quickly levied a visitors’ charge when the church became an overnight tourist attraction with Ryanair offering cut-price flights from the United Kingdom. With everyone in the world beginning to appreciate that restorations really can damage art, conservation lobbyists swiftly attempted to counter the professionally menacing dawning realisation. What caused particular alarm was recognition that although Giménez’s restoration may have been an extreme case, it was not an aberration within wider professional conservation practices – as we demonstrated in “The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators”. (See also “Restoration Tragedies: A ruinous attempt to repaint a Spanish fresco has highlighted the dangers of art restoration” in the 23 August 2012 Sunday Telegraph.)

On 23 October 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported how a Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration of a Qing dynasty temple fresco (above) left the work entirely obliterated by luridly colourised re-painting. That crime against world-ranking art and heritage came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple claimed that the restoration had
been “an unauthorised project” – in China, as if. (See NEW YEAR REPORT.)



The present museum world rupture between words and pictorial realities is the product of an over-heating international scramble to produce money-spinning blockbuster exhibitions. The director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell, boasted that:
“no one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestry we had here a few years ago, where there were forty-five tapestries on show. The politics involved, the financing involved, the leverage, and the expertise involved: No one else had that. We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe, of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects”.
After prising and pulling together works from all corners (see “How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures”), curators of temporary exhibitions write as if blind to the most glaring differences of condition seen in the assembled works of an oeuvre, and as if ignorant of all restoration-induced controversies. This critical failure to address the variously altered states of pictures manifestly corrupts scholarship and confers international respectability on damaging local restoration practices. (See “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”.)

In our 2 February 2011 account of the European Commission’s desire to speed the “trafficking” (as it were) of art
objects between European museums (“The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”), we cited the following rationale by Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, in her introduction to the brochure “The Culture Programme – 2007-2013”:

“I am especially happy to highlight the importance of culture to the European Union’s objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. At a time when many of our industries are facing difficulties, the cultural and creative industries have experienced unprecedented growth and offer the prospect of sustainable, future-oriented and fulfilling jobs.”

Michel Favre-Felix, President of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), drew our attention to the work shown below. It is a 14th century polychrome sculpture of Saint-Bernard. During the Benedictus Pater Europae exhibition (Gand 1981), the statue was knocked over, with the resulting loss of the major part of its face. Insurers insisted that the injuries stemmed from “pre-existing fragilities”. In 1991 the art insurer Hiscox stated that risks for works of art were ten times higher when on loan than when left at home. In 2007 Axa Art in France estimated the risks in loan venues to be six times higher than in permanent residences.
(The photograph by courtesy of © R.H.Marijnissen.)


In 2008, the National Gallery’s Beccafumi panel Marcia (below) was dropped and smashed when being removed from a temporary exhibition at the gallery. (See Attacked Poussins at the National Gallery.) Insurance cover was not involved
but the consequences of the accident were enormous. The panel was immediately re-glued (without authorisation by any other than the chairman of the board of trustees and the head of conservation who was also the then acting director) and repainted. The painting is one of pair from a larger suite of works. The Marcia and her sister panel, the undamaged Tanaquil, were not returned to the main galleries after the incident. Instead, they were both consigned to the gloom of the gallery’s reserve collection which could be accessed by the public for only a few hours each week. (The reserve collection galleries have recently been turned into a gallery proper that shows fewer works – and not the Beccafumi Two. Other restoration embarrassments have disappeared from view. On an embarrassingly well-preserved Giampietrino, see The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration.)

Some time later that incident was disclosed on the gallery’s website among the board minutes. After we reported the accident in our Journal, the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, made a copy of an internal report and photographs of the smashed painting available to us. For once, there was no cover-up, and the lesson seemed clear to all. But the damage done to an important pair of paintings is forever. Any movement of a fragile Renaissance panel – even within a gallery – constitutes a risk. Unnecessary movements constitute unnecessary risks. The National Gallery’s restorers made a whole series of mega-bungles with some of its greatest large works, such as Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Sebastiano’s The Raising of Lazarus, and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières. Such works were glued down – flattened – onto sheets of Sundeala Board – a proprietary board made of compressed paper. That board has proved unsuitable. It has lost its initial rigidity and now flexes alarming when handled or moved. Not all of conservation’s clowns live in Egypt, Spain or China.

Instead of retreating, museums are advancing. At the British Museum even the holdings of Parthenon sculptures are
now being harvested for exchange loans of irreplaceable masterpieces. Calamity awaits. The Vatican, having wrecked Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, is to loan one of the great classical works that informed the artist’s treatments of the nude figure – the Belvedere Torso – to the British Museum. Museum directors are presently binging on the institutional benefits of playing global impresarios/ambassadors with the greatest art that is held in trust. Museums are increasingly being turned from havens into transit depots. Such practices are unthinkably irresponsible. They would not likely be indulged if trustees were held personally liable for losses and injuries.

24 January 2015

The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size

27 May 2013

“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”

~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.

“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”

T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.

It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” [2]. Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)

Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.

The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.

A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”

In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.

When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).

How Doubts became Denials

With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:

Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”

This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:

The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”

Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:

But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:

Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”

Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.

The “New Michelangelo”

The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:

Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.

Further Material Evidence of Injury

Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.

Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics

In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.

To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”

An Artist Thwarted

The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.

Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).

An Artist Heeded

When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.

Shooting the Messengers

When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:

“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation. “Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another… “To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?” “If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”

In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:

“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”

If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:

“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore. “None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”

Traditional Slurs

At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed 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 we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “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.”

Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”

In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.

The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It

When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.

Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.

Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:

Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”

As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy [3], had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.

Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity

In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.

Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship

In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) [4]. He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”

This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)

Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory

Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:

When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”

Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”

Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.

Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt

As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:

The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]

While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:

Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”

That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet […] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)

The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition

Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.

Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”

After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”

On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”

Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:

I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”

A Restorer’s Response

Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.

Hope’s Riposte

Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all. [5] In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:

I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”

Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities

Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?

In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).

Mr MacGregor’s Choice

Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:

Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”

MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.

Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods

In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.'”

Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.

The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?

The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather 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.”

Gombrich’s Vindication

Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had 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”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.

Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:

Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”

We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters'”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.

It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating: “One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.” Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”

Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):

With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”

Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.

Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner [6]. He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance: “There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.” Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”

Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.

By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:

The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.” And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”

Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.


Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.

Michael Daley


1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987. 2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London. 3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists. 4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.) 5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: 6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.” For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.

