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Posts tagged “Orazio Gentileschi

Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship

30 September 2014

“Buy land”, Mark Twain advised, “they’re not making it anymore”. This logic ought to apply to the old masters but does not. Land makes sound investment not only because of its scarcity and its potential for development but because, in law-abiding societies, it comes fixed with legally defendable boundaries. Karl Marx, plundering English classical economists, held that all value is unlocked by human labour – but all labour does not generate equal values. In given periods and places all painters work pretty much with the same materials but their artistic transformations of those materials are various and unequal in accomplishment and merit. Such differences drive reputations and hence the market value of artists’ works but they do so in ways that are intrinsically problematic.

Artists’ reputations may or may not endure. With many surviving works the identities of authors are either not securely established or entirely unknown. In such cases paintings are appraised and then attributed to particular artists or schools. Attributions, however, are neither guaranteed nor immutable. They are made on mixtures of professional judgement, artistic appraisal, art critical conjecture and, sometimes, wishful thinking or deceiving intent. They remain open to revision, challenge, manipulation or abuse. The experts who make attributions exist in professional rivalry with one another (sometimes with vehemence) and while their disagreements are signs of art critical health, a consequence is that legal guarantees for attributions are untenable and non-existent, as some buyers later discover to their costs. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and to proceed on their own judgement. With art, as we recently pointed out (see Endnote 1) it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting (- and few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.)

“Scientific” red herrings

In recent years attempts have been made to impart quasi-legal assurances to attributions by appealing to the authority of supposedly “scientifically verifiable” technical proofs. The exercise is vain and, technically, philistine: by its very nature, art is not reducible to scientifically quantifiable component parts. The technical evidence cult reflects a collapse of confidence in powers of connoisseurship on the one hand and a grab for cultural and institutional power by technocrats and bureaucrats on the other. The new hybrid discipline “Technical Art History” in which restorers, conservation scientists and curators pool expertises in attempt to arrive at professionally impregnable positions, has proved pernicious. Art-politically, this united front seeks to neutralise all charges of art critical and methodological failure with professional mystification and displacement activities – by fostering a “closed-shop” mentality and claiming that its mysteries are beyond the reach of any outsiders [2]. The new technocrats insufficiently appreciate that paintings are no more and no less than the products of artists who, working by brain, eye and hand, fix values and the relationships between values so as to produce specific and unique artistic effects that can be comprehended by others using eyes and minds in response. In the visual arts the visual should remain paramount – what you see is what it is about. Art loving viewers and professional art experts alike might be said to have duties of appropriate response to art itself and not to its shadows and encumbrances. It is the optically perceived quality of artists’ artefacts that drives reputations and market values. Understanding art is not the same thing as poking and poring over the component parts of its fabric – let alone presuming, as “restorers” (or now, “conservators”) perpetually do, to undo and redo its features at regular intervals. What matters is what you see, not what might be said or thought to lie under the surface.

Managing lapses of connoisseurship

This is not, of course, to say that technical examinations can serve no purposes. Rather, it is to say that in matters of art attribution and appreciation technical examinations of the physical composition of works might supplement informed visual appraisals but they cannot stand in lieu of them. Nor can the supposedly disinterested and neutral character of technical examinations themselves be taken at face value. In practice, with every technical investigation and its resulting “findings”, someone, some institution, some interest group, has commissioned/conducted the exercise and controlled its dissemination. Paintings in powerful institutionally-protected locations (particularly major museum) can be afforded dispensations from otherwise injurious findings [2]. It sometimes seems that just as banks are now too big to be allowed to fail, so big museum attributions cannot be allowed to fall, whatever evidence and arguments accumulate against them [3], for fear of undermining public, political and art market confidence.

Follow the money and look at the drawings

Concerning the frequency of art world upgrades, it would seem easier to grow old master drawings than paintings. Where only 250 sheets of drawings were attributed to Michelangelo in the 1960s, today that oeuvre has been expanded to over 600 sheets. Although drawings do not command the high prices of paintings they can greatly assist their attributions. In the late 1920s a firm of antiquarian dealers in Holland, R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam, sold a number of old master drawings some of which have ended in museums, and two of which concern us here (Figs. 1 and 2). Neither of these had a provenance (i.e. a proven history of previous ownership). Both had simply materialised in the dealers’ hands with old master attributions. The first sold in 1927 for 26 florins (guilders), some € 235.80 at today’s values. The second sold two years later for 750 florins, some €6,801.91 today. The first was attributed to van Dyck, the second to Veronese. Neither attribution survived and the original perplexing ratio of value between them (which approached thirty to one) has reversed dramatically.

The Veronese attribution crashed in 1984 when Richard Cocke published his catalogue raisonné Veronese’s Drawings and dismissed the drawing with the single (apt) sentence: “The heavy forceful cross-hatching in the drapery and the forms of the head and hands have nothing to do with Veronese.” That drawing sold in 1991 at Christie’s for £7,000 as “attributed to Agostino Carracci”. In contrast, the former van Dyck drawing morphed into the work that sold at Christie’s on July 10th as an autograph Rubens ink sketch for a world record Rubens drawing price of £3,218,500. The former “van Dyck” has thus enjoyed a 14,000-fold increase of value since 1927.

The extraordinary success of the van Dyck that is now a Rubens was due only in part to Christie’s masterful promotion. It was very much on the strength of its current art-historical position that the drawing was drum-rolled as the starred lot in a sale of part of the prestigious I. Q. van Regteren Altena drawings collection. Most helpfully of all, the drawing was precisely characterised as Rubens’s “first thought” preparatory ink sketch for the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting (Fig. 4). Notwithstanding its anomalous traits (see our previous post), its artistic shortcomings and its dubious provenance, the drawing remains bolstered by its crucial allotted role in a sequence of three Samson and Delilahs, two of which have been acquired by museums (Figs. 3 & 4). Although Christie’s July 10 sale realised more than twice its highest estimates and broke many records for individual artists, only one of the top ten works went to an art gallery or museum. Two were sold on to the trade. Seven, including the Samson and Delilah drawing, went to anonymous individuals.

Making four Rubens’s

Christie’s catalogue entry burnishes the drawing’s pedigree with upbeat optimism. It is said for example: “When I. Q. van Regteren Altena bought the drawing in 1927, he listed it in his inventory under its traditional attribution to Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). That attribution also accounts for an earlier owner’s inscription of the letters ‘V.D.’ in the lower left corner.” What traditional attribution? Which earlier owners? Christie’s account of the provenance begins: “with R.W.P. de Vries Amsterdam; from whom purchased by I.Q. van Regteren Altena on 20 December 1927 for 26 guilders (‘387.t. A. v. Dijck. Samson & Delilah’)”. And that is all. There had been no previous owners and no evidence exists of any “traditional” reception as a van Dyck – or anything. Any suppositions aside, all that can safely be said is that this drawing emerged from nowhere at a time when forgery was rife and the art world suffered from what Bernard Berenson [!] described as “the universal tendency to ascribe a given work of art to the greatest artist to whom wishful thinking and excited imagination can ascribe it.” (“Essays in Appreciation”, 1958, p. 95.)

