Artwatch UK

Posts tagged “Pietro Marani

Bring on the Clowns (- or, “Italy Loses It”)

Italy has decided to play international museum world catch-up at precisely the wrong moment and with a panicked, plagarising zeal that bodes ill for art lovers and that country’s own cultural well-being.


Above, James Bradburne in front of “St Mark Preaching in Alexandria” at the Brera, Milan.

We had hoped against hope that the reports were not true. We could not believe that a deranged Italy had engaged in a mass cull of museum directors in hope of a making another of its periodic surges away from itself and into the future.

It was true, of course, and we should not have averted our eyes and stuffed our ears. In a chilling report carried in the travel section of this weekend’s Finanacial Times, Claire Wrathall (“Shaking up Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera”) anatomises a cultural spasm-in-the-making:

“In January 2015 an advertisement placed by the Italian Ministry of Culture appeared in the Economist seeking directors-general for 20 of Italy’s leading museums…(Existing incumbents had to apply for their own jobs; only one, Anna Coliva of the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was rehired.) As the culture minister, Dario Francheschini, put it, ‘Italian museums should be dynamic. A country with 4,000 museums should see that as a formidable economic resource.'”

Mr Bradburne, a British-Canadian architect and museum expert has landed the directorship of the Brera in Milan (the Pinacotecca di Brera), with, as Ms Wrathall reports, the fatuous governmental brief “to turn one of the world’s greatest collections of Renaissance masterpieces (not to mention works by 20th-century Italian artists such as Modigliani, Morandi and Severini)” into “an outstanding museum.” Since when was the Brera not an outstanding museum? Since when have museums in Italy not been a formidable economic force? Italy can hardly be chasing even more tourists? If Brits are the cat’s pyjamas as curators, how come our own museums are filling up with Germans? (Could this be an EU conspiracy to simulate dynamism in a moribund entity by artificially increasing the velocity of trans-national exchanges?)


It seems that Mr Bradburne’s reputation at the Palazzo Strozzi awakened the culture minister to “the need to shake up the nation’s moribund museums”. So, how do you shake a museum blessed with great art and enjoying an ideal natural lighting in which to view paintings? Official Answer: as Mr Bradburne puts it, “When I got here I was shocked by the dull flat approach to lighting which strove to recreate the sort of northern light the artist would have worked in.”

In other words, to shake things up, you obliterate the best and most sympathetic lighting imaginable – the very light in which the work was made. And then you replace it with what? In Mr Bradburne’s own words, you swap old orthodoxy with today’s fashion, “That is an old orthodoxy; the prevailing fashion nowadays is to put things in the spotlight. We speak with light and colour now.” Note the brazen and presumptuous sleight of hand: it is we, the adminstrators, not the art, who now speak. And, “we” may now play pseudo-theatrical games with all the inappropriate and intrusive vulgarity and gusto of interior designers on the loose in a boutique: “By making the walls darker you can make more contrast”.


As well as changing the light, Bradburne plans to add smells. Oh yes! That’s right, he will add “the smells of the plants that give colours to paints”. Bradburne does not explain how the smells of mineral or insect-derived pigments will be introduced into the galleries or how if the smell of all the pigments in a painting could be captured it would be possible for the vistor to tell them apart. Bradburne does freely admit to one problem: even if he were to succeed in reproducing all the smells, “the difficulty is the scents diffuse very quickly”.
More gimmicks are in train. Labels are to be written not by museum curators but by (non-Italian?) novelists like Julian Barnes, Sarah Dunnant, Ali Smith and Orhan Pamuk.


Above (top), one of the Bradburne-Refurbished galleries; above, “The Dead Christ and Three Mourners” (1474) by Andrea Mantegna.


It has to be said that there are two cheering prospects. Although the glass wall will remain through which visitors can watch restorers nibbling away at the once-gloriously little-touched works (- I well recall being shown round the gallery by Pietro Marani, when Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was part-way through its debilitating restoration and repainting, and he proudly pointed out how well his Cima altarpiece then looked against its counterpart in the National Gallery, London), Bradborne will, at least, be eschewing the Blockbuster Game. That, he well and aptly describes as “cannibalising our collections”. Presently, he notes, “People come and never see the permanent collection”.