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Above, Fig. 1a: A copy of Michelangelo’s Prophet Jonah. This wash drawing by Giulio Clovio and owned by Rugby School of Art, England, is the single most compelling and illuminating indication of the nature of the restoration injuries to Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling.
It records in its bottom corners parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but then destroyed by 1534 when preparing the altar wall for his Last Judgement. It is therefore a record of how Michelangelo’s painting appeared before the frescoes had become dirty and before any restorer had approached the ceiling. Crucially, and like so many subsequent copies, it shows that Michelangelo had painted with dramatic lighting effects which modelled his figures strongly in relief and caused them to cast shadows onto surrounding surfaces. Moreover, this pronounced Light/Dark pictorial system is seen to have been applied consistently to all figures, including the decorative sculpted children who adorned the architecture or performed subsidiary tasks such as supporting name plates. The cast shadow here seen attached to Jonah’s left foot was thus present from the very beginning. It could not have been an accumulation of soot from candles or braziers, or a later restorer’s addition, or an optical illusion created by darkening restorers’ “varnishes”, as have variously and collectively been suggested. (In truth, there is no record of any restorer applying any varnishes across the ceiling.) This was Michelangelo’s own entirely autograph cast shadow and it was included in every copy of the Jonah (see Fig. 1b below). It had survived for over four and a half centuries but was removed during the last restoration – as seen in Fig. 1c below.
There can be no grounds for disregarding Clovio’s testimony – and as Charles Hope noted (below left), none had been offered by supporters of the restoration. If Michelangelo had not constructed his figures and spaces in the manner recorded, how or why would Clovio have imposed those values? Vasari described Clovio as “the Michelangelo of small works” who had “far surpassed all others in this exercise.” This drawing’s recorded values are entirely consistent with all contemporary accounts of the ceiling when it was unveiled and there are no grounds for rejecting this testimony. Because the restored ceiling was no longer consistent with this (and other copies) or with the contemporary records, the restorers called for – were indeed obliged to call for – a new history to be written to accomodate the (spurious) “New Michelangelo” for whom they wished to claim credit.
Above, Fig. 1b: copies of Jonah, left, by Rados, engraving, 1805-10; right, drawing by Conca, 1823-29. Below, Fig. 1c: Michelangelo’s Jonah, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right).
Above, Figs. 2 and 3: The right foot of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as found after cleaning and retouching. We assume that no one would claim that Michelangelo intended the foot to be seen in its present condition, or dispute that these two photographs record a grossly injured passage of painting. The present double image is the bodged outcome of the wrongful removal (by accident or following a misdiagnosis of the surface painting) of a revised foot that Michelangelo had superimposed over an originally positioned foot. That now-destroyed later foot was copied in countless graphic works.
Above, Fig. 4: The Libyan Sibyl’s left foot, sans cast shadow, after “cleaning”. As with Figs. 2 and 3, we had thought when publishing this image in the 1993 book “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, that support for this outcome would not be forthcoming. We were wrong. The restorer Helen Glanville, writing in The Art Newspaper (see below), offered the following defence: “after cleaning, Michelangelo’s alteration in the outline of the Libyan Sibyl’s foot can be seen more clearly”. This was written, presumably, in the belief that Michelangelo had intended to depict a heel not rounded but that came to a point? For an indication of the horrendous injuries and tonal losses inflicted on this foot – and the rest of the figure – see Fig. 60.
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette. When this photograph was published in 1986, the co-director of the restoration, (the late) Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli said of the painting method on the lunettes:
Technically speaking, the lunettes are all executed in buon fresco…with nothing done a secco and without even those retouchings which were normal to harmonize the painting when the intonaco had dried too quickly or when one giornata differed excessively from those of the previous day. Michelangelo made sure to use only those colours that he knew were suitable to fresco: …the greens are ferrous silicates…Further, where there are corrections, the colours of the colouring-over are water-soluble and have mixed into the plaster.”
When we drew attention to the incompatibility of that account with the injury seen in the photograph above, where both greens and yellows that had been painted over underlying flesh and costume perished (letter, Michael Daley to Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, 27 May 1990), the account was changed and it was acknowledged that “a green colour applied a secco, not always well conserved, was found”.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail from Michelangelo’s The Punishment of Haman containing, in its centre wedge-shaped section, a repair made made by the painter Domenico Carnevale in 1566 or shortly after.
No technical proof of a restoration-injury could be clearer than Carnevale’s repair here to the lost section of Michelangelo’s painting that ran through the centre of the figure above. Carnevale had replaced the plaster and while it was still wet, painted it to match Michelangelo’s adjoining colours and tones. Carnevale’s paintwork ceased to match Michelangelo’s painting when his finishing glue/size additions were removed (with AB 57 and copious washing) during the restoration. It is artistically inconceivable that Michelangelo had painted flatly and without sculptural/tonal modulations, as today seen today in the outer flanking sections of painting. Even if he had he done so, it would then be no less inconceivable that Carnevale would have repainted the lost central section with lashings of black shading that did not match Michelangelo’s then surviving painting.
On Carnevale’s highly skilfully matched repairs to Michelangelo’s painting elsewhere on the ceiling, see Alessandro Conti’s comments at Fig. 48a and 48b.
How Michelangelo’s Ceiling was Undone:
Above, Fig. 7: National Geographic’s beautifully balanced record of December 1989 (here flipped) by Victor R. Boswell, Jr., showing (in the bottom section, below the restorers’ scaffold) the last moments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as it had been finished by Michelangelo and as it met the top of the Last Judgement. Note how closely linked were the the generally dark tonalities of the ceiling and the Last Judgement and how in both, the figures advanced towards the viewer from within the prevailing darknesses – the very effects which had been reported by Michelangelo’s contemporaries and recorded in copies made from the earliest days of the ceiling. Note, too, how in the central figure of Jonah, the shadow cast by his left foot could still be seen clearly, even at this considerable optical distance – after four and a half centuries and through whatever degree of dirt was then present. As recalled left, the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, likened the cleaning changes to seeing Beethoven turning into Mozart during “a memorable piece of theatre.” Januszczak was even more (debunkingly) delighted with the final result:
The windshield wiper has finished its journey across the greatest painting in Western art. In my opinion it has made that painting substantially greater by celebrating it as the work of of a rational, hardworking, colourful human rather than some sweaty impulsive, God-driven genius.”
Above, Fig. 8: The chapel, as seen when all parts had been cleaned. A comparison of this photograph with that at Fig. 7, shows that the former unity of tones between the Last Judgement and the adjacent ceiling has been ruptured. The darks that had been common to both were vital to the creation of spatial depth and atmosphere. In the not-yet-cleaned section of the ceiling in Fig. 7, it is striking how the architectural elements had seemed brighter, even when their surfaces had not been cleaned. This is because, in art, all values are relative and a given, actual tone can be made lighter or darker simply by altering the values of its neighbouring tones. In the ceiling before cleaning, we see how Michelangelo created pools of darkness in the corners of the intersecting architectural borders so as to evoke recesses from which his figures emerged. After “cleaning”, the previously strong drapery colours are no longer subsumed within overall tonal schemes but float about, catching the eye arbitrarily. This new configuration of effects was deftly described by Charles Hope (see left) as as one in which:
Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion.”
That grandeur and restraint had been hard earned over four years of punishing painting. The uncleaned section of ceiling shown above at Fig.7 was the last part to be painted. It contained Michelangelo’s greatest figural inventions and his most considered and successful orchestrations. It constituted a stupendous finale that for a generation awaited his Last Judgement. Separating the one from the other with chemically-induced tonal and chromatic variations was a dreadful lapse of judgement.
How the Injured Ceiling Came to Britain:
Above, Fig. 9: The cover of the Sunday Times colour magazine of 20 December 1987 carrying a composite juxtaposition of photographs showing the head seen below at Fig. 10, when partly cleaned, partly uncleaned. (There has been some fading on the right-hand edge of this copy of the magazine, but the indication of the relative values of the two states is a fair one.)
Above, Fig. 10: The head of Michelangelo’s ignudo situated above the top left-hand corner of the ceiling panel depicting the Sacrifice of Noah, details of which are shown below at Figs. 48a and 48b, as discussed by Alessandro Conti. Note how in this large plate of 1965, the colours are strong and the modelling is stronger. Note the then survival of the pupil in the man’s left eye. Note the then strength of the locks of hair behind the brow, and the sharpness of the drawing at the nostrils.
Above, Figs. 11a and 11b: The comparison here of a detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling before and after cleaning was published in the Sunday Times magazine on 20 December 1987. It instantly convinced this author that the “cleaning” was damaging on the following grounds: if the after-cleaning state (as shown above right) had truly recovered the original appearance as left by Michelangelo in 1512, there could be no plausible explanation of how the painting might then have progressed towards the greater degrees of finish, modelling and sharpness that were seen (left) to have existed underneath the dirt immediately before the “cleaning”. The official suggestions that the superior passages of modelling seen before cleaning were fortuitous by-products of accumulations of soot from braziers and candles and from discoloured restorers’ “varnishes” were technically preposterous. The reinforcement of drapery folds with dark shadows (as seen left) is too closely related to the designs to have been accidental. Similarly, no accidental and arbitrary proccesses could have sharpened the drawing of the oak leaves and, even, added veins to the leaves. To any artistically-trained eye, it is self-evident that the post-cleaning state shown here records an abraded version of the original values that had survived underneath all grime until the time of the last restoration. Moreover, had a disfiguring film been safely removed from an underlying image, the values and relationships that were previously visible in that image underneath the film would have emerged with greatly increased, not diminished, force. The lights would have appeared lighter and the darks darker. Here, more was visible underneath the dirty surface than remained after the cleaning. The difference between the two enables the viewer to callibrate the extent of injury that occurred during the cleaning.
The First British Challenge to the Restoration
Above, Fig. 12: The cover of the Independent on Sunday’s review magazine of 25 March 1990 which contained Michael Daley’s first article on the Sistine ceiling restoration. Over the next five years, the author published the following material on restorations (and attributions) in Italy and at the National Gallery:
“Quella sporca Sistina”, Europeo, September 1990; “As Good as New?” The Times Educational Supplement, 18 January 1991; “Modern conservation techniques always involve element of risk”, The Independent, 20 March 1991; “Dark Genius Brushed Off by Opal Fruits”, The Independent, 27 April 1991 (a review of Waldemar Januszczak’s book “Sayonara Michelangelo”); “Daylight Forgery”, The Independent, 17 August 1991; “Sistine Restoration Remains Veiled in Mystery”, The Journal of Art, September 1991; “A Crime Against the Artist”, The Independent, 22 November 1991; “Restoration Drama”, The Times Educational Supplement, 17 April 1992; “Sistine Restoration”, The Times, letter, 5 June 1992; “Solvent Abuse”, The Spectator, 30 January 1993; “White Ties v. White Coats”, The London Review of Books, letter, 11 March 1993; “Double glazing”, The Spectator, letter, 20 March 1993; “A Restoration Tragedy”, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 4 June 1993; “Artful Bodgers”, The Sunday Times, 6 June 1993; “The Varnished Truth”, Art Review, November 1993; “Clarity on questions of classic restoration”, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, letter, 6 May 1994; “I’m right and you’re wrong on restoration”, Letter, The Art Newspaper, May 1994; “No anatomical logic in Michelangelo’s defence”, The Independent, 29 September 1994; “How to Make a Michelangelo”, Art Review, October 1994; “Michelangelo’s other David”, The Spectator, letter, 15 October 1994; “Open Letter” [on the National Gallery’s restoration of Holbein’s “the Ambassadors”] Art Review, May 1995; “Solvent Misuse”, New Scientist, 12 August 1995.