Christie’s entry continues: “With the emergence of the finished painting and the connected oil sketch the drawing’s significance rapidly became apparent.” There was no rapidity and the claimed significance is mythic. The supposed second stage oil sketch or modello did not appear until 1966. The claim that, “The picture of Samson and Delilah was only rediscovered in 1929”, also misleads. The painting was not “rediscovered” as a Rubens. It had never been a Rubens. When it appeared in 1929 it was, just like the ink drawing three years earlier, without provenance and it was not judged a Rubens by its German dealers, Van Diemen and Benedict, who were offering it as a Honthorst. It was later upgraded to Rubens in a certificate of authenticity by Dr Ludwig Burchard and it then sold in 1930 to August Neurburg, a German tobacco magnate.

Burchard was a leading Rubens scholar, but today his attributions have a notoriously poor record [4]. Far from the ink drawing being corroborated as a first stage sketch by the arrival of the painting, Burchard had upgraded the painting on the authority of the drawing which he had himself upgraded to Rubens in 1926. In Christie’s catalogue the drawing’s “Literature” begins with Burchard’s attribution: “L. Burchard, ‘Die Skizzen des jungen Rubens’ in Sitzungsberichte der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 8 October 1926, p. 30, no. 2.” At that date no one had previously owned or discussed the work. Burchard thus upgraded a drawing that had never been exhibited and was in a dealer’s hands without any provenance. Notwithstanding his claims on behalf of the drawing, in 1927 both the dealer selling and the collector buying still held it to be a van Dyck.

When the modello eventually appeared in 1966 it had no provenance. Its history consisted of a hearsay account (from the anonymous lady vendor) of an ancestor said to have bought the work for a few shillings in an antique shop in York during the 1930s because she liked the frame. This supposed Rubens oil sketch had been painted on a support that is found in none of the artist’s oil sketches – on a soft, conifer wood, not on his customary oak panel. Its appearance was, for a Rubens oil sketch, disturbingly close in design and effects to those of both the ink drawing and the finished painting (see Figs. 2, 3 and 4). Its arrival completed an unicum in Rubens’ oeuvre: a suite of stages of work without evidence of development. Notwithstanding that problem, the modello on the wrong wood was given to Rubens by Christie’s themselves, to join the company of a panel painting whose back, it later emerged, had disappeared in an operation for which no one acknowledged responsibility, and a drawing whose back was concealed by being pasted onto a second sheet even though it bore drawing itself. The modello sold to a London gallery for £24,000, going to a private collector before passing through Agnews to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1972. The last of the trio to emerge, this technically problematic work-without-provenance was the first to achieve museum status. At some point, pieces of wood were removed from its sides (creating a closer compositional alignment with what is now the National Gallery painting) and, at another, the Cincinnati museum claimed the panel to be oak. Presently the wood is not identified, the work being described as on “panel”.

Why? Why? Why? Delilah?

In July 1980, the supposed third stage, the Samson and Delilah painting, was sold by Neurburg’s heirs through Christie’s to Agnews, acting on behalf of the National Gallery, for a then Rubens world record price of £2.53m. In 2002, with two parts of the Samson and Delilah trio now secure in museums and the third in a respected private collection, Sotheby’s sold a painting, The Massacre of the Innocents (see Fig. 13), as an autograph Rubens on the back of its perceived shared characteristics and collections history with the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah for £49.5m, to Lord (Kenneth) Thompson. Even though those paintings are riddled with problems (see “Is this really a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Art Review, July/August 1997, and “Is this a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Jackdaw, October 2002), and the Samson and Delilah had been challenged for over a decade [5], the price was an outright old masters’ world record. Thompson loaned the Massacre to the National Gallery and then bequeathed it to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, thereby making it publicly available and greatly enhancing its pedigree. Thus, today, three high valued well-placed but individually problematic museum Rubens’s owe their positions to a belated acceptance of Burchard’s initial attribution of what is still a privately (but now anonymously) owned ink drawing.

Who cut Samson’s toes?

The reason why all of these subsequent Rubens upgrades rest on the authority of this ink drawing is because of a glaringly anomalous feature in the National Gallery painting – the fact that the toes of Samson’s right foot are cropped by the edge of the picture. This was not because the panel had been trimmed at some point. Rather, it is because the painting simply stops disturbingly, inexplicably, at the beginning of the toes. Thus, without the drawing’s seeming testimony that Rubens had planned to crop Samson’s toes by cropping his own initial design within a precisely drawn ruled box that anticipated (even before he had executed an oil sketch) the final format of what is now the National Gallery painting, that painting could never have been attributed to him. This is so for reasons that are implicit in Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity. It read:

“The photographed painting on the other page is one of Peter Paul Rubens’ major works from the time of the master’s return from Italy. It must have been painted in 1609 or 1610. With Rubens’ agreement, Jacob Matham reproduced the painting with a copper engraving around 1615. As witnessed by the inscription of the painting, the picture at that time was in the possession of Antwerp mayor Nicolas Rockox. Indeed, the inventory of Nic. Rockox’ estate, dated 19 Dec. 1640, lists the picture as “Eene schilderne…(Annales de l’Academie d’Archaeologie de Belgique, Anvers 1881, p. 437). On pp. 143-44 in vol. I of 1886, the five-volume catalogue of Rubens’ work by Max Rooses, the painting is described in detail as number 115, based on the Matham engraving and mentioning the Rockox inventory. The picture itself remained as unknown to Rooses as to all literature since. It is further notable that a picture of an interior by Frans Francken (Pinakothek Munchen No 720), which appeared to be of mayor Rockox’s living room, showing the painting in pride of place above the mantelpiece, while in an adjoining room is the picture of the “Doubting Thomas” which we know Rubens painted for Rockox. According to S. Hartveld of Antwerp, the room with the mantelpiece exists even today in the Kaiserstraat in Antwerp where Frau Gruter-Van der Linden now lives in the Rockox house. A sketch for the Samson picture (pen, varnished, 16.4 x 16.2) is in Amsterdam in the collection of Mr J.Q. Regteren, Altena. The picture is in a remarkably good state of preservation, with even the back of the panel in its original condition.” [By courtesy of the National Gallery Archives Department.]

Note, even as Burchard asserts that this is the original painting of the subject that Rubens is known to have made shortly after 1608, he acknowledges that the original painting itself had universally been understood to have been lost since 1641. (To this day, despite detailed and sustained searches, nothing connects the present version to the original painting.) Crucially, Burchard also acknowledges that the appearance of the original Samson and Delilah had been recorded in two contemporary copies, one of which had been supervised by Rubens. Both of these copies by two artists who likely worked decades apart, testify that Samson’s original right foot had not been (improbably) cropped at the toes, as in the National Gallery version, but had originally been painted intact and set comfortably inside the composition and consistently with the artist’s known manner. See, for example, the almost contemporary, probably pendant (and near mirror-image compositional group) Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity”, at Fig. 9.