Further, one of the most gratuitously offensive pieces of contrived theatrical staging that predates his reign in the museum is to go. That is to say, “the most complained-about display in the museum” – Mantegna’s “Dead Christ”.

Followers of this site will recall Michel Favre-Felix’s shocking post of 13 March 2014 (“Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do”): “…the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares ‘This will last: I will fight for it’.” Good riddance to that.

Michael Daley, 2 April 2016

And the World’s Worst Restoration is…

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

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

Contender No. 1: Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contender No. 2: Spain

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

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

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

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

Contender No. 3: Egypt

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

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

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

Contender No. 4: The United Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

The Courtauld Gallery, London

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

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

Contender No. 5: China

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

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

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

Contender No. 6: Austria

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

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

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


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

…meanwhile, in London:

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

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

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

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

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

Contender No. 8: Italy ~ The Vatican

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

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

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

Contender No. 9: Italy ~ Milan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contender No. 11: Location unknown

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

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

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

Michael Daley – 8 May 2015.

The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Part 2: A traumatic production of “a different Leonardo”

14 March 2012

The unhappy $8m Olivetti-sponsored restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper began in 1977 with a repair of small flakes of detaching paint. It morphed, on very grand institutional technical advice, into a promised liberation of all of Leonardo’s surviving original paintwork. It ended after twenty-two years amidst widespread recriminations and as a distinctly mongrel work showing alarmingly little original paint and very much alien “compensatory” and “reintegrating” new paint.

Prospective major restorations are often presented as elegant technical answers to some urgent conservation necessity the resolution of which promises magnificent artistic gains. In reality, the interface between technical intervention and artistic outcomes constitutes art restoration’s fault-line and does so in a field that is notoriously subject to the law of unanticipated consequences. One of the commonest surprises is how greatly the coherence of a work had depended on earlier restoration repairs that were removed on the grounds of being alien impurities. Like Humpty Dumpty, radically stripped works often prove to be wrecks that have to put back together again and many a restorer discovers – too late – that it is easier to take to pieces than to reassemble [see Endnote 1]. The resulting changes made during restorations are often presented as “discoveries”, “recoveries” or “recuperations” when on close examination they prove to have been plain errors. One such unwarranted, unsupported, insupportable case is shown here.

Towards the end, the restorer, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, expressed the hope (Art News March 1995) that her restoration might be the last because: “The less you restore a work of art, the better its chances of survival. Each time you touch a work, it suffers a trauma, no matter how carefully you operate.” In November 1998 the Art Newspaper reported that when Mrs Brambilla was restoring a crucifixion on the wall opposite the Last Supper in 1978, she noticed that “fragments of painting were peeling off Leonardo’s work before her eyes.” The Guardian of July 21 1997 reported she had noticed “bits of painting falling from the Last Supper” and that after experts from Italy’s central institute for restoration in Rome (Istituto Centrale di Restauro) had been called in “the decision to restore the painting was swiftly taken”. Too swiftly, many Italian experts believed.

Although conservation necessities are sometimes exaggerated [see Endnote 2], with paint losses, determining the extent, cause, and remedy must always be the top priority – the equivalent of fixing a building’s leaking roof. As seen in Part 1, when the Last Supper was disintegrating to the touch after the Second World War, the then restorer, Mauro Pelliccioli, fixed the problem by embedding the paint in litres of shellac. He also won some critical praise for uncovering most of Leonardo’s own surviving paint from restorers’ over-paint. Crucially, however, he tackled the disintegrating paint first (during 1947-49). Only when the shellac was settled and the paint completely secure did he begin scraping off restorers’ repainting (during 1952-54). In this most recent restoration, despite the problem of paint detachment, work began with an intended systematic removal of the remaining repaints.