Above, Fig. 13: A photo-comparison of the before and after cleaning appearances of a detail of the mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette, as published in “Michelangelo: Lost or Found?” by Michael Daley in the Independent on Sunday’s review magazine of 25 March 1990.
Above, Fig. 14: The mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette, as seen before restoration (left) and after (right). If the detail examined in Figs. 11a and 11b posed problems for supporters of the restoration, this comparison of one of the giant figure groups is crushingly impossible to explain away. Once again, it must be asked: if the cleaned state on the right had constituted a recovery of original painting, by what means had so many tonal values and relations been altered or, even, inverted so that light-on-dark became dark-on-light? By the same token, why did relationships that were previously evident underneath the grime change character and emerge with diminished, not enhanced, pictorial vivacity?
Conflicted Accounts: Shadows V. Non-Shadows
Above, Figs. 15 and 16: Left, the 1993 first edition (publisher: John Murray, London) of “Art Restoration”, showing the Prophet Jonah before cleaning – and, therefore, when still retaining the left foot’s cast shadow, as first recorded before 1534 by Giulio Clovio and as seen here at Fig. 1. Right, the book/catalogue (publisher, National Gallery Publications) for Sir Ernst Gombrich’s 1995 National Gallery exhibition on the depiction of cast shadows in Western art, showing a detail of a painting by a follower of Rembrandt. Gombrich warned his reader/viewers that the book/exhibition would not “offer a coherent history of cast shadows in art”. He was as good as his word: claiming that cast shadows had not been employed by Renaissance artists, he failed to discuss the work of either Michelangelo or Raphael, suggesting by implication that neither had employed cast shadows – when, as will be seen, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Above, Fig. 17: A preview of “Art Restoration” by Martin Gayford in the Daily Telegraph that carried (left) a reproduction of Masaccio’s Saint Peter’s shadow healing a cripple in the fresco cycle at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. One of the most striking features of Masaccio’s short life is that his Brancacci Chapel paintings came to be, as James Beck put it in “Art Restoration”, “copied and studied by the finest masters of the time, headed by Michelangelo, and were thought of as an unofficial school for artists”.
Sir Ernst Gombrich’s Bizarre Historical Disjunction
Above, Fig. 18: The St. Peter incident was a landmark in Gombrich’s Story of Shadows but only insofar as the event “could hardly have been rendered in the idiom of Masaccio’s predecessors”. For Gombrich, this was a great pictorial advance that began and ended immediately with Masaccio, after whom painting became a cast shadows-free zone until the “taboo was lifted in the seventeenth century” by the “pivotal” intervention of Caravaggio. This thesis was perverse and demonstrably untrue. The reason offered for this alleged shadows-free interegnum – specifically for “why so many artists of the Cinquecento withheld their attention from cast shadows” – is said in mystifyingly circular fashion somehow to have been explained by the fact that “There is hardly a function of cast shadows that is not illustrated by Caravaggio’s dramatic painting [ The Supper at Emmaus, here shown at Fig. 27].
Above, Fig. 19: Raphael’s The healing of the lame man. A detail of the St Peter and St John from the Raphael Cartoons in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It must be considered inconceivable that Gombrich was unaware of this image or likely to have been surprised by its echo of Masaccio’s treatment. So why did he neglect Raphael, whose cartoons for the fabled tapestries of the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel constitute one the greatest cycles of the Renaissance? We know that these cartoons were made in full consciousness of Michelangelo’s recently unveiled cast shadows-full Sistine Chapel ceiling, the force of which had so swamped and excited the younger artist that he was said instantly to have put aside all things Perugino. Why, then, drop both of these great masters from an account of cast shadows?
This particular image is potent in many artistic and art historical respects. Where Fabrizio Mancinelli claimed that colour had had for Michelangelo “a primary structural role”; that it had enabled him to “abandon almost altogether traditional chiaroscuro modelling”, we see that Raphael had clearly drawn a very different conclusion. Already, from his Ansidei Madonna of 1505, shown below at Figs. 22 and 23, we know that Raphael enjoyed a perfect grasp of the principles of tonal manipulation to sculptural and spatial ends. We can see here above that he took from Michelangelo the realisation that chiaroscuro was susceptible to immensely monumental and dramatically expressive pictorial purposes; that chiaroscuro itself can be used for a primary structural purpose within picture-making; that its lights and shades could be used not just to describe forms within a figure but to leap about figural groups, accentuating and/or uniting potentially disparate elements within a work’s overarching design; becoming, in short, a pictorially enriching compositional tool as well as a plastically descriptive one.
Leonardo’s Literary Testimony:
Above, Fig. 20: In his depiction of Christ’s charge to St. Peter, Raphael shows the saint’s shadow falling across Christ’s feet and neatly eclipsing the light on the toes of his left foot. This could hardly have been a little-considered feature of so monumental a work.
Against such artistic realities, Gombrich held that Leonardo’s writings provided “impeccable literary testimony” for his contention that Cinquecento artists had eschewed cast shadows. He asserted: “We soon realise that some of the greatest observers of nature appear to have deliberately avoided the cast shadow…they show us a shadowless world” (emphasis added). He then elaborated (without examples): “It looks indeed as if many of these masters had studiously avoided inserting such shadows, as if they regarded them as a disturbing and distracting element in an otherwise coherent and harmonious composition.” (Emphasis added.)
As if? But where is the beef? Gombrich took it to lie in this short passage in Leonardo’s Notes (Trattato della Pittura):
Light too conspicuously cut off by shadows is exceedingly disapproved of by painters. Hence, to avoid such awkwardness when you depict bodies in open country, do not make your figures appear illuminated by the sun, but contrive a certain amount of mist or of transparent cloud to be placed between the object and the sun and thus – since the object is not harshly illuminated by the sun – the outlines of the shadows will not clash with the outlines of the lights.”
And yet we see above that Raphael designed and composed with harsh lights and shadows in open country to be transposed (as below) into fabulously expensive tapestries to be shown on special occasions underneath Michelangelo’s frescoes.
Above, Fig. 21: Above, a detail from the Vatican’s tapestry The conversion of Saul as designed by Raphael and woven by astonishingly talented Flemish weavers. Saul is brilliantly lit by the Light of God and stumbles at its revelatory power. He, the fleeing Christians, and their persecuting soldiers, all have stark shadows cast by God’s radiant light.
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: Details of the National Gallery’s Raphael Ansidei Madonna. Had Gombrich not banished Renaissance cast shadows, he might well have included this picture from the Gallery’s collection in his own exhibition. It comprises a veritable showcase of cast shadow types (- and it did so nearly a hundred years before Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, shown at Fig. 27). As seen in this pre-1938 photograph, there are simple shadows cast by rectilinear blocks; shadows cast by bare feet (which are always tricky things to depict); and, a tour de force demonstration of a cast shadow projected onto the shaded concave surface on the Virgin’s throne that might be taken to constitute a textbook demonstration of Alberti’s instruction that planes should “take their variations from the changing of place and of light”.
Above, Fig. 24: This detail is intriguing. Having to draw lots of fluted barley twist columns is a nightmare in any draughtsman’s book, but Raphael went further, insinuating panels of complex sculptural decoration. Where Michelangelo had confined his putti to flat surfaces (as behind the two Prophets below) Raphael affixes his to doubly curving surfaces. Moreover, many of the carved details of relief are (improbably) shown as if carved in the round, so as to cast their own tiny shadows – as with the vine stems, for example. Might this little self-inflicted labour have been thought by Raphael to constitute a “Protogenes’ Riposte” to the Apelles of his time?
Gombrich’s Great Raphael Joke
Above, Fig 25: Gombrich ran this photo-comparison of Michelangelo’s Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah in his 1987 (republished) essay “The Rhetoric of Attribution ~ a cautionary tale”, where, as discussed opposite, he attributed the Ezekiel – cast shadows and all – to Raphael, while under the influence of Leonardo.
Giampietrino’s Neglected Testimony, Part I
Above, Fig. 26: A detail of Giampietrino’s full-size copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. As we will see, Giampietrino is an artist who appears to have been cast into some outer art historical darkness. Where Gombrich adduced evidence from the National Gallery’s Caravaggio The Supper at Emmaus of 1601 (as shown below) – and in Leonardo’s “impeccable literary testimony” – for why Cinquecento artists had eschewed cast shadows, we find contrary material testimony in this Giampietrino copy, that Leonardo himself, in his Last Supper of 1492-7/8, had been casting solid shadows from his bread, and translucent ones from his glass vessels, when he should have been doing no such thing having outlawed it in his own words while being trapped historically inside Gombrich’s shadowless interregnum.
Gombrich’s Game-Changer
Above, Fig. 27: The National Gallery’s Caravaggio The Supper at Emmaus may be in better condition than Leonardo’s too-often, too-radically restored Last Supper, and than Michelangelo’s recently restored Sistine ceiling, but there can be no grounds for accrediting him with a single-handled revival of strongly cast shadows, for the first time since Masaccio and Robert Campin, for the good reason that cast shadows had never gone away. Gombrich sees Caravaggio’s cast shadows on the tablecloth as “harsh” and therefore likely to have offended the traditionalists who had preceded him on the grounds that had they known of them they would have judged them to “interfere with the clarity of the composition”. Caravaggio, in Gombrich’s hands thus becomes a kind of “Doctor Who” time traveller, capable of inhibiting those who preceded him by means of his pending example. At the same time, just as soon as he came into artistic existence and influence, “many artists of the seventeenth century were rapidly converted to Caravaggio’s idiom, and the tenebroso (dark) style conquered not only parts of Italy but also whole regions of the north where it culminated in the art of Rembrandt.”
Gombrich seems (on many grounds) not have been familiar with Charles Heath Wilson’s 1881 “Life and Works of Michelanglo Buonarroti”. In that book, when discussing Michelangelo’s use of cast shadows on the ceiling, Wilson wrote: “the shadows cast by the figures which sit in front of the white marble arch, with its piers cornice and moulding, are painted with Rembrandt-like vigour, and must at one time have given those figures complete relief against the bright and fair resemblance of marble, now so dingy and so unlike what it has been.” For these figure/architecture relationships see Figs. 1, 25 and 60.
Graphic Recollections of a Shadowy World
Above, Fig. 28: A detail of Giorgio Ghisi’s early 1570s copy of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl. This engraving establishes that the configuration of tonal relationships around and behind the Sibyl’s head were present within sixty years of the ceiling being unveiled. As seen in the not-recently-restored state of the fresco below, that essential set of relationships had survived for approaching five centuries, and therefore could not have been, as the restorers’ have claimed, a product of arbitrary accretions and disfigurations.
Above, Fig. 29: Consider the content of this pre-cleaned scene of Michelangelo’s. The Sibyl is engrossed in reading a Great Book. Behind the book are two putti. One is lighting a lamp, an activity which may have disturbed the second, who rubs his eyes as if awaking from slumber. The sleepy child is set in deep shadow/darkness. That surrounding gloom throws into relief the Sibyl’s brightly lit head, from which a dramatic shadow is cast on the wall behind. Why then, are these The Shadows That May Not Speak Their Name in Gombrich’s book? Why can art historians and critics no longer see and celebrate the brilliantly inventive and expressive purpose to which they had been put by Michelangelo? Would it really be fanciful heresy to suggest that Michelangelo might have been using lighting effects to expressive ends ahead of Rembrandt? Or, that he was using using light and darkness metaphorically for a portrayal of Spiritual Enlightenment? What purpose is served by truncating Michelangelo’s achievements?
Above, Fig. 30: The contrast between the state above, before the last restoration, and that found here, is astounding. The removal of the shaded zone behind the Sibyl has left the sleepy putto dark-skinned against a light, scrubbed-down wall – yet another inversion of artistic values, and not an enhancement of the previously existing values. Reading the three images above in sequence, we see a progressive diminuition of tonal strengths and variations. This phenomenon of the “stone-washed jeans syndrome” is virtually a given in pictures that fall too frequently under the swabs of restorers. It should be acknowledged that there is evidence of injuries before the last cleaning: in the 19th century, the painter Charles Heath Wilson complained of secco work on the ceiling having been destroyed in places after being “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. But the downwards optical jump of values is greater between the pre and post-cleaning photographs of the last restoration, when the scientists-backed “labouring men” of our times decided that none of the secco was Michelangelo’s and removed it all with watery gels containing two “caustics”, one of which brightened the colours, while the other dulled them.