A perplexing silence

It was in defiance of such hard historical testimony that Burchard claimed his own upgraded ink drawing to be not only by Rubens but, specifically, to be his preliminary sketch for the former Honthorst painting that is now in the National Gallery. When attributing that painting to Rubens Burchard executed a sleight of hand by implying but not stating that the ink drawing (which had only recently been sold as a van Dyck) was by Rubens. The truth is this ink drawing-from-nowhere and without-history had needed to exist if the Berlin Honthorst were to be presented remotely credibly as a Rubens. Had Burchard sincerely believed that the cropped-foot drawing was Rubens’ original ink sketch, he would have felt himself the agent of a remarkable double art historical coup: first, for having identified a famous masterpiece that had been lost for 289 years; second, for having further established that both of the contemporary copies of that original Rubens’ painting (through which it had been known for centuries), had been compositionally misleading in identical manners.

Conspicuously, Burchard trumpeted neither of these “discoveries” [6]. His diffidence contrasts markedly with the reaction of the day’s leading Vermeer scholar, Dr. Abraham Bredius, who believed in 1937 that he had found an unknown Vermeer (in what was the first of a stream of Han van Meegeren fakes). Firstly, Bredius’ certificate of authenticity was ecstatically and unreservedly fulsome: “…I found it hard to contain my emotions when this masterpiece was first shown to me and many will feel the same who have the privilege of beholding it. Composition, expression, colour – all combine to an unity of the highest art, the highest beauty”. Secondly, he rushed news of his discovery onto the scholarly record via the Burlington Magazine (“A New Vermeer”, November 1937).

If Bredius betrayed credulousness as an eighty-two year old scholar, what of Burchard’s manoeuvres as a forty-four year old at the peak of his powers? It can only be said that suspicions are in order. When, shortly after the First World War, the great German scholar, Wilhelm von Bode, was reproached for having certificated an implausible Petrus Christus, he replied, “You don’t understand the intricacies of the German language. After a brief description of the subject I say ‘I have never seen a Petrus Christus like this!'” (- “The Partnership”, Colin Simpson, 1987, p. 240). One must suspect that Burchard’s twinned and circular Rubens attributions were made sotto voce out of fear that his “attributional” heist might be exposed by anyone with an alert eye who appreciated that it is surprisingly common for later copies of original works to be cruder compositionally cut-down and abridged versions – and who would, therefore, recognise the “Honthorst” as a prime member of that type.

We have found that not only are such insensitively truncated pictures frequently encountered (in Rubens twice-over with the Samson and Delilah and the Ontario Massacre, and in artists like Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci – see opposite) but, also, that with a little effort they can in almost every instance be shown to post-date the superior models and prototypes from which they derive. As shown opposite, in copyists’ hands, no part of an original composition can be considered sacrosanct. As well as toes, dogs’ noses and cupids’ wings, even portions of dead infants have been cropped to fit pre-existing images to new supports and formats. Mistaking a copy for an absent original is one thing. Disregarding clear and contrary historical evidence, as Burchard would seem to have done, is another altogether. Knowingly elevating adulterated versions to a master’s oeuvre pollutes the well of scholarship and ultimately threatens the credibility of the field.

Such lapses of critical judgement are as common in appraisals of restorations as they are in the making of attributions. How much or little of an original surface has survived the vicissitudes of time and “conservators” attentions might seem a lesser matter but it is not. Professional art critical failures to spot the tell-tale differences between autograph and studio works are the twins of failures to recognise restoration-induced injuries. The differences of states within individual works can be as pronounced as the differences between autograph and studio works (see Figs. 28a, 28b, 29 and 30). Failures of judgement in both areas are frequently found in even the most high-ranking individual scholars.

Making two Caravaggios in one decade

Within little more than a decade the late Sir Denis Mahon upgraded two pictures to autograph Caravaggio status. This might seem unremarkable given that Mahon was a prolific finder/maker of old masters. What is remarkable is that he did so with two versions (of more than a dozen) of the same painting – Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. This Caravaggio survives in two formats, one being a truncated version of the other. Mahon managed to endorse one version of each type, doing so in the wake of two “investigative” restorations in which each team claimed revealed authenticity on the basis of its own “discoveries”. (Mahon had serious form in the double attributions stakes – we discuss opposite a painting of Annibale Carracci where he authenticated one version and later suavely switched to another, less abridged, picture. See Figs. 25-30.)

During the first restoration in 1993 in Dublin, a long-attributed Honthorst copy was found to have been made largely without revisions and it was declared the original autograph Caravaggio by Mahon precisely by virtue of its revisions-light painterly fluency. This version was of the truncated type. In Rome in 2004 Mahon conferred autograph Caravaggio status on a work from Florence (where acquired from the Sannini family) that was found to have been made with many and major revisions taken to be “serious afterthoughts as was Caravaggio’s wont”. This version was composed in the larger format and Mahon reportedly said he had “no doubt that this was now the original work”. Dublin was not best pleased and Mahon promptly rowed his position back and claimed that both versions were now original but that one was rather more so than the other. (See “New twist in the tale of two Caravaggios”, Daily Telegraph, 17 February 2004; “A dangerous business”, Michael Daley, letter, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; and, “The real Caravaggio is . . . both of them” Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2004.)

Like the two R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam drawings, the two “autograph” Mahon Caravaggios have enjoyed unequal fortunes. In 1993 the (revisions-light) Dublin Caravaggio was loaned to the National Gallery in London and then, permanently, to the National Gallery in Dublin. The later 2004 Florence/Rome Caravaggio with numerous major revisions and other “cast iron” technical proofs enjoyed no institutional protection, being still in private hands. Its cause seems to have fallen into abeyance following legal disputes over ownership. In 2005 the initial 1993 “discovery” of the now institutionally protected Dublin Caravaggio (Mahon enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the National Gallery in London, as a trustee and as a generous benefactor-in-waiting) became the subject of an illuminating, if somewhat parti pris book, “The Lost Painting”, by Jonathan Harr.

In an epilogue, Harr has described a falling-out over the ownership of the Florence/Rome version. Technical examinations of the painting were ordered by court prosecutors without the knowledge of the owners. They were carried out by Maurizio Seracini, a leading private technical diagnostician who has examined something like half of Caravaggio’s output. The pigment Naples Yellow, which contains the metal antinomy, was found. Because that pigment is presently said not to have been used on paintings before 1630 (or “from around 1620”, according to Wikipedia), and therefore twenty years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, Seracini held the painting inauthentic. Harr accepts the force of this technical testimony and, concluding that Mahon had demonstrably blundered in his support for the Rome/Florence painting, imagines that that old scholar’s long-time adversary, Roberto Longhi, might now be enjoying “a mirthless laugh” over Mahon’s discomfiture. The conclusion was hasty and perhaps too trusting of technical testimony.