Effectively, in the last restoration the authorities undertook an all-or-nothing gamble with a masterpiece. Against the certainty that shedding the old would be disruptive of the familiar and the still-surviving, they bet that the recovery of some more fragmentary, talismanic relics of Leonardo’s paintwork would outweigh the scale of accompanying losses and newly exposed bare wall. This presumptuous naivety was to prove disastrously wrong-headed. First, as scientific tests of paint fragments (published in Studies in Conservation, August 1979) were to warn, the distinction between original paint and later restorers’ overpaint was not at all easy to establish: “the dividing line is much less clear cut”. (This was hardly surprising given the work’s earlier exposure to corrosive cleaning agents and heated metal rollers.) Second, Pelliccioli had already uncovered most (two thirds, he believed) of what was taken to be Leonardo’s surviving paint. While there was not all that much more to recover, there was, artistically, still very much to lose. Pelliccioli had left repaints in place precisely where they covered only bare wall – which is to say, where they held the image together.

The paradoxical consequence of this pursuit of original material was that the old ill-preserved yet somehow-maintained “theatrical” illusion that Leonardo had originally created was greatly undermined. One narrow specialised purist concern for what was “original” and “authentic” material was set against another larger more elusive aesthetic/artistic concern for what had been intended; for what was yet struggling to survive. Achieving the liberation of fragmentary and injured archaeological material imperfectly adhering to a damaged moisture-prone vertical surface came at the cost of eliminating all that had maintained and prolonged Leonardo’s decaying but originally mesmerising artistic illusion incorporated into the space and fabric of a large room. (Kenneth Clark had spoken fondly of “these ghostly stains upon the wall”.) The work was remorselessly stripped down to the sum total of all previously accumulated injuries in order that the resulting wreck might then be put back into some presentable aesthetic form more suited to today’s tastes. The ideological/art historical rationale offered for this purgative exercise was that every age has the right to make its own Leonardo…that the Leonardos that had come down to us from the past were somehow deficient, obsolete, culturally-contaminated; that we now simply know better. The preposterous nature and Futurist flavour of this relativist conceit (“Every previous generation has erred, we, standing outside of history – or at its end – will now get things right”) might have been held self-evident. Leo Steinberg, evidently unsettled by this recent spasm of historical/aesthetic cleansing, quoted Jonathan Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” (“Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper”, 2001.)

The purist shedding of earlier repaints regardless of their antiquity and artistic functions, necessarily guaranteed that Leonardo’s work would be “altered considerably”, as Carlo Bertelli, the then director of the restoration, acknowledged in the catalogue to the 1983 Washington National Gallery of Art exhibition of Leonardo’s studies for the Last Supper. A later defender of the restoration, Giovanni Romano, not only applauded the creation of “a different Leonardo” during “a great restoration” (Il Giornale dell’arte, April 1999) but fawningly added that he would be “satisfied with a restoration of this sort every year.” Throughout this era of vaultingly high ambition, the restoration community needed the biggest possible “sell”: nothing less than a “New Michelangelo” was said to have emerged during the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration. It became a commonplace that revolutionary restoration “discoveries” required the very “rewriting of art history”.

There is no mystery about how the latest calamity came about. In the 1983 catalogue, the Washington National Gallery curator, David Allan Brown, duly relayed the twin official reasons for the restoration: that the paint (which, under a microscope, resembled “the scaly skin of a reptile” ) had not remained secure; and, that Pelliccioli had not removed all earlier repaints. The repaints had to come off because they were now “threatening the stability of the original colour.” Not explained, was how this was so, or how much original paint had been left by Pelliccioli. In the July 2 1995 New York Times, Bertelli recalled having been “certain that there was enough beneath the additions to warrant this restoration”. He added that “Mrs Brambilla and I had examined the surface with a microscope, and we were surprised to see how much of Leonardo’s original work remained”.

In 1983 Allan Brown noted that “The expectation that a considerable portion of the original might survive [had given] a strong impetus to the decision in the late 1970s by the Superintendency of Fine Arts for Lombardy (at that time directed by Franco Russoli) in consultation with the Istituto Centrale di Restauro, to take up again the unfinished work of cleaning the picture.” This would suggest that so strong was the desire to revive and complete Pelliccioli’s unfinished aesthetic programme that the operation was begun even as the technical solution which had originally made that aesthetic objective possible was said to be failing. Whatever gains might have been hoped for or anticipated, by May 1998, Bertelli admitted (in Art News) that “Now we can see only a few square feet [of original Leonardo paint] but they are by the master” and, on a Channel 4 documentary that year (“The Lost Supper”), he characterised Leonardo’s mural as a “ruin” (“una rovina” ). In the November 1998 Art Newspaper Brambilla said, self-contradictorily, that the repaint had had to be removed out of fear that condensation might become trapped between “the artist’s original paint and the successive layers of paint”, and, that constant environmental conservation measures would henceforth be necessary because “the layers of repainting are no longer protecting the original paint.”