A Restorer in Denial
Above, Figs. 31 and 32: The Erythraean Sibyl’s head before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). When we published the above comparison in 1993 (in “Art Restoration”), we came under fire in an Art Newspaper review of April 1994: “Vandals or saviours. Are scientists helping to destroy the world’s art? Helen Glanville, a restorer with an historical perspective, challenges the latest accusation made against her profession”.
Above, Fig. 33: As seen above, Glanville, complained of a caption that had read “…before cleaning, and afterwards with shading lost” and suggested an alternative reading: “the discoloured glue layers masked the high finish and subtlety of Michelangelo’s modelling, emphasising deepest shadow and highlighting and obliterating the delicate transition tones.” The suggestion was without merit: discoloured layers do not simultaneously brighten lights and darken darks in a fashion that enhances sculptural legibility. To the contrary, we repeat, they compress ranges of values and they reduce tonal vivacity.
If we look more closely into the two states of the head, as seen in the three pairs of comparative details below, we find specific differences that cannot possibly be explained away on a discoloured varnish hypothesis.
Above, Figs 34 (top) and 35: Discoloured varnish (superimposed on the after cleaning state) could not have shaded the corner of the mouth with dark hatched lines so as to cause it tuck into the forms of the face. Nor could it have redrawn the apperture of the nostril so as to enlarge it. Nor could it have arranged itself into hatched vertical lines so as to shade the slumbering putto to the right and throw the lit profile of the Sibyl’s face into relief.
Above, Figs. 36 (left) and 37: Discoloured varnish could not have improved the internal modelling encountered in the ear. It could not have drawn a sharp line around the ear lobe. One could go on because there is scarcely a detail that had not been embellished and clarified by Michelangelo. There is below yet another category of changes that Glanville overlooked.
Above, Figs. 38 (left) and 39: Michelangelo had changed the design of the head with his secco revisions. The plaited “pony tail” had been greatly enlarged and strengthened; the back of the neck had been extended and shaded so as to throw it into relief against the lighter architectural zone. Such changes are only ever products of artistic intent and purpose. They should never be mistaken for dirt and removed.
The Testimony of Brilliant Lighting Effects within the Graphic Tradition:
Above, Fig. 40: In his account of cast shadows, Gombrich joins the stream of graphic depictions in 1604 with a British Museum image (by Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz) that illustrates the fable of The Cave of Plato. (It is a philosophically interesting example, for sure, but it leapfrogs by half a century the brilliantly lit compendium of cast shadows set within Plato’s “academy” as shown below.) Had Gombrich begun with Georgio Ghisi’s suite of six engravings made in the early 1570s after Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls (including that of the Erythraean Sibyl shown above in detail at Fig. 28) the thesis of his National Gallery “Shadows” exhibition would have collapsed under the weight of its own implausibility. Every one of Ghisi’s engravings (made when the ceiling was only sixty years old) records strongly cast shadows that had survived well – if not intact – on the ceiling until the last restoration, as can be seen in Fig. 29.
Gombrich’s Neglected Graphic Testimony:
Above, Fig. 41: Enea Vico’s engraving of 1550 showing the studio or “academy” of Michelanglo’s rival Baccio Bandinelli. The testimony of such engraved records, like that of Giampietrino’s paintings, has been too little heeded in general terms, and was quite disastrously disregarded in the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting.
This copy is owned by the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which comments that Bandinelli had commissioned the engraving specifically to:
celebrate his achievements and pretensions as a teacher and man of learning. Vico conceived the artist’s workshop not as it must have looked but rather as a gentlemanly room peopled with industrious assistants in fashionable dress. Bandinelli himself appears at the extreme right in a garment adorned with a badge of knighthood, a sign of the rank he had recently received from Charles V. By equipping the studio with books and antiquities, Vico presents the making of art as an intellectual enterprise, and by naming the studio an “academy,” he associates it with Plato’s famous school. The foreground is strewn with classical statuary and human bones appropriate for anatomical study. Brilliant lamplight and flickering firelight cast evocative shadows and illuminate the figures bent over their work. Some of their poses and groupings are reminiscent of Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens, an analogy that further exalts the character of Bandinelli’s enterprise.”
A Second Stream of Testimony
The comments are fair and the reference to the depicted uses of brilliant light, highlights a widespread failure to recognise the remarkably dramatic lighting effects made by Michelangelo for all to see on the Sistine ceiling – and their great influence on his contemporaries. On the testimony of Vico’s engraved output alone, as seen above and below, the lie is given to the “shadowless world” advanced by Gombrich in his 1995 National Gallery exhibition. It is particularly to be regretted that such streams of artistic testimony are disregarded when they can have such direct bearing on the “conservation” of works of art. For one thing, their testimony is peculiarly reliable, owing to the fact that their unvarnished existences do not invite the adulterations of restorers.
Above, Fig. 42: If art historians can see connections between Michelangelo’s colours and those of the later Mannerists, why do they miss the connections between his systems of light and shadow and the brilliant working of that legacy in Mannerist print-makers? In Vico’s Mars and Venus a light every bit as brilliant as that seen in Gombrich’s choice above, at Fig. 40, is present. And, as for shadows, almost every last detail in the foreground (slippers, doves, cat, dog) sports its own cast shadow.
Above, Fig. 43: Gombrich’s second graphic example is a marvellously lucid and elegant image, but, again, it is one that helps moves his narration even further away from the Renaissance to 1684, when it appeared as an illustration within Roger de Piles’ “Elémens de la Peinture Pratique.” That particular graphic example had the virtue of linking to some nice definitions from Filippo Baldinucci’s “Vocabulario Toscano dell’Arte Designo” of 1681: “Shadow: The Darkness created by opaque bodies on the opposite side of the illuminated part”…”Shadow: In the language of painters it is generally understood to refer to more or less dark colour which serves in painting to give relief by gradually becoming lighter”…”Cast Shadow (sbattimento) is the shadow that is caused on the ground or elsewhere by the depicted object…” Again, this further throws the reader off the scent of the High Renaissance and its actual practices of depiction and its associated uses of cast shadows.
Michelangelo, of course, could not have known de Piles but he could hardly not have known Alberti’s “Della pittura” of 1435-6 – and what great pertinence that treatise might have had to Gombrich’s own ostensible, object of inquiry: over and above the great virtues of colours in painting, Alberti maintained, the uses of black and white were sovereign:
It is worth all your study and diligence to know these two [black and white paints] well, because light and shade make things appear in relief. Thus white and black make painted things appear in relief and win that praise which was given to Nicias the Athenian painter. They say that Zeuxis, a most famous antique painter, was almost the leader of the others in knowing the force of light and shade; little much praise was given to the others. I almost always consider mediocre the painter who does not understand well the strength of every light and shade in each plane. I say the learned and the unlearned praise those faces which, as though carved, appear to issue out of the panel…”
Could any head have better exemplified the wisdom of Alberti’s observations than Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl? And had Paolo Giovio not celebrated the fact that Michelangelo had given “such great emphasis to the light in contrast to the shade that even knowledgeable artists were induced to believe in the truth of the figures he painted and to see what was flat as solid”? Had not Vasari marvelled at Michelangelo’s precise ability to portray even “the divine majesty” in “the firm and tangible terms that human beings understand”? Had not Vasari further disclosed that Michelangelo “first made models in clay or wax, and from these, because they remain stationary, he took the outlines, the lights and the shadows, rather than from the living model”? In 1525 Giovio had testified that Michelangelo “used a gradually diminishing light to suggest some figures in the distance, almost hidden”. Condivi (in reality a mouthpiece for Michelangelo himself, it has been suggested) held the Prophet Jonah, who sprang from the centre top of the Last Judgement, the “most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of the light and the shadow the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eyes and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.” Vasari was no less impressed: “Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting springs forward, following the line of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which ends in the opposite direction; and thus vanquished by the art of design with its lights and shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.”
Above, top, Fig. 44 (detail) and 45: Cornelis Bos’ copy of 1530-50 of Michelangelo’s (now lost) Leda and the Swan.
One of the miracles of drawn copies in black on white is the virtuosity and precision with which tones can be calibrated, orchestrated and fixed. Not only does this copy convince us that Michelangelo had used cast shadows on his (late) panel painting, but that he had indeed employed tones as a means of establishing aerial perspective: note how the two putti (as so often on the Sistine ceiling) are set in deep shadow and themselves toned down markedly vis-a-vis the limbs of Leda. Does the artfully thrown (and shaded) drape behind the action not itself testify to a vast indebtedness to this picture, by Bronzino in his great allegory of c. 1540-5 Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time?
Above, Fig. 46: the National Gallery’s painted copy of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan, as seen in 1964.
Giampietrino’s Neglected Testimony, Part II
Above, Fig. 47: The National Gallery’s Christ carrying his Cross by Giampietrino, c.1510-30, oil on panel.
The significance of this painting by a close follower of Leonardo has been underplayed at the National Gallery and more generally overlooked by art historians. (For a fuller discussion, see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration”.) It has an especial significance with regard to Gombrich’s 1995 National Gallery exhibition on cast shadows in Western painting.
The Leonardo Connection
Giampietrino was a close and trusted associate of Leonardo. He painted the full sized copy of the Last Supper that the Royal Academy loaned to Milan so that it might inform the massive amounts of repainting that took place during the last restoration. Note that this picture consists of generally dark values against which the figure is (relatively) brilliantly illuminated. The light does not fall on Christ as if through some hypothesized cloud or mist. It does so dramatically and selectively. A trio of brightest lights pick out Christ’s right brow and cheek, his shoulder, and his forearm – across which, at the wrist, the dramatically cast shadow from his shoulder falls in defiance of Leonardo’s injunction to avoid clashing outlines of shadows and lights – much as it was ignored by Raphael on the Christ’s left arm as seen in Fig. 20. There was a peculiarly poignant irony in Gombrich’s failure to attend to the testimony of this painting.
While Gombrich’s show was running, this painting was one of two Giampietrinos undergoing restoration and technical investigation. This painting confirmed (for reasons given opposite) that Gombrich’s objections to the National Gallery’s cleaning policy during the 1950s and 1960s had been perfectly well founded. Those findings were published the following year in the National Gallery’s annual Technical Bulletin but the Gallery neglected to draw Gombrich’s attention to this vindicating research (see below, left).
The Contorted Testimony
Having contended, against so much contrary graphic and pictorial evidence, that cast shadows in painting had popped out of existence during the High Renaissance, Gombrich then claimed, that they re-emerged every bit as swiftly in the painting of Caravaggio as they had disappeared after Masaccio. That Gombrich’s method here should have been so profoundly “un-Gombrichian” was sad to behold, but such was his esteem and aura that he appeared to sweep all along with him.
Credulous Critics
It seemed as if the merest incantation of the art term that has become such a fetish in recent scholarship – Tenebrism – could dissolve all critical faculties. Richard Cork of the Times, a strong supporter of the Sistine ceiling restoration (and that of Leonardo’s Last Supper), swallowed and regurgitated the specious bait whole:
A superb small show at the National Gallery, where the eminent art historian E. H. Gombrich opens our eyes to the shadows cast in Western art. Surprisingly few painters included shadows in the Renaissance for fear of spoiling the harmony of their compositions. But then Caravaggio arrived, acting like a dramatic lighting director who revels in extremes of brightness and gloom…The show is a quiet revelation, which makes us look at the rest of the National Gallery’s collection in a new light.”
Alessandro Conti on Domenico Carnevale’s Match with Michelangelo:
Above, Fig. 48a: Michelangelo’s Noah’s Sacrifice before the last restoration, and as published in Alessandro Conti’s “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art”, London, 2007. Large sections of this passage had fallen away when the ceiling was only 53 years old. The losses here were repaired (as with that shown in Fig. 6) by the painter Domenico Carnevale. Conti described Carnevale’s repairs in the following terms:
As a result of the subsidence of 1565, an actual reintegration of the intonaco [and hence paint layer] had been necessary in the vault painted by Michelangelo. Between 1566 and 1572, the vast loss in the intonaco in Noah’s Sacrifice was made good by a little known painter: Domenico Carnevale da Modena. If one examines the restoration without insisting on a comparison with Michelangelo’s original, it is difficult not to be impressed by the qualities of this 16th century master. For the reconstruction of the figures, it is possible that he was able to make use of drawings and other graphic documentation, whilst in the handling of the paint he showed the ability – particular to restorers – not to imitate the original technique, but to make allowances in his integration for his work to be seen from below. To do this, Carnevale used large strokes, as featureless as possible, with which he reconstructed an image which is somewhat anonymous in as much as it did not have any distinctive handling characteristics of its own, but which succeeded admirably in fitting in with the original paint.”
Given the close and effective matching of values in this large section of painting, we can all the more confidently take the presently seen mismatch between Carnevale and Michelangelo’s work at Fig. 6, to be a confirmation of lost original secco painting in that zone. A similar mismatch emerged in this zone (as seen below in the leg at Fig. 48b). Although the mismatches are not as pronounced in flesh sections as in draperies, we can see that Carnevale’s repair in buon fresco to the upper leg no longer matches the surviving general tonality of the lower leg. The restorers have claimed that this mismatch is indicative of the general levels of dirt on the ceiling at the time. Even if that were true, it would not account for the shaded modelling on the sides of the upper leg with which Carnevale had effected the seamless match with Michelangelo’s then surviving passages of painting, as seen above at Fig. 48a.
Damage to the Sistine Chapel’s Cycles of Painting:
Above, Figs. 49 (top) and 50: It is easiest to demonstrate injuries with details, but the greatest injury done the Chapel was in terms of the relationships that had been established through time between the larger component parts – the decorated surfaces of it walls and ceiling, to which, too little attention has been paid. The promotional hype that accompanied the restoration as it ran into opposition, sold a single narrow, partial, pictorial narrative: that of the Glorious Recovery of Unanticipated Original Colouring. If we pan out from the single technical proof of injury to Michelanglo’s paintings, the repair made by Carnevale (above, top Fig. 49) – we see above at Fig. 50 how this group of figures, before cleaning, had played a secondary role in an outer (relative) darkness. Moving down to Fig. 51 below, we see how the centrepiece of the (curving triangular) section in which they were set, consisted of the astonishingly inventive and brightly lit figure of the crucified Haman.
Above, Fig. 51: This view of a corner of the chapel before the last wave of restorations gives some indication of the disruption of the living, accreted history of the interior. On the right of the photograph is the wall of the Last Judgement. It will be noticed that this wall is not architecturally linked to the chapel’s side wall. This is because in preparing the wall for his great painting, Michelangelo obliterated all architectural continuities (blocking in windows and even obliterating some of his own earlier painting – the two lunettes around the original windows), so as to prepare a single flat “canvas”, as it were, for himself. To the left of the altar wall we see the survival of chapel’s architectural features. It is striking how, before restorations, this wall had broken down into horizontally discrete architectural zones or bands with distinct pictorial/decorative characters. The bottom zone (not visible in the photograph but included in Figs. 53 and 54, below) consists of a simple trompe l’oeil depiction of hanging drapery. On this section, the Raphael tapestries, the cartoons for which are housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, are occasionally displayed. On the section above them (as seen here at the bottom), are individual scenes painted in their own perspectives which “puncture” the surface integrity of the wall with their aerial depths. They are however, bound together by emphatic framing sections of illusionistic architectural decoration that partially re-assert the architectural integrity of the wall. Above that band there is a sequence depicting pairs of former popes that flank each window. In this passage the integrity of the wall is asserted generally but periodically punctured by the illusionistic niches which house the figures of the popes like sentries in their boxes. Immediately above that tonally light and rather decorously treated band, Michelangelo and pictorial fireworks commence. Michelangelo ruptures the (variously) maintained architectural integrity of the wall in two key respects. He peoples this lower band of his painting (the lunettes – the sections of wall that surround the windows) with seated figures of a greatly increased scale and vastly more monumental treatment. Crucially, he situates these giant figures (the ancestors of Christ) in optical recesses that push the walls backwards. Against these perceptually re-situated walls, Michelangelo cast giant shadows so as further to assert both the monumentally substantial physical presence of the figures and their “commanding” occupation of their own space and their own lighting systems. The zone above constitutes the beginning of the vault of the ceiling, and on this section, resting above the junctions between the lunettes, Michelangelo placed his most monumental figures of all, his twelve Seers comprised of seven Prophets and five Sibyls. The consequence of all this, was that before restoration there existed a kind of archaeological stratification of historically and artistically separate layers with distinct conceptual/architectural/pictorial characters – a living history. What uncomprehending violence was to be done to those accreted variations in just a couple of decades.
Above, Fig. 52: Here we see a wall/ceiling conjunction after cleaning and its then relationship with the not-yet cleaned Last Judgement. The most striking feature here is the extent to which the wall/ceiling paintings have been “de-materialised”; the extent to which the surfaces of the building are exerting their own presences more strongly than before.
As in so many instances and regards, Charles Wilson provides an invaluably informed and visually acute firsthand witness:
Before entering upon the subjects of Michelangelo’s method of painting or principles of colour, the disposition of the chiaroscuro, which he has maintained throughout the whole of the frescos, must be noticed.
The light proceeds from the painted apertures in the ceiling and falls with equal diffusion downwards on all sides.
The horizontal shadows of the architecture are very precisely and decidedly marked, but the angular cast shadows are are modified and softened because otherwise they would have confused with their sharp angles, the general decorative divisions of the design.
On the other hand the shadows cast by the figures which sit in front of the white marble arch, with its piers cornice and moulding, are painted with a Rembrandt-like vigour, and must at one time have given those figures complete relief against the bright and fair semblance of marble, now so dingy and so unlike what it has been.
The backgrounds of the lunettes are darker than those of the figures of the vault, as are the grounds of the merely ornamental figures in the angles above, and those below the Prophets and Sibyls form a basement to the brilliant chiaroscuro of the arcade.
The effect of the chiaroscuro in the scenes in the open panels has been very aerial, increased by the powerful light and shade of the figures close to those openings.
When first painted, the arrangement of the chiaroscuro must have produced a brilliant effect, now centirely obscured, but which no doubt might still be in a great measure restored…”
Note, however, that Wilson had complained of dirt, dust and cobwebs upon the paintings but not of “glue-varnishes” slathered on by persons un-named, unknown and of whom no records exist (as was admitted to us in 1990). The glue/size painting was easy to identify and was almost entirely by Michelangelo’s own hand. Note also that, having described the injuries to the secco work made by an earlier restorer, Wilson was especially concerned that any attempted cleaning might inflict further injury on the highly water-sensitive size-painting.
The Persisting Atmospheric Pollution
Above, Fig. 53: Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown in the 21 December 2012 Guardian (Photograph: Oote Boe Ph/Alamy). It may well be the case that the apparently bleached-out condition of the wall and ceiling paintings is something of a “trick of the light”, but to our knowledge, no photograph of the chapel taken before the last restoration ever showed anything approaching this general tonality. And that is for a good reason: everything that had been found on the surface of the frescoes was removed, including Michelangelo’s own size painting with finely ground black pigments. This photograph also testifies without any ambiguity to the densely packed throngs of visitors (up to 20,000 each day, it was then said) whose presence is converting the chapel’s micro-climate into a toxic environmental stew that threatens to consume what has been left of the frescoes.
Below, Fig. 54, Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown on the 21 May 2013 Mailonline where it is reported that visitor numbers can now reach as many as 30,000 a day.
The National Gallery’s Stripped-Down Paintings:
Above, Fig. 55: Gombrich included the National Gallery’s Pontormo of c. 1518, Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, in his “Shadows” exhibion. It was a curious “own-goal” choice, given that it abounds with cast shadows. Had Gombrich wished to make another point, he might have drawn attention to the debilitating changes inflicted on this work in the name of its “restoration”.
Above, Fig. 56 (top) and 57: The detail of the Pontormo immediately above and as included in Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition, looks very different from its earlier pre-restoration self (as seen top). The details shown above and below left were photographed for a book of details from pictures in the National Gallery in 1938 by its then director, Kenneth Clark. Clark’s details were re-photographed for new, 1990 edition of his book. The then National Gallery director, Neil MacGregor, noted that many of the pictures had since been cleaned and that Clark himself had been “fearful of what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed.” Many of the paintings were now, MacGregor noted, “different in critical respects from the paintings Clark discussed”. MacGregor further noted that the reader able to compare the plates in the two editions “will decide how much is gain, how much loss” but he gave no clues as to losses or gains. A crucial difference between the before and after cleaning states is the grievous loss of the former brilliant orchestration of lights and shades which had constituted such a proof of Pontormo’s indebtedness to Michelangelo.
Above left, Figs. 58a and 59a, details before cleaning; above right, Figs. 58b and 59b details after cleaning: It is evident in these further details, that this painting endured much restoration treatment after 1938. It was cleaned (in secret) during the Second World War in 1940, and again in 1981-82. In the latter cleaning “discoloured varnish and retouchings” were removed with “propan-2-ol and white spirit”. This was reported to have left in place “a thick greyish layer of surface dirt and varnish remnants”…It was removed with “a potassium oleate soap”, and the whole was finished off with “pigments in Paraloid B-72″ and a “Ketone-N” synthetic varnish. In the details of the boy’s head we see how the picture has been left more transparent, more like its own Infra-red photographs, as underdrawing now floats into view.
The Mutilation of Michelangelo’s Finest Sibyl:
Below, Fig. 60: The Libyan Sibyl, before cleaning (large) and after cleaning (inset). With reference to Fig. 4, above, note the catastrophic removal of dark toning and shading around the Sibyl’s right foot, from which formerly sprang such a vivid cast shadow. The final stages of Michelangelo’s painting on this great figure (and all others on the ceiling) were taken for varnish and removed in their entirety on this (official) prescription:
…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…”
For a full account of the ceiling’s injuries, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, The Business and The Scandal”, London 1993 and 1996, New York 1994 and 1996, by James Beck and Michael Daley. For a celebration of the “restored” ceiling, see “Michelangelo ~ the Vatican Frescoes” by Pierluigi de Vecchi, Professor of art history at the university of Macerata, and Gianluigi Colalucci, Chief Restorer, Vatican Laboratory for the restoration of paintings, Papal monuments, Museums and Galleries, New York, London and Paris 1996.
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The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Part 2: A traumatic production of “a different Leonardo”