It is certainly the case that the presence of a modern, manufactured pigment within the fabric of a supposedly old painting can safely be considered fatal to an attribution. However, Naples Yellow is not a product of a known and precisely dated modern manufacture – such as Prussian Blue of 1704 – it is ancient and greatly pre-dates Christ. Harr acknowledges that the pigment is found on a painting of 1615 by Orazio Gentileschi – just five years after Caravaggio’s death. Harr further reports that traces of this pigment had been found on another Caravaggio, his Martydom of St Ursula, which is owned by Banca Intesta in the Palazzo Zevallos, Naples. He reports a suggestion that the offending material might have come from an 18th century restoration that had subsequently been removed. Such hypothetical exculpation would only be necessary if claims that Naples Yellow could not have been used by anyone before 1630 were Gospel and if the painting’s attribution was insecure. Neither is the case. The Martyrdom is one of Caravaggio’s most reliably and completely documented works so there can be no question about its authenticity. Further, it was almost certainly his last work. It was recorded as still being wet in May 1610. If this painting contains antimony, and unless evidence exists to support the former existence of a now entirely disappeared 18th century restoration, we should accept that this material has now been found in two Caravaggio paintings and adjust the technical literature chronologies accordingly.

In this episode, we see that negative hard “scientific evidence” can be discounted on the basis of assumptions, hunches, and suspicions. We also see that the claimed chronologies of materials within the literature of technical analysis are moveable and, only ever, provisional feasts. (For such chronologies to be considered reliable it would be necessary for every painting in the world to be analysed at the same time by the most advanced technologies – and even then, subsequent technical advances would require further examinations: it is common for old formerly “advanced” tests to be re-run in conservation departments when new and improved apparatus become available.) We have asked Seracini, in the light of Harr’s comments, if “it is still the case that the presence of antimony is considered an absolute technical disqualification in paintings made before 1630?” Meanwhile, Jacques Franck, the Consulting Expert to The Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at The University of California, Los Angeles, advises that:

“The best scientific bibliographic reference concerning the history and chemistry of pigments over here is: J. Petit, J. Roire, H. Valot, “Des liants et des couleurs pour servir aux artistes peintres et aux restaurateurs”, EREC éditeur, Puteaux, 1995. Regarding Naples yellow, it says: ‘(Lead antimonate yellow) was rediscovered in Europe at the end of the Middle-Ages and was later mentioned in a document dating from 1540, “Pirotechnia”. The oldest recipes, written in 1556-1559, were supplied by Cipriano Piccolpaso…who was a painter of ceramics”

Although those recipes were indeed written primarily in connection with ceramics, given that they existed before Caravaggio’s birth (1571) it should never have been insisted that knowledge of them could not have been obtained by contemporary painters. As it happens, a study on Lorenzo Lotto’s pigments was made in connection with the exhibition “Lorenzo Lotto” (Venezia, 1480 – Loreto, 1556-57) at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome in spring 2011. On that occasion, more than fifty Lotto paintings spanning from 1505 to around 1556 were studied using non-invasive techniques by Maria Letizia Amadori, Pietro Baraldi, Sara Barcelli and Gianluca Poldi. The authors’ report (pages 2 and 19):

“About yellows, he uses both lead-tin and lead-antimony (Naples yellow) pigments, the latter found by XRF, in works starting from 1530 to the last years: it can be related to the ‘zalolin da vasarj’ cited by Lotto in 1541 in his account book (Libro di spese diverse)”, and, “As XRF analyses show, in some works, starting from 1530 to the last years of the century, also lead-antimony (Naples yellow) pigments, can be found, together with the previous yellow or almost alone: they can be related to the “zalolin da vasarj” cited by Lotto in 1541 in his account book (Libro di spese diverse).”

Thus, the presence of antimony would seem not to have given grounds for dismissing the Florence/Rome version of the Taking in the courts. Perhaps we can see that it might have been more to the point for the courts to require the production of the best possible photographs of as many of the versions as possible to permit visual comparisons of the two rival versions. There are many indications of the limitations of modern conservation practices to be had in Harr’s fascinating account. On page 169 he describes an encounter between the Dublin National Gallery of Art’s two picture restorers, Andrew O’Connor and Sergio Benedetti (who had re-attributed the Hontorst Taking to Caravaggio, and who had experienced “a fleeting moment of doubt” about his attribution while cutting ever larger ‘windows’ through the painting’s varnish):

“One day, about three weeks after the painting’s arrival, O’Connor and Benedetti crossed paths in the studio. Benedetti was staring at the painting. He stood with his arms crossed, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his mouth compressed into a frown. ‘Look at the arm of Judas’, Benedetti said to O’Connor. ‘What do you think?’ O’Connor studied the painting. ‘What are you getting at?’ he asked. ‘It seems too short, doesn’t it?’ said Benedetti. It did…O’Connor realised that Benedetti was wrestling with his doubts. ‘Well’, said Benedetti finally, ‘he wasn’t a perfect anatomist. He made other errors like this. In the Supper at Emmaus, the apostle’s hand is too large.’”

In this recollection we might be witness to a double failure of art critical methodology. Given his doubts, Benedetti might have assembled all available photographs of the many versions of this painting to determine whether or not the short-coming that concerned him was unique or common to (some or all) other versions. A greater lapse may be evident in the fact that while Benedetti expressed anxiety over the arm of Judas, he seems not to have done so over the compositionally and emotionally more important advancing left arm of the fleeing St John who is seen behind Christ and Judas. In the Dublin version, the arm of St John is cropped above the elbow and not above the wrist as it is in the Florence/Rome version. (On the compositional function of the arm in the Florence/Rome version, see comments at Figs. 21 and 22.)

To repeat what should be self-evident: pictures are made to be looked at. When, as with this Caravaggio, multiple versions exist we should make hard detailed visual comparisons of each against the others, if necessary (and it could hardly be otherwise when so many versions exist) by photographic means. When later copies or engravings exist we should make careful comparative estimations of their relationships to the various contenders. Whenever there are cut-down versions of more expansive compositions, we should always consider which state is likelier to have been the primary and which the secondary one. Visual comparisons in attributions, as in restorations, are of the essence. They should never be neglected, let alone discounted, on the authority of some technical evidence that may or may not be soundly framed; that may or may not be selective or loaded in its presentation; and, that will, in any event, soon be rendered obsolete by more up-to-date equipment. The informed human eye is our best “diagnostic tool” in the study of art and will remain so no matter how much money and resources might be thrown into technical studies. It remains the greatest tragedy that Bernard Berenson so badly debased his own critical currency with his shady Duveen dealings. On the primacy of the visual in visual art forms he was peerless:

“I am here concerned with names in painting. When I pronounce the words Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giorgione, Durer, Velazquez, Vermeer, Ingres, Manet, Degas and hundreds of others, each stands for certain qualities which I expect to find in a painting ascribed to them. If the expectation fails, then no argument, no documentary evidence, be it biographical, historical, psycho-analytical, or radiological and chemical will persuade me.”