Which was the case? If the repaint was protecting the Leonardo paint, what had been causing the original detachments? Given that the 1979 tests mentioned above had established that it was not always possible – even under ideal laboratory conditions – to “decide exactly on the dividing line – both for areas and for layers – between what remains of the original and materials pertaining to later interventions”, how great could the risk have been of moisture insinuating itself between the original and the subsequent paint layers? On whatever technical premises it rested, when the restoration proper began on the better preserved right-hand side of the mural, the attempted removal of all previous restorers’ repaints and consolidations of paint, inevitably constituted a prolonged and sustained assault on the mural’s fabric – as Brambilla herself candidly described in the March 1995 Art News:

Here we have a surface that is completely ruined, disintegrated into tiny scales of colour that are falling off the wall. We have to clean each one of these scales six or seven times with a scalpel, working under a microscope…Here I can clean an area one day and still not be finished, because when the solvent dries it brings out more grime from beneath the surface. I often have to clean the same place a second time, or even a third or a fourth. The top section of the painting is impregnated with glue. The middle is filled with wax. There are six different kinds of plaster and several varnishes lacquers and gums. What worked on the top section doesn’t work in the middle. And what worked in the middle won’t work on the bottom. It’s enough to make a person want to shoot herself.”

Could Pelliccioli’s already failing shellac have survived these repeated traumatic assaults with solvents and scalpels on all the glues, waxes, lacquers and gums within the paint-film? Had some new superior quick-acting consolidant been identified or manufactured? What were the structural consequences of this apparent removal of every atom of previous consolidations of the paint? Brambilla has said of the detaching paint “To re-adhere the fragments we used wax-free shellac in alcohol, the same adhesive as Pelliccioli applied during his intervention of 1947″. So, in other words, just some more of the same. If Brambilla’s best English wax-free shellac lasts no longer than Pelliccioli’s, we might expect another restoration within twenty years or so.

One thing is clear: the technical underpinning of the restoration, and the swiftness with which its unquestionably radically transforming methodology was applied, were both challenged by Italian experts. On July 2 1995 the New York Times reported that Mirella Simonetti, a Bologna-based restorer, protested: “There was never any doubt in their minds. They decided how to proceed without even conducting the proper analyses to determine how much of the original painting remained. They didn’t even submit their findings to an international committee of experts.” The Florence-based diagnostician, Maurizio Seracini, who had been called to examine the Last Supper after the restoration began, complained: “I think that Mrs Brambilla has worked in good faith. But you don’t decide to restore a masterpiece like the ‘Last Supper’ on the basis of what you see under a microscope. It’s simply irresponsible.” Seracini added “I myself have not seen any definitive scientific proof that restoration was really needed.”

That the authorities had not known how much original Leonardo paint might survive had been tacitly acknowledged as early as 1983, when, with the restoration one third completed, David Allan Brown could speak only in relative terms: “By comparison with other, well-preserved murals of the time, Leonardo’s detailed execution is almost entirely lost.” Even when the restoration was eventually finished (or halted) there was no agreement among the protagonists themselves on how much had survived. Carlo Bertelli, the director of the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, who effectively initiated the restoration, put the figure at 20%. Pietro Marani, the prolific Leonardo scholar who advised Brambilla from 1985 and became co-director of the restoration in 1993, once said that “no more than 50%” survived and later more ambiguously claimed that 90% had survived “in parts”. Giuseppe Basile (later the director of the restoration of Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes) put it at “about half”. Giorgio Bonsanti, the director of the Florence-based laboratory Opificio delle Pietre Dure, put it at “possibly 20%”. Giovanni Urbani, the director of the Istituto Centrale di Restauro between 1973-83, and the director of the Brancacci Chapel restoration, thought 25% had survived.