14 March 2012

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.

Michael Daley

ENDNOTES [1] 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.” [2] 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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Above, Fig. 1: The opening section of TIME magazine’s June 7th 1999 coverage of the unveiled Last Supper. Such reports generated public denunciations of the critics. One, by Georgio Bonsanti in the May 1999 Art Newspaper, targeted this organisation:
At the root of the controversy are the declamations of the international brigade, Art Watch International, now nearly ten years old, led by the American art historian James Beck and the English journalist [sic] Michael Daley. These crusaders are convinced that masterpieces are being desecrated by poor restoration all over the world but especially in Italy…”
Bonsanti further claimed that Italy’s restorations were being attacked by outsiders because that country “tolerates dissent”, evidently forgetting that James Beck (a professor of art history at Columbia University, who lived in Italy for part of each year, whose wife was Italian and whose children are half Italian) had been hounded simultaneously in several Italian cities on charges of criminal slander (which carried, in addition to horrendous potential financial penalties, the risk of a three-years jail sentence) for criticising the restoration of a masterly piece of sculpture by the subject of his life-long studies, Jacopo della Quercia. (For Michael Daley’s reply, see “Was it necessary?”, the Art Newspaper, July/August 1999.)
In a more specifically abusive vein Bonsanti alleged that:
All standards of accuracy and correctness were laid aside in the scramble to report the supposedly disastrous restoration of the Last Supper…I am not suggesting that critics should be silenced or that a moratorium is desirable, but criticism should be based on observable fact, it should be a technically competent, well-researched and accurate reaction.”
As it happens, all of our criticisms are based on observable, demonstrable (and photographically reproducible) facts. How else, in visual art, might criticisms proceed? As a case in point we discuss and illustrate below a change that was made to the Last Supper and then presented as one of a number of “noteworthy recoveries” when, manifestly, it was not a recovery but an adulteration. To judge restorations it is necessary to know what was done and what was said to have been done by those in authority. For many of those of us who had the privilege of seeing from the scaffold what was being done to Leonardo’s work, the experience was alarming. The removal of everything except that which was deemed original Leonardo paint meant that greatly more “not-Leonardo” was emerging than Leonardo. The second consequence of the stripping was that what little original paint survived, was lost in the visual clamour of the surrounding cracked and discoloured wall preparation layers. It would have been inconceivable to leave the tiny emerging islands and archipelagos of original paint adrift in the vast sea of ruined wall. At close quarters it was evident that this was not only an extreme restoration, it was also methodologically self-defeating in its dogmatic pursuit of “pure” material. As fast as earlier restorers’ paint was eliminated, fresh paint was needed to ameliorate the losses and impart a pale impression of continuity, coherence and legibility (“The goal of pictorial integration was to achieve a sufficient legibility of gesture, pose and modeling” – Brambilla). The purging of paint and the attendant debilitation of imagery gave rise – as is soften the case with radically deconstructing cleanings – to a misconceived, ahistorical reconstruction that altered the design of the picture – in this case, even, that of Christ himself. While doing so in the name of historical authenticty, historical testimony was defied to a degree that beggars belief.
The change in question was made to the sleeve of the tunic on Christ’s right arm. It is shown here at Figs. 5-9, as it appears in the “official” published accounts. As seen in Figs. 6 and 8, the alteration was made with fresh paint to stripped areas. On the “evidence” of some fragments of red paint located in a clearly distressed section of the mural, the sleeve drapery was extended by fresh repainting so as to come to rest on the top of the table which it had originally tucked behind – as countless drawn, engraved and painted copies of the Last Supper testify. By a fluke of publishing, we can show directly comparative photographs that capture the genesis of this alteration. They are found in two books. The first is Pietro Marani’s sumptuous, large format 1999 “Leonardo da Vinci ~ The Complete Paintings” (hereafter: Marani 1999). In it there is a photograph of Christ (shown here in Figs. 6 & 8). It was taken when the figure had been stripped down and largely but not entirely retouched. The second source is the beautifully photographed and produced 1999 book-of-the-restoration “Leonardo ~ The Last Supper”, by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon and Pietro C. Marani with Antonio Quattrone’s photographs (hereafter: Brambilla/Marani 1999). In this book there is another photograph of the Christ but this time it is after all the retouching had been completed. This plate is seen at Figs. 7 & 9. The differences between the two states are worth a thousand words. But before discussing their testimony in detail, the status of the many copies of the Last Supper should be considered. We take as fair testimony of Leonardo’s original treatment of the drapery, copies of the Last Supper made in the first eleven decades of its life. Fig. 2 is a detail of an engraving thought to have been made within a couple of years of the Last Supper’s completion. Although primitive in style, it clearly shows that the sleeve drapery is cut off by the table top and does not not rest upon it. Over a century later, Rubens (or an associate) made a copy in ink and wash. Here too the sleeve drapery is cut off by the table.
Above, top left, Fig. 2: Detail of the engraving given to Giavanni Pietro da Birago and thought to be the earliest copy (c. 1500) of the Last Supper which was completed in 1498. This work comprises a visual record of the Last Supper’s appearance before the mural’s notoriously rapid physical decomposition was in train. Enlarged, the clarity of delineation attests to a feature that may not be so evident elsewhere: the (blue) mantle does not yet simply disappear in the zone of shadow behind the table and between the arm and torso (as is already recorded at Fig. 4), but is seen to turn briskly around the waist of Christ. Above, top right, Fig. 3: Detail of an ink and wash copy given to Rubens or an associate, and of c. 1600-08. It is possible that the Rubens copy may have been made not from Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan but from the large full-size copy of it seen at Fig. 10. But that copy, too, attests to the drapery being cut off by the table. This table/drapery relationship had thus remained unchanged for more than a century. Above, Fig. 4: Detail of the 1616 oil on canvas copy by Il Vespino (Andrea Bianchi). This copy had been specifically commissioned in 1612 to record the then condition of the already alarmingly decaying mural.
Above, Fig. 5: Leonardo’s Christ, as seen before the 1977-1999 restoration. It is clear when comparing this state with the copies of the painting shown at Figs. 2, 3, 4, 10 & 11, that in the course of earlier restorations, the drapery of Christ’s right arm had been slimmed down on its inside edge by encroachments of the shaded zone between the table top and the figure.
The key role served by certain copies in the last restoration might be mentioned. Pietro Marani (in Brambilla/Marani 1999) discusses the assorted values of the many and various copies as testimony. He gives a list of fifty principal and “more faithful copies”. Pre-eminent among these are the two full-size oil on canvas copies of the Last Supper. One is by Giampietrino, a student of Leonardo’s (see Fig. 11). It is given to c. 1520. The second is given by Marani (on not very clear grounds) to an anonymous Flemish artist, but it was formerly attributed to another Leonardo follower, Andrea Solario. For convenience we refer to it as the Tongerlo copy, after the Abbey in Belgium which has owned it since 1545. A third large copy is the oil on canvas by Il Vespino, shown above at Fig. 4. At the time of last restoration of the Last Supper the Il Vespino had recently been restored and put on display in Milan at the Ambrosiana. The two full-size canvases played critical roles in the last restoration. The Tongerlo copy had been damaged in 1929 and was restored in 1932, 1952 and again in the 1990s prior to being housed in what is known as the Da Vinci Museum. The Giampietrino (owned by the Royal Academy) was borrowed as an aid to the last restoration and cleaned to that end by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon. Marani says of the copies generally that their value “cannot be overestimated”. From the full-size Giampietrino and Tongerlo copies, Brambilla had taken tracings – and these, Marani reports (Brambilla/Marani 1999), demonstrated:
…how the painters faithfully traced the most important elements of Leonardo’s work – the heads, hands and other principle outlines of the various figures – but then assembled the pieces into into complete images that did not always take into account the original intervals between the figures and the painted spaces in the mural.”
That the two full-size copies shared essential design properties both with one another as well as with Leonardo’s mural is of the utmost importance. Such a triangulated matching of imagery shows that the Tongerlo and Giampietrino copies were taken directly from the mural itself after completion, and were not taken from cartoons that might have been made in preparation for the painting during the course of which revisions were made. This in turn means that the restorers between 1977 and 1999 had in their possession unquestionably reliable guides to the designs and the component parts of Leonardo’s figures as they had been finished by him on the mural itself – if all three matched, none could be inaccurate. There could be no grounds for departing from the commonly held “principle outlines of the various figures”.
Above, Fig. 6: Christ, as seen (in Marani 1999) before the completion of the 1977-1999 restoration. This illustration captured a curious stage of restoration. We see that after the stripping of earlier restoration repaints, the extensive losses to the blue drapery of the mantle and the red drapery of the tunic had been ameliorated by overall applications, respectively, of lighter blue/grey and lighter red paints. Of critical importance is the fact that at this stage a crescent shaped, as-yet untinted zone, sits unresolved between the red and the blue passages, as if there is confusion about where to place the boundary between the coloured zones of the two draperies. A reason for hesitation is not hard to divine: this untreated area not only sits between the red and the blue draperies, it also also runs down across the table cloth.
Above, Fig. 7: Christ, after the completion of the 1977-1999 restoration (as in Brambilla/Marani 1999). It can now be seen that the junction of draperies at the inside of the red sleeve and the blue mantle in Fig. 3 was moved rightwards by an extension of the pale red paint. But at the same time, this light red retouching has also been carried downwards, overlapping the table cloth before turning upwards so as to terminate behind the wrist, and thereby impart to the sleeve drapery a muff-like (or puffball-like) configuration from the centre of which the forearm now emerges. As well as being an unwarranted falsification of Leonardo’s design, this change insinuates a solecism: in the laws of artistic drapery, material hangs from and partially expresses underlying human forms, it does not provide autonomous enclosing receptacles for them (like pots for a lobster, as it were). As shown below, no authority exists in the painting’s many copies for this change of design.
Above, Fig. 8: An enlarged detail, again showing the sleeve/mantle relationship after some tinted infilling had taken place but before the completion of the restoration. The dark shape in the bottom left corner is the mantle of the apostle John. It would seem that this photograph was taken at the point when the restoration was just about to pass to the left of Christ. It would seem also to confirm that the tinted infills were being made pretty much as the stripping down was taking place. Here we can see that the razor-sharp delineation of the architectural forms is not a happy by-product of the stripping down but is almost entirely a subsequent reconstruction effected with superimposed overall painting on a zone of almost total losses of original paint. It looks as if the tinted brown repaint on the background wall was stopped short of the not-yet stripped drapery of John, thus producing the temporary effect of a coarse outline or halo.
Below, Fig. 9: The section at Fig. 8 after completion of the restoration. Note how the repainted tones on the architecture have been brought to a sharp and precise relationship with the contour of the arm drapery. Is that seeming precision of draughtsmanship authentic or spurious? How well does it compare with the sleeve/wall boundary on the two full-size copies shown below? Of this back wall, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon writes:
The entire wall, however, was characterised by the widespread loss of colour…Once the superficial repaint had been removed, it was clear that we had to press on with cleaning in order to achieve some sort of visual coherence between the back wall and the side walls…Pictorial integration meant that the wall had to be restored using coats of dark toned water colour to define the shadows. Obviously the flakes of original colour remain completely visible…”
Of the sleeve drapery the restorer writes:
Like the mantle, Christ’s robe also required the removal of extensive repaint, as the heavy red tone detracted noticeably from the lovely original vermilion passages. The thick adhesives made the removal particularly difficult, so it progressed with the repeated application of compresses which managed to dissolve the film of glue completely. The cleaning redefined the original articulation of the folds, both at the neckline and at the sleeve cuff. The cuff which had been covered by the mantle’s repaint now revealed beautiful violet flakes, composed of a blue base glazed with a crimson lake to define the shadow area…”
The very concept of “redefining” the original is unsettling if not oxymoronic. Note that while there is excitement at the discovery of “beautiful violet flakes” (as seen through a microscope?) in the stripped down wreckage, there is no mention of the table cloth or discussion of the changed drapery/table relationship. The restorer continues:
Other noteworthy recoveries included…”
Above, Fig. 10: Detail of the Tongerlo Abbey copy of which Steinberg writes:
“…given its size, its high quality, and general accuracy, the Tongerlo copy ranks with the finest surviving testimonies to the near-lost Leonardo.”
Above, Fig. 11: Detail of the large, c. 1520 copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper that is owned by the Royal Academy and attributed to Giampietrino. In the catalogue to the National Gallery’s recent “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter to the Court of Milan” exhibition, Minna Moore Ede wrote:
Given the deteriorated state of Leonardo’s Last Supper mural today, the question of which of the early painted copies can be said to be most faithful to the original is of particular and tantalising importance. Always viewed as among the most accurate is this scale copy by Giampietrino…Believed to have been a live-in apprentice of Leonardo’s during his first Milanese period (probably joining the workshop in the mid 1490s), Giampietrino would have been present during the period when Leonardo was preparing and painting the Last Supper, perhaps even assisting his master.”
When told of our objection to the redrawn sleeve of Christ, Pietro Marani reportedly responded: “A small piece of drapery. Oh, my God.” and contended that Giampietrino might have misunderstood the position of Leonardo’s drapery.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration

24th November 2011

Two decades after recognising that art restoration “discoveries” and “revelations” had become very big business, we encounter a blockbuster exhibition that required a Government indemnity of £1.5 billion and was specifically launched as a vehicle to celebrate a restoration that had yet to take place: “We started thinking about this five years ago, when we were beginning to plan the restoration of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, so an exhibition to celebrate that project seemed like the right thing to do.” So said Luke Syson, the curator of the National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan” exhibition, in a BBC interview.

Museum restorations never take place in vacuums. If you build an exhibition on the proposed restoration of a very famous artist’s work you set certain narrative expectations in motion; create pressures and hopes of big, dramatic results. When the “Virgin of the Rocks” was put back on display after its restoration – and pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo, even though the restorer had not removed all of his predecessor’s varnish – I was pleased to discuss the then forthcoming Leonardo exhibition with Luke Syson who said that its scholarly focus would be an analysis of the influence that a new type of Leonardo painting had had on his followers. Namely, that during the 15 or so years long gestation of the National Gallery’s version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” which was delivered unfinished in 1508, and the contemporaneous (1492-98) “Last Supper” in Milan, Leonardo’s painting style had become distinctly abstracted, less naturalistic and more metaphysical in character. When I expressed scepticism that this thesis might rest secure on two such different works as the “Virgin of the Rocks”, with its uncertain condition and status (the Gallery admits the picture is “manifestly uneven in finish and execution” and that there has been “a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it”), and the degraded, fragmented, many-times restored “Last Supper”, Syson disclosed that the Royal Academy’s full-size copy of the latter by Giampietrino was being borrowed. At this, I asked if the Gallery’s own Giampietrino “Christ carrying his Cross” (which had recently been relegated to the reserve collection – on Syson’s instruction, I learned) would also be included in the exhibition. It would not. This was disappointing – and a lost opportunity to right an ancient wrong.

The “Christ carrying his Cross” had been discussed by Larry Keith, the Gallery’s new head of conservation who has restored the “Virgin of the Rocks”, and Ashok Roy, the Gallery’s head of science, in the Gallery’s 1996 Technical Bulletin under the title “Giampietrino, Boltraffio, and the Influence of Leonardo”. This followed the restoration of two Giampietrinos (his “Christ” and his “Salome”) and Boltraffio’s “Virgin and Child”. A remarkable technical discovery had been made on “Christ carrying his Cross” the ramifications of which seemed not fully to have been appreciated. Keith and Roy did acknowledge that Giampietrino’s Leonardo borrowings were “not restricted to matters of composition alone, but also include other aspects of painting technique”; they granted that the “strong chiaroscuro and dark backgrounds of Giampietrino’s small format panels are clearly an attempt to emulate the more striking pictorial effects that Leonardo had introduced to Milan”; they explicitly acknowledged that Giampietrino’s painting technique was much influenced by Leonardo’s, and that this could be “seen in the sfumato and relief of the National Gallery Christ carrying his Cross” – which painting was “clearly derived from Leonardesque prototypes” and for which “A silver-point study of Christ carrying his Cross by Leonardo [was] clearly the compositional source…” And yet, despite all of this, they seemed at pains to cast Giampietrino as a pronouncedly lesser follower of Leonardo than Boltraffio.

While excluded from the forthcoming show, Giampietrino’s “Christ” has at least been liberated from the reserve collection, making it possible for the picture and its condition to be studied before visiting the Leonardo blockbuster. Not only is it as closely related to Leonardo’s imagery and methods as has been acknowledged, it is arguably the best preserved Renaissance picture in the National Gallery. Its good condition is a byproduct of what the Gallery describes as “an unusual pigmented glaze layer”. After carefully building and modelling his forms with successive layers of paint and glazes to “an illusion of relief”, Giampietrino covered the whole painting with a single “final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black”. This had had remarkable aesthetic and physical consequences. The layer was contemporary with the painting and, being composed of walnut oil with a little varnish, resistant to the usual varnish stripping solvents. The use of walnut oil further relates this picture to the “Virgin of the Rocks” where that oil had been used throughout.

During the picture cleaning controversies at the National Gallery after the Second World War, the possibility that just such toning overall finishes might exist on old paintings was advanced by Ernst Gombrich. In a letter to the Burlington Magazine in 1950 and in his 1960 book “Art and Illusion”, he cited a famous report by Pliny which described the overall dark veiling finishes that Apelles had applied to his paintings to wondrous effect, and asked “is it conceivable that such famous testimonies would never have induced a master of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries to emulate Apelles and apply a darkening varnish to achieve a more subtle tonal unity?” He then reflected “I do not think it is even claimed that our ‘safe’ cleaning methods could detect such a varnish, let alone that they could preserve it.” This provoked the National Gallery’s restorer Helmut Ruhemann (who had cleaned Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” in 1948-9 to unfortunate effect – see right) into a vehement dogmatic dismissal: “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer’.

That Leonardo was a learned man and a reader of Pliny is acknowledged by both Syson and Keith in the present exhibition catalogue. In his 1962 Burlington Magazine article (“Dark Varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny”), Gombrich repeated what Pliny had said of Apelles:

He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.

How could the connection between Apelles’ final “dark coating so thinly spread” and Giampietrino’s “final, extremely thin overall toning layer [with] warm dark pigments and black” have passed without comment? The cleaning controversy of the 1960s had hardly faded from memory: as recently as 1985 it had been described by a subsequent director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, as “one of the most celebrated jousts” in the Burlington Magazine. In the current National Gallery Technical Bulletin, (Vol. 32) Larry Keith, Ashok Roy, Rachel Morrison and Peter Schade, say of the restoration of the “Virgin of the Rocks” that while its practical intent was “primarily aesthetic” it also served to provide an example of the gallery’s interdisciplinary approach: “Whenever possible, major restorations are intended as the hub of a wide range of research activity that sees curators, scientists and restorers working together – increasingly alongside colleagues from other institutions”. Our criticsms of the Gallery’s customary use of restorations as effective “laboratory test cases” for conducting multidisciplinary research with an input from curators are longstanding, but what makes this unusual and pronounced “non-singing” of such a very important finding all the more perplexing is the fact that this discovery may be the tip of a scholarly iceberg. Tucked in footnote 24 of the 1996 Keith/Roy account is a disclosure that such overall toning layers are “quite rare in Italian painting of the period” and that they “may be confined to Milanese technique”. Did this mean that other instances had been found at the Gallery? Or even, given the Milanese locus, that Leonardo himself might have been the instigator or a user of such applications? (Kenneth Clark had earlier attributed disparities of finish in the “Virgin of the Rocks” precisely to damaged glazes – see right.)