That was and is how it should be.

Michael Daley


1 The Times, letter, 13 August 2014:

“Sir, Gerald Fitzgerald (letter, Aug 12), misses an important point when calling for a tiny levy on art sales to fund an independent centre for provenance research. Although such a levy might cost only .05 per cent of annual art sales, currently standing at some $60 billion, if effective, such a centre would reduce the supply of works on the market by something like 40 per cent – at least in the view of the late Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The art world is very quick on its feet: when calls were made in the 1930s for an independent centre of art restoration research, then director of the National Gallery in London, Kenneth Clark, promptly established a department of conservation science in order, as he later confessed, to ‘have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to “prove” that every precaution had been taken’. Although self-policing may be an unrealistic ambition, governments could help considerably and at little cost by making it a statutory requirement that vendors should disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art. As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting.”

Michael Daley, Director, ArtWatch UK, London

2 The Massacre of the Innocents which came up at Sotheby’s on 10 July 2002 as a very recent Rubens upgrade is a case in point of misleading assurances and over-ridden technical evidence. In a long sale catalogue entry it was said that technical analyses and condition reports had been commissioned and that these were available on request. The implication was clear: we have exercised all possible due diligence and this painting has emerged with flying colours. That implicit reassurance evaporated on a close reading of the material – as we reported in the October 2002 Jackdaw (“Is this £49.5 million painting by Rubens?”). The reports were, by their nature dense and couched in technical language. Nonetheless they clearly contained information that was highly injurious to the attribution and to the picture’s claimed early dating of c. 1609-11. One technical fact alone should have sunk the attribution. It was found in the last paragraph of the last report. As we put it: “The author of a report on the tree-ring dating…concludes that a date of execution for the picture only becomes ‘plausible from 1615 upwards’.” In other words, the panel on which this picture was painted could not have been manufactured at the time the picture is said to have been painted – and this dating could not be amended because, like the Samson and Delilah, the picture was only remotely credible on stylistic grounds if seen as the product of a (fancifully claimed) brief stylistic abberation in Rubens’ oeuvre said to have occurred on his immediate return from Italy in 1608. As well as being on wood that was too recent, the picture contained the wrong materials: “A pigment, orpiment, that is found in no Rubens is present here. A second pigment, smalt, said to have been in use ‘mainly in the mid-seventeenth century’ and which seems only to be found in Rubens’ later works is also present. The orpiment yellow is anomalous not only in its presence but in its manner of application – it is mixed with lead-tin yellow. Such a combination is said to be ‘unusual since it was considered unstable’ and, even, to be a practice ‘not encountered in 17th century works’”. This was not just a twice-over dead attribution: “Speaking of Rubens’ debt to classical sources, the anonymous author of the catalogue entry correctly concedes, ‘one of the background figures appears to derive from the Borghese Gladiator’. There follows immediate self-disavowal: ‘it cannot’ so derive, he/she contends, because ‘though famous in subsequent centuries, the Borghese Gladiator was not excavated until late in 1611”. This painting on the wrong (too recent) wood, with what would normally be considered disqualifying (out of period)materials, and which contained a miraculous allusion to a future event, was presented to the world as a major art historical discovery. That “discovery” had taken place very shortly before the sale. The upgrading of this centuries old studio work had been made by just five experts only three of whom were identified. We put the question: “Can it be right that we are all being asked to share this leap of faith when the experts, displaying a seeming ignorance of – or disregard for – so much germane material evidence, have yet to declare their hands or publish accounts of their vital endorsements?”

3 Jonathan Harr reports in his 2005 account of the upgrading of a Honthorst to Caravaggio (“The Lost Painting” p. 222) that when the picture, The Taking of Christ, was examined at the National Gallery in London it was found that its ground (priming layer) was anomalous: Ashok Roy, the head of science, observed, as Harr reports, that “the composition of this particular ground was strange – ‘bizarre’ was the word used. It contained reds and yellows and large grains of green earth, a pigment composed of iron and magnesium. Grounds usually contained lead-based pigments and calcium, which dry quickly. Green earth dries slowly. This primer looked to Roy like a ‘palette-scraping’ ground – the painter had simply recycled leftover paints from his palette board to make the priming layer.” Well, yes, someone evidently had – but what in Roy’s detailed technical analysis of the ground might have suggested that on this occasion Caravaggio had departed from his own habits in order to do so? When the painting was exhibited in a special exhibition (“Caravaggio ~ The Master Revealed”) at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1993, the catalogue gave a different spin to Roy’s research: “Analyses have shown that the ground is composed of a brown pigment, heterogeneous and unevenly applied. Several pigments were mixed with it: lead white, red and yellow ochre, umber and large granuli of green earth.” On a casual reading: impressive and reassuring technical detail and expertise. No mention of bizarreness. No acknowledgement of what was for Dr. Roy, a perplexing departure from Caravaggio’s known practices. On page 160 Harr reports that Sergio Benedetti (the Dublin National Gallery of Art restorer who first made the attribution)“saw immediately that the painting had been relined at least once before” and judged the present lining canvas to be at least a hundred years old. In the National Gallery catalogue Benedetti reported that “the picture has undergone at least three interventions, probably accompanied each time by a relining of the canvas. One of these linings caused a shrinking of the surface in some limited areas.” What is not said is that Benedetti two of the three-plus hypothecated linings had been made by Benedetti himself the first having caused cracking. Harr reports that after the first lining “There is much dispute about what happened next. For Benedetti, restoring the Taking of Christ was the greatest moment in his professional career, and to this day he adamantly denies that he had any problem relining the painting. O’Connor and others at the gallery, however, tell a very different story. According to them, he came close to ruining the painting.” Andrew O’Connor, the Gallery’s chief restorer, said that Benedetti had elected to use a densely-woven Irish canvas rather than wait for an appropriately matching loose-weave canvas to arrive from Italy. When Michael O’Olohan, the gallery’s photographer, who had made detailed photographic records of every inch of the picture’s surface, saw the painting immediately after its first relining, he could not believe his eyes and recalled “There were areas that had hairline cracks, like a sheet of ice that has started to melt, a flash of cracks all over it. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.” O’Connor explained that because the Irish canvas was densely woven, “it did not absorb the [water-based] glue at the same rate as the old Italian canvas. It had not dried properly and had contracted, pulling with it the Italian canvas and raising ridges, small corrugations, in the paint surface. Along these corrugations, the paint layer had cracked and lifted.”