In 1989 a Milan town councillor, Maria Bonatti, brought an (unsuccessful) action against the restorer for accelerating the mural’s decay – a charge also made by the painter, essayist and paint materials expert Mario Donizetti, who held that it would “disintegrate more rapidly than before.” Ten years before the restoration ended, in November 1989 the Art Newspaper reported “Over the years work has been stopped repeatedly, sometimes following changes at the helm of the Milanese Soprintendenza and the Instituto in Rome, other times simply to allow the whole project to be reconsidered.” Eventually the proceedings quickened dramatically. In his 2001 book, Leo Steinberg recalled encountering the restorer and three young assistants in 1998 “all huddling at lower left scraping away”. On the cleared wall, “more filling was needed – and it had to be done fast (a deadline had been imposed from on high), so that this must-see tourist attraction would show decent finish to the daily sightseers.”

In 1983 Bertelli had said in National Geographic that Brambilla was taking a week to clean an area the size of a postage stamp. He quoted her professional plaint: “It’s difficult. The work is hard and tiring. It creates much physical tension bending over the microscope. After a few hours my eyes grow blurry. I may come every day for months. Then I must take an extended break. There is also the psychological tension. All the eyes of the world that know Leonardo are watching what I do. Some nights I do not sleep.” The pressure intensified as the restorer inched her way towards the central figure of Christ. In April 1998 the Art Newspaper reported that “Hundreds of tourists (mostly Japanese) last month lined up…to visit Leonardo’s Last Supper. The painting was back on view after having been closed for two months to allow restorers to work on the faces of Christ and the apostles.” That report evidently escaped the attention of the National Gallery’s then director, Neil MacGregor, who wrote in his 2000 BBC book “Seeing Salvation”:

When the latest restoration was unveiled in 1999, all hell broke loose, and the admirably scrupulous restorer in charge was vilified in much of the world’s press…Among the wilder accusations, fears were expressed that the face of Christ had been altered. Happily these proved to be groundless.”

That the unveiling was badly received is beyond dispute, but if vilification was in evidence it was aimed by defenders of the restoration at their critics (see right). The extent to which the face of Christ was altered, and the evolving means by which the restorer came to impose her own distinctive, ahistorical, arguably arbitrary aesthetic reading on the unprecedentedly vast, fully-exposed areas of paint loss in a quest to “bring it back to its original colors and composition”, will be examined in Part 3. Here (right) we examine a single unwarranted change that was made to the design of drapery on Christ’s right arm and then presented as a restoration recovery.

Michael Daley

ENDNOTES [1] In the 1962-64 National Gallery Annual Report, the then director, Sir Philip Hendy, described how with the great Uccello panel from the Battle of San Romano series, the stripping down (which had begun and 1959 and was still ongoing) had exposed a greatly damaged surface. As a result, after its characteristic Gallery “complete cleaning“, it was realised that “To restore scrupulously takes very much longer than to create freely, and the task of pulling the picture together again could have been further prolonged.” [2] With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling it was said in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling“. When I asked in 1990 how big the puckerings were, a Vatican spokeswoman said “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”

Comments may be left at:

Printer-friendly PDF version of this article

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

The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – Part 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns

8th February 2012

The restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” (1977 -1999) was defended last month at the National Gallery symposium on the artist’s methods and influence, by Pietro Marani, the Leonardo scholar who co-directed the restoration from 1993 onwards. When we pointed out that while the previous restoration had been praised for recovering all of Leonardo’s authentic paintwork, the last restoration had in fact introduced vast areas of new painting, Marani held that restorers and curators may impose their own generation’s values and interpretations. Appeals to the authority of one generation cuts little ice given how happy each proves to be to undo and redo its predecessor’s work – and, besides, given that on past form we are already half way along to the next generation’s “Last Supper” restoration, the one presently being defended is already approaching its own “sell-by date”.