When Larry Keith writes in the current catalogue that Leonardo exploited oil paint in the “Virgin of the Rocks” for its “subtle transitions and distinctions within the deepest tones, all of which were carefully orchestrated within a system of unified lighting”, he might as appropriately be describing the well-preserved effects of Giampietrino’s “Christ” as those in the “Virgin of the Rocks” where, despite the picture’s acknowledged “inconsistencies” of finish, Leonardo is said to have created a “new and remarkable unified coherence…by a carefully considered manipulation of lighting, colour and tonal values”.

Whatever the merits of Giampietrino as an artist, no Renaissance work in the Gallery shows a more tightly and subtly controlled overall development of forms, tones, colours, and expressively purposive lighting, than his “Christ”. It was unjust if not perverse when Keith/Roy, gave the laurel to Boltraffio, in part as “an artist capable of a more subtle understanding of Leonardo” but also as one who had been working in Leonardo’s studio “by 1491”, as opposed to Giampietrino of whom “it is not certain how much direct contact [he] would have had with Leonardo’s actual painting methods, and it would be misleading to assume that the imitation of Leonardo’s effects required direct reproduction of his techniques.” Under what circumstances and on whose authority other than Leonardo’s, might someone have made a full sized, exactly matching, oil-painted copy of the “Last Supper”? Besides which, in the current catalogue, Minna Moore Ede, when describing Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” as being with its “great clarity and three-dimensionality” the most faithful and accurate record of all, discloses that Giampietrino, just like Boltraffio, is now understood to have been a live-in apprentice who joined Leonardo’s workshop in the mid 1490s.

In the Technical Bulletin Keith/Roy saw “differences of palette” between the “more highly saturated local colour” of Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and a “pictorial unity produced by a tightly controlled, restricted range of tone and value” in the work itself. That reading has been dropped: Keith now sees (Leonardo exhibition catalogue entry, p. 70) that the “Last Supper” was, as Giampietrino’s copy had testified, executed in a “higher-keyed, lighter palette” than that of the London “Virgin of the Rocks”.

Even if Giampietrino’s work had been “essentially imitative, showing more of an attempted simulation of the painted appearance of Leonardo’s works than an understanding of his ideas”, as opposed to Boltraffio’s “more sophisticated” grasp, it might for that very reason leave him the more reliable guide to the original appearances of Leonardo’s paintings than Boltraffio in his more ambitious attempts to think and compose in the manner of his master and superior. In their 1996 account, Keith and Roy undermine their own slur that Giampietrino’s overall toning layer attempted a spurious impression of a Leonardesque suppressed colourism by explaining how, in his “Christ”, Giampietrino had covered his white gesso ground with “a stiffly brushed, rather opaque imprimiture of a light brownish grey”, while for his “deep red” draperies he had first applied “an unusual strongly coloured dense red-brown underpaint consisting of vermilion, red earth and black, with an increased proportion of black used under the shadow of the folds.” Those passages of painting were further reinforced with “dark red glazes”. Taken together, it was precisely admitted that (- and quite remarkably Apelles-like), “The overall effect is restrained in spite of the intensity of colour and creates a more naturalistic effect.

The late-discovered existence of Giampietrino’s dark toning layer constituted a repudiation of the Gallery’s former head of science, Joyce Plesters, who (in the Burlington Magazine in 1962 – “Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”) had parodied the very idea as a “crude device of indiscriminately deadening all the colours by the application of an overall yellow, brown, or blackish varnish”. In 1996 Plesters was then still alive (as was a long-serving trustee of the National Gallery, Denis Mahon, who had joined her in attacks on Gombrich in the 1962 Burlington Magazine – “Miscellanea for the Cleaning Controversy” ). In 1996 I asked Gombrich if the Gallery had informed him of its discovery of an overall toning layer of “warm dark pigments and black in a medium essentially of walnut oil, with a little resin”. He said not but that he was pleased to learn of the Gallery’s “final conversion to an obvious truth”. We published our first account of this episode thirteen years ago (“The Unvarnished Truth”, Art Review, November 1998). Could it be that a continuing institutional desire to spare the posthumous blushes of departed Gallery players who bungled in spectacular fashion is permanently to blight an interesting artist’s reputation, retard the gallery’s own (in many respects admirable and generously shared) scholarship and thwart full recognition of the achievements of one of the most distinguished art historians to have made home in this country?

Michael Daley

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Photographs by courtesy of the National Gallery (For Figs. 1-4, see the National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol. 17, 1996.)

Above, Fig. 1: “Christ carrying his Cross” by Giampietrino. NG 3097, c.1510-30. Poplar, 60 x 47 cm.

Above, Fig. 2: “Christ carrying his Cross”, by Giampietrino, detail.
Above, Fig. 3: “Christ carrying his Cross”, NG 3097, greyscale. It is shown in Technical Bulletin 17 that the National Gallery version above is one of a number of replicas. The version below has been shown to have used the same cartoon as the NG picture – which makes the differences the more intriguing. The most striking of these concern the orchestration of tonal values: those in the NG picture are greatly more integrated and unified – melded “in space”, as it were. In the Budapest picture, the component parts (cross;figure;drapery) are individually modelled but remain pictorially/conceptually discrete. The implicit light source in the London picture is remarkably focussed and theatrically directed to expressive ends, with the brightest lights falling on Christ’s shoulder, wrist/hand, and right brow. The gradations of tone in the figure are superbly nuanced, and run off into darkness in every direction as the eye moves away from the triangulated intensely local highlights. As a result of these (essentially) tonal variations, Christ advances more from the background, and even from the cross, into a more movingly, affectingly intimate relationship with us. Tones matter. That the so-striking and charged differences between the two versions arise in works made from the same drawing, poses a number of questions: Were the paintings wholly executed by the same artist? Did the Budapest version ever have the same refinements of modelling and the same, effectively, proto-Caravaggesque lighting? If so, had these been injured or removed in restorations? (We saw in our post of January 27th how the Giampietrino “Salome”, which was restored along with his “Christ” – but which did not have a super-imposed ancient walnut oil covering – suffered serious degradations in its tonal manipulations.) Do any of the other versions have overall toning layers, or fragmentary evidence of such former layers? If not, what accounts for the very high tonal sophistication and fluency of the London picture?
Above, Fig. 4: “Christ carrying his Cross”, by Giampietrino, Budapest, Szepmuveszeti Muzeum.
Above, Fig. 5: The Virgin’s head from the London National Gallery “The Virgin of the Rocks”, about 1491 – 1508, oil on wood, as shown in Kenneth Clark’s 1938 book “One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery”. In 1990 the Gallery republished Clark’s book but with new photographs in colour. Fig. 6, below, is the same detail as in Fig. 5 (here converted to greyscale). The differences are striking.
Above, Fig. 6: The Virgin’s head as seen in the 1990 edition of Clark’s book and in which Clark remarked:

There is no longer any doubt that our Virgin of the Rocks is a second version of the subject, undertaken by Leonardo some twenty years after the picture in the Louvre…

On the faces of the Virgin and the angel (Figs. 7 & 8 below), he reflected:

It is uncertain how much of this replica he painted with his own hand, and this head of the Virgin is the most difficult part of the problem. It is too heavy and lifeless for Leonardo and the actual type is un-Leonardesque; yet it seems to be painted in exactly the same technique as the angel’s head in the same picture…

Of the angel, he wrote:

This is 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. The curls round the shoulder have exactly the same movement as Leonardo’s drawings of swirling water.

Even so, he added:

Beautiful though it is, this angel lacks the enchantment of the lighter, more Gothic angel in the Paris version. It embodies the result of Leonardo’s later researches in which ideal beauty and classic regularity of chiaroscuro were combined, with a certain loss in freshness, but with an expressive power which almost hypnotised his contemporaries.

In the 1990 re-issue, this note was added to Clark’s comments on the heads:

As a result of the cleaning of the altarpiece in 1949 the differences between the heads are rather less apparent.

It would be nice to take this as an official confession of a restoration injury within the Gallery (Clark had concluded that “A pupil did the main work of drawing and modelling, and before his paint was dry Leonardo put in the finishing touches. Most of these have been removed from the Virgin’s face but remain in the angel’s, where perhaps they were always more numerous.”) Consider, then, this account from a privileged art critic who was, so to speak, embedded in the Gallery’s conservation department during the recent, blockbuster-launching restoration, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones:

For a long time, the National has believed its Leonardo to be mostly the work of assistants, with only the basic design and some perfect parts – above all, that angel – recognisable as his handiwork. What a difference a cleaning can make. In its official statement yesterday, the gallery was naturally cautious (‘it now seems possible that Leonardo painted all the picture himself’); but talking to me over several weeks in the workshop, in front of the painting, the National’s experts made it clear they believe this to be a pure and unsullied painting by Leonardo’s own hand. ‘We now have a picture which I believe is entirely by Leonardo,’ said Luke Syson, curator of Italian Renaissance paintings and the man who has spearheaded this restoration. If he is right, this is a Leonardo to rank alongside The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

Yes, if he is right – but what counts as “right” in matters of attribution? And in what sense do we “now have” a different picture? The restorer has claimed not to have removed all of his predecessor’s varnish, so nothing can have been seen that was not visisible in 1948-9. During this last restoration Syson claimed that “every age invents its own Leonardo.” Such art critical relativism might be taken as an innocuous socio-cultural observation were it not tied to the work of restorers who claim individual interpretive “rights”. The Gallery’s handbook “Conservation of Paintings” acknowledges that pictures are now “changed primarily for aesthetic reasons” (p. 53) and (p. 45) that restorations are carried out on the “aesthetic objectives of those responsible for the cleaning”. Moreover, (p. 53) although the “different aesthetic decisions” taken by individual restorers produce results that “may look very different”, all of such different outcomes are “equally valid”, provided they have been carried out “safely”.

In matters of aesthetic and artistic integrity, the “safety” or otherwise of the cleaning materials is a red herring – if pictures end up looking different, they are different, and these differences are material and irreversible. It is therefore vital that there be the fullest possible disclosure of the changes that are made – especially those made with the retouching brush.

Above, Fig. 7: The Angel’s head from the “Virgin of the Rocks”, as seen in 1938.
Above, Fig. 8: The Angel’s from the “Virgin of the Rocks”, as seen in 1990.
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