4 In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21, (“The ‘Samson and Delilah’ ~ a question of attribution”), Kasia Pisarek wrote: “Dr. Ludwig Burchard was an active Rubens attributionist in Berlin before the Second World War and in London afterwards. Several paintings formerly attributed to Rubens’s school or studio or even to another artist (such as Sampson and Delilah), were reinstated by Burchard as by the master. I traced many of his attributions – he was not infallible in his judgement and changed his mind. Surprisingly, over 60 pictures attributed by Burchard to Rubens were later down-graded (in Corpus Rubenianum) to studio works, copies or imitations.”

5 The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, author of the award-winning 1995 book “The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt”, and Kasia Pisarek whose 2009 doctorate dissertation was entitled “Rubens and Connoisseurship ~ On the problems of attribution and rediscovery in the British and American collections (late XIX – XX c.)”. In 1986 Euphrosyne Doxiadis began researching the painting’s credentials with fellow art students Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson. Their findings were compiled in a report submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and which is now held in the painting’s dossiers. (It is also available online at this site: Their challenges to the attribution were covered in reports in the Times (“Artists raise fresh doubts on gallery’s Rubens masterpiece”, 22 September 1996, and “Expert denounces National Gallery’s Rubens”, 25 November 1996), and in The Independent on Sunday (“Tell-tale sign that £40m Rubens could be a copy”, 21 May 2000). Researches begun in 1990 by Kasia Pisarek prompted two articles on 5 October 1997 by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that “the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”.

6 As Dr. Pisarek put it in the ArtWatch UK Journal 21 (“The ‘Samson and Delilah’ ~ a question of attribution”): “Both the rediscovery and the sale of this early Rubens masterpiece should have been well publicised in the press, yet there are no records of it in any art magazine (I checked most art journals published in 1929-30). However, other, even minor, Rubens discoveries could easily be traced (‘Forgotten Rubens found in Austria’ – Art News, 1930; ‘Van Diemen sells notable Rubens’ – Art News, 1931 etc.) Strangely, the Samson and Delilah was not even included in Valentiner’s ‘Unknown Masterpieces’, co-edited with Burchard, and published in 1930, which presented important little-known and rediscovered paintings. Dr. Burchard only wrote about it briefly in 1933, and only in a short note.”