In its early days, the last restoration was presented as a near miraculous liberation of the original and entirely unadulterated handiwork of Leonardo da Vinci, when that claim, far from being a novel one of its day, was, as mentioned, a re-run. In 1958, John Canaday, the art editor and art critic of the New York Times, reported how, following the war-time bombing of the refectory housing the mural in Milan:

When the sandbags were removed…the ‘Last Supper’ was in such pitiful condition that historians were ready to list it as a war casualty. But since then the picture has been gone over as definitively as the combination of exhaustive scholarship and high technical skill make it possible to preserve once and for all whatever is discoverable of the original work. The results are better than anyone expected, although the painting still suggests a ghost at best or, at worst, an embalmed relic…”

Taking their cues from restorers, commentators often dismiss past treatments and celebrate more recent scientifically under-pinned “definitive”, “once and for all” and “miraculous” ones. (Just this week, a Rubens – his “Cain Slaying Abel” – that has been restored at the Courtauld Gallery with funding by the Bank of America, is said in a press release to have stabilized the painting for nothing less than “the next one hundred years”.) The “Last Supper” rescue operation took place in two stages in 1947-49 and 1952-54. In the first, the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli (see Fig. 1) supervised by a former Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan, Fernanda Wittgens, anchored the disintegrating paint with shellac. As Wittgens’ wrote in the Christmas 1954 issue of Art News, “This was not ordinary shellac, of course, but an absolutely colourless one recently produced in England by a chemical process that removes all wax.” With this shellac, Wittgens went on, Pelliccioli performed his wonders:

…it produced the greatest miracle of the entire restoration. The reattachment of the painted surface was achieved to perfection, and the colours acquired a new consistency as though they had been actually rejuvenated by the shellac that made them adhere to the wall…Mauro Pelliccioli, by doing away with all glues soluble in water, had permanently eliminated the danger of mould: he had at last hit upon a tremendously strong, transparent adhesive impervious to humidity.”

When the shellac was settled, Pelliccioli began scraping off the repaints of earlier restorers. Bernard Berenson visited the scaffold and later reported how, with no more than a penknife, a razor and a drop of turpentine, Pelliccioli had “touched bottom” by removing the “multiple restorations of centuries” and allowing the paint of Leonardo, “deteriorated by the centuries but no longer deturpated by incompetent hands” to be seen once more. In his diary note on October 21st 1953 Berenson said that Pellicciolli had known precisely “where to scrape” – a point echoed and amplified in H. H. Pars’ 1957 “Pictures in Peril”:

Pelliccioli was able to distinguish those parts of the painting where nothing of the original painting was left, and those parts where overpainting and restoration concealed Leonardo’s own brilliant colours. Step by step these were revealed in the now firmly-fixed painting until we are now able to see Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ in better preservation than for many generations, deteriorated through the centuries it is true, but no longer marked and deformed by incompetent hands.

Thus, to everyone’s satisfaction, the work had been physically rescued and what authentic Leonardo paintwork could be exposed to view had been liberated. Earlier restorers’ repainting was left in place only where it covered bare wall. Just twenty-one years later in 1975, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, a former student of Pelliccioli’s, reported that fragments of paint were falling off the mural. Two years later, following tests, she began re-securing those parts of the paintwork that were becoming detached. Her minimal and straightforwardly necessary conservation measure was to mushroom, in parallel with the restorations of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, which began in 1980, and Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel frescoes, which began in 1981, into one the most protracted radically ambitious, corporately-funded and controversial restorations of modern times.

It can now be seen that 1977 marked the high water mark of confidence in the recuperative powers of restorers and in the legitimacy of their increasingly bold and experimental methods. In the previous decade, heroic actions in wake of the floods in Florence had carried restorers to unprecedentedly high levels of public respect (even when they opted to strip frescoes from walls). In Britain, following a spuriously engineered triumph with the restoration of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” at the National Gallery, criticism had been declared dead by the victors. The National Gallery launched its Technical Bulletin in 1977 and in it, the Gallery’s head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, mused complacently: “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. In the same year, Kenneth (Lord) Clark published his two volumes memoir “Another Part of the Wood” and “The Other Half” in which he pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed credit for having taken the first steps, as director of the National Gallery (1934-1945), by installing a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus”. He had done so not because he believed in the “application of science to the problems of cleaning”, but because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”

Duping the public in such manner occurred in Italy. In 1981, a year after the start of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in Rome, the restoration of the Brancacci Chapel commenced. Speaking of the prior tests made in connection with that restoration, the author Ken Shulman cites an Italian art historian (“Anatomy of