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Above, Fig. 1: A chalk drawing that originated with the firm R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam in 1929 and sold as a Veronese for 750 florins (guilders) or some €6,801.91 at today’s exchanges.
Below, Fig. 2: An ink and wash drawing that originated with the firm R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam in 1926 and sold the following year as a van Dyck for 26 florins (guilders), or some €235.80 at today’exchanges
Above, top, Fig. 2: The ink and wash drawing sold on 10 July 2014 as a preliminary ink sketch for Rubens’ Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, middle, Fig. 3: An oil painting on panel that sold at Christie’s for £24,000 in 1966 as Rubens’ oil sketch (or modello) for what is now the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, Fig. 4: The oil painting on panel sold for £2.53m at Christie’s in 1980 to the National Gallery as Rubens’ original Samson and Delilah.
The three works above are claimed to comprise an entirely autograph suite of successive stages of Rubens’ treatment of Samson and Delilah.
Above, top, Fig. 5: An engraved copy (here as a mirror image) made in c. 1611-14 of Rubens’ (now lost) original Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail of a painting (made before 1640) by Frans Francken of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah as it was displayed in the home of his friend and patron Nicolaas Rockox. This painting and the engraving above both show that Samson’s right foot was originally intact and set comfortably away from the edge of the painting.
Above, top, Fig. 7: A larger detail of Frans Francken’s c. 1630-35 oil painting A Feast in the House of Nicolaas Rockox, showing the original Rubens Samson and Delilah in pride of place in Rockox’s home.
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery Rubens’ Samson and Delilah when on loan in 2007 to what is now the Rockoxhuis museum, Antwerp.
Above, top, Fig. 9: Rubens’ painting Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity” of 1611-13 (here as a mirror image) in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
Above, Fig. 10: The National Gallery Samson and Delilah painting.
Comparison of the two works shows in the former, the exceptional grace, composure of design and warmth of colouring for which the artist is revered, while the latter asserts an uncharacteristic stridency that required the National Gallery to posit a “special-but-brief” stylistic Rubens interlude.
Above (left) Fig. 11a: Cimon’s feet, as painted by Rubens. Above (right) Fig. 11b: The right-hand edge of the National Gallery Samson and Delilah.
It is not credible to suggest than an artist so brilliantly attentive to feet and hands might have painted the foot encountered in the National Gallery.
Above, top, Fig. 12: The version of Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents that is owned by the Musée des Beaux-arts in Brussels.
Above, Fig. 13: The version of Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents loaned to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Just as the National Gallery’s The Virgin of the Rocks (below) is a cut-down replica version of the Louvre’s Leonardo original, so the Ontario Massacre of the Innocents is a cut-down version of the larger canvas at the Musée des Beaux-arts in Brussels. Although now said to be a “studio replica” the latter was judged original by such eminent Rubens authorities, as Gluck, Held, Van Puyvelde and Michael Jaffé.
The cropping of motifs in the Ontario version seems particularly insensitive as it includes the two murdered infants who, in the Brussels version, were depicted whole and set (like Samson’s original toes) comfortably inside the edge of the painting. How likely is it that Rubens would have cropped his figures in this manner or, if by chance he had, that a copyist would presume to extend and make whole his composition ?
Above, Figs. 14a and 14b. The regretably unequal photographic quality of this comparison does not mitigate the disturbing cropping of the infants in the Ontario version (left) which, like the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, spent many years as studio copy in the Liechtenstein Collection.
Above, top, Figs. 15a and 15b: Left, the Louvre’s original Leonardo da Vinci The Virgin of the Rocks; right, the National Gallery’s later version of the painting.
Above, Figs. 16a and 16b: The infant St. John in Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks (left) and (right) the infant in the National Gallery’s later version of the painting.
In the latter we encounter an uncharacteristic indifference to design, sloppiness of treatment and iconographic brutality in the depiction of an infant saint. While the securely autograph Louvre painting has never been in question, considerable argument has arisen over the extent to which Leonardo’s hand is present in the National Gallery version.
In the catalogue to the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci ~ Painter to the Court of Milan”, the gallery’s head of restoration, Larry Keith, (who had restored the Virgin of the Rocks prior to the exhibition), was in no doubt that the London version was entirely autograph. He wrote of “discoveries” made in the course of restoration:
“…What we discover is a painter firmly grounded in traditional practice who was able to stretch his methods and materials to express unprecedented intellectual and artistic concerns. However, these painterly interests were only a part of a larger pursuit; he believed that careful observation of all manner of natural phenomena was essential for both new knowledge and a deeper understanding….The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks is a painting that is at once unique and highly representative of how Leonardo worked. Produced in fits and starts over the last 15 or so years of a commission that took 25 years to complete, it is a composition of the most artful complexity and an image where local colour was sublimated to the newer demands of tonal unity…The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks…is manifestly uneven in finish and execution but, perhaps, paradoxically, this quality allows us to explore key issues in his painterly practice – methods, materials, collaboration, delegation and finish – and thereby understand better the larger question of the relationship between his painting techniques and his artistic intent…”
Needless to say, this conviction that the picture is an entirely autograph, unique-but-representative Leonardo is not universally accepted. Even at the National Gallery, Leonardo’s authorship has not always been accepted. In 1947 the curator Martin Davies took issue with the picture’s very many doubters (who included the recently former director of the gallery, Kenneth Clark):
“It has to be admitted at the outset that the identification of Leonardo da Vinci’s pictures is by no means the sure and simple thing one might think. It is a fact that there exists no picture of his Milanese period that has not at one time been rejected by famous critics; except for the Cenacolo, which is ruined, and hardly suitable for stylistic criticism at all! The whole subject of Leonardo’s style is therefore somewhat doubtful; but in the particular case of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery, there has been a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it…”
Davies believed the critics to be wrong, but in making his case he conceded many things germane to our concerns here. He acknowledged that this painting was a replica and that it was “quite likely under these circumstance that he [Leonardo] had no great interest in the work”. Although a replica in the sense that Leonardo had been obliged to paint a second version of a commission, Davies draws an ingenious distinction: “the picture is not simply a replica” because so much time had passed that Leonardo had left one artistic era and entered another, making “the picture […] the replica of a work in an older and different style”. Leonardo’s new style “was perhaps expressed rather imperfectly, because the picture is a replica.”
The National Gallery’s suggestion that its “Rubens” Samson and Delilah does not look like any of its twenty-odd secure Rubens’s because he had worked for a brief period in a style like none of his others was a desperate denial of the fact that its “out-of-style” traits stem from its true status as a replica. A more frank acceptance of the Virgin of the Rocks’ acknowledged replica status might might have spared decades of convoluted apologias. Where Larry Keith sees in the Virgin of the Rocks material evidence throughout that “careful observation of all manner of natural phenomena was essential for both new knowledge and a deeper understanding”, another student of Leonardo and Nature, Ann Pizzorusso (who trained as a geologist before becoming an art historian) took an entirely contrary view. For Pizzorusso, the gallery’s claims of some radical shift of style as a means of accounting for the London picture’s problems were entirely and demonstrably without foundation. She was clear on this site that no shift of style could account the picture’s problems because none had occurred:
“Using a date of 1510 for the Virgin and St. Anne and a date of 1483-86 for the Virgin of the Rocks, both in the Louvre, we have proof that Leonardo did not change his style, and that, if anything, he became more fanatical in his quest for geologic accuracy, developing new paints and techniques for natural depiction and driving his students to deliver the most accurate depiction of nature in their own works. So we must ask the question ‘How and why could Leonardo have changed his style to produce a work so lacking in geological and botanical accuracy as the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery in London?’ There is no evidence Leonardo changed his style and now, with the recently cleaned Virgin and St. Anne, we have that proof. We also know that his students were inculcated with his passion for accurate depiction of natural objects so we must also exclude his students as authors of the National Gallery work.”
Writing nearly a decade earlier than Davies, Kenneth Clark, discussed the head of the angel in the London Virgin of the Rocks in his 1938 book of (marvellous black and white comparative photographs) “One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery”. Of the angel’s head, he wrote “This is the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable…” For Clark, changes in Leonardo’s work over the years were evident, but unlike Davies later and Keith much later, he seems not to have seen evidence of the Later Leonardo equally and everywhere across the painting. For Clark, this curate’s egg of a picture was, in only select parts, very, very good indeed. Of the angel’s head:
“Beautiful as 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 and classic regularity of chiarascuro were combined, with a certain loss in freshness, but with an expressive power which almost hypnotized his contemporaries.”
Clark was onto something interesting when speaking of Leonardo’s “hand” – the characteristic touch and surface of his paintwork. It so happens that there was a tool to hand that could have been the greatest boon to those charged with making attributions: high quality micro-photography. Clark, as his own two books of National Gallery details show, was certainly alert to the potency of high quality photographs but he used his comparisons of details to flag up differences between artists in their treatments of similar subjects. That was a perfectly interesting and instructive application. He overlooked, however, the possibility (and the great profitability) of taking, assembling and collating many thousands of details from the most secure, “Gold Standard” paintings, so as to create visual benchmark indicators of artists’ distinctive methods. (Just imagine Morelli and His Ears in an era of digital photography and computers.) If the failure to pursue such programmes in the immediate impoverished years after the Second World War might be excusable, what excuse exists in today’s digital era? The pioneering photographs (shown here at Figs. 18 and 19) by Professor A. P. Laurie in his 1949 book “The Technique of the Great Painters” constituted a perfect template for a means of more accurate visual appraisals – we surely have fewer excuses today than any generation in history for stumbling as if half-blind through the minefield of attribution?
Below, Fig. 17: Martin Davies’ 1947 large format essay on the gallery’s Virgin of the Rocks carried 16 highly informative plates (including this one below of the infant St. John which appears to suggest multiple but vain attempts to keep the toes within the picture?
Above: an unexplained cropped foot
Below: an almost never-used photographic method of comparing brush strokes
Above, Fig. 18: Professor A. P. Laurie explained the significance of this pair of spliced photographs in his 1949 book “The Technique of the Great Painters”:
“This illustration is a photomicrograph of the highlight on the shoulder of [Rembrandt’s] Woman Bathing, National Gallery, No.54. The patch pasted on is from a photomicrograph of a picture whose attribution had to be tested. It will be seen that the brushwork is identical in both cases. It is possible for a skilled forger to imitate a signature, but it is quite impossible to combine the quality of the paint, the nature of the brush, and the handling of the painter, so as to reproduce this complete identity.”
Below, Fig. 19: Prof. Laurie explained the significance of the brushwork below in these terms:
“There is a very interesting portrait of Verdonck [in the National Gallery of Scotland] holding in his hand the jawbone of an ass. It was known from an engraving that such a picture must have existed, but it had apparently disappeared. The Edinburgh gallery possessed a picture by Frans Hals of a man holding a wine glass in his hand. An X-ray revealed that underneath the the wine glass was a painting of the jawbone of an ass which had been painted out by some restorer and replaced by the wine glass. On careful cleaning, the restorer’s work was removed…[this photomicrograph reveals] the rapidity with which Frans Hals laid in stroke after stroke with absolute certainty. In fact the painting seems to be alive, and one can almost see the brush moving over the surface. it would be impossible to mistake this work for the brushwork of Rembrandt…”
Above, Fig. 20:“From Duccio to Raphael ~ Connoisseurship in Crisis”, James H. Beck, Florence, Italy, 2006
In this his last book, the late Professor James Beck of Columbia University, and the founder of ArtWatch International in 1992, wrote:
“Two paintings, a mini aspiring Raphael da Urbino Madonna and an equally tiny aspiring Duccio di Buoninsegna Madonna were sold for record prices in 2004. The first was bought by London’s National Gallery and the second by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. These objects and the mode in which their attributions to their famous presumed authors were achieved document a breakdown in modern connoisseurship. The two objects represent a total expenditure of public money exceeding 100 million dollars for pictures the size of a sheet of paper. These remarkable sales could not have transpired without the participation of art experts whose role was indispensable in offering authentifications of the pictures. This book will seek to define the system of attributing works of art, examine the methodology, treat in depth case studies of recent connoisseurship including the two pictures just mentioned. In addition to what is regarded as a monumental failure on the part of the experts, the use and misuse of public funds is an issue that lies just beneath the surface.”
Above, top, Fig. 21: The version of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the National Museum of Art, Odessa.
Above, top, Fig. 22: The version of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ that was formerly in the Ladis Sannini collection in Florence; was then restored in Rome and authenticated by Sir Denis Mahon; and, is presently being held during legal proceedings.
This small pair of photographs from 1967 is sufficient to show the profound compositional consequences of an extension of one work or a truncation of another. Regardless of the photographs’ poor quality and regardless of the paintings’ relative merits, (both of these, incidentally, have been supported as autograph), the question can be posed in the abstract: Which of the two compositional formats is likelier to be the prime version? Further, if Caravaggio had painted in the truncated format, would he or a copyist then likely have added an extension to the arm of the fleeing disciple in another version? Our feeling is that the Florence format has to be considered to be superior compositionally; more dynamic dramatically; less like a stiff and claustrophobic tableau; and, altogether more expressive of the magnitude of the pandemonium and horror that attended Judas’ fateful act. Whether the Florence picture is the original autograph version has to be established but reports of its pronounced revisions weigh in its favour. Desperately needed is a collation of high quality photographs of all the versions of the paintings, along with detailed photographs of the same, or greater, quality of those published by Prof. Laurie.
Above, Figs. 23 and 24: The Dublin and Rome/Florence versions of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, as reproduced in the Daily Telegraph. Sir Denis Mahon deemed both of these works – at the same time – to be the Caravaggio original.
Above, Figs. 25 and 26: The Prado’s Annibale Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid, of c. 1588-90, top, as photographed in 1965 (by Hauser y Menet) and before restoration; and, above, as seen after a restoration funded by The Fundación Reale.
Of the two versions (see a detail of the rival Vienna picture below at Fig. 28b) Mahon has supported both as the authentic original work – but this time did so consecutively, not simultaneously, as with the Caravaggio Taking. He championed the Vienna picture until the Prado one emerged. Unabashed, he saw merit in his own mistake, saying (in the 2005 exhibition catalogue) of his critical re-positioning :
“When I first wrote about this composition, some fifty years ago, my observations on style and chronology were based not on the Prado painting, since this was as yet unknown, but on the excellent early copy in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and on the preparatory drawings for the figure of Adonis in the Uffizi. When the Prado painting was first published in 1965, by Pérez Sánchez, it was gratifying to realize that, although all those of us who concerned ourselves with Emilian painting had mistakenly assumed that the Vienna picture was Annibale’s original, one’s intutitions about the importance of the work and where it fitted in the artist’s evolution were confirmed.”
This was dissimulation: had Mahon been alert to what might be called The Problem of Arbitrary and (otherwise) Bizarre or Inexplicable Croppings, he would have spotted the tell-tale warning in the cropped nose of the hound on the right of the Vienna version. This would have been the more likely had he consulted, as well as figure studies in the Uffizi, the etched copy of the original made in of 1655 by Luigi Scaramuccia (see Fig. 27, below). This delightful record shows not only that the hound’s head (like Samson’s toes elsewhere) had been set comfortably inside the picture, but, also, that the landscape at the top right was more extensive and contained an architectural feature (doubtless of some iconographic significance). Curators and restorers too often disregard the testimony of graphic artists, when, within their limits and styles, they are essentially respectful of the works they were paid to copy. (A copyist inclined to go his own way would likely get less not more employment.)
Below, Fig. 27: Luigi Scaramuccia, Venus, Adonis and Cupid, 1655, second state, The British Museum (here mirrored).
Above, Figs. 28a and 28b: Details of the Prado’s Carracci Venus, Adonis and Cupid (left), and the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum version (right).
If Mahon corrected one error with this painting, he perpetuated others. The catalogue to the exhibition that celebrated the Prado’s restoration, produced the customary self-congratulatory sponsor’s waffle (here The Fundación Reale). Less forgivable was Mahon’s claim that the restoration helped establish the date of the original work. Mahon had been a belligerent champion of National Gallery restorations when at their worst in the post-war years, mocking, in tandem with the gallery’s head of science, the objections of scholars like Sir Ernst Gombrich (who had to wait a third of a century for a full technical vindication of his objections – see How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich and 24 November 2011)
What is unsaid in the hype of big business-sponsored restorations, is that a restorer can never recover what has been lost and that by cosmetically dressing up degraded works, imparts a spurious simulation of health and historical veracity. No restoration exhibition should ever take place without the inclusion of all extant visual records of the work(s) in question. If we disregard the testimony that exists in this area, we enter a world of “art conservation” make-believe. In doing so, we leave ourselves ill-quipped to address the most urgent questions of attribution and condition. Sadly, with this Carracci painting, the two versions have experienced what restorers euphemistically call “different conservation histories”. Which means is that they have suffered to varying and unequal degees, physical assaults on their fabrics and their pictorial skins. We are all obliged to acknowledge and address these terrible truths. Not least because all the inherent difficulties of making attributions are exacerbated by these various histories of “treatments”. On the testimony of the etching, it would seem that the Vienna hound lost considerable shading to the side of his head, while his elaborately jewelled collar survived much better than that seen in the Prado version. This tells us that neither work remains a true witness to its own original self and that, therefore, theories and judgements made on the basis of the pictures’ present selves should come with careful qualifications and health warnings, and not with some facile celebration of glorious recoveries.
The differences that restorations make to individual pictures can be as great or greater than the differences that might originally have existed between an authentic original work and an extremely high quality copy of it. It should be accepted that one of the consequences of past restorations is that making sound appraisals of the merits of once closely related versions of paintings is made the more difficult. Some indication of how dramatically transforming restoration treatments can be can be might be gauged by the pair of details below (Figs. 29 and 30) from the Prado’s records of the same painting. Properly read, their inclusion, and that of the two states of the Scaramuccia etching in the Prado exhibition catalogue might constitute a most useful contribution to knowledge and understanding in this arena.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

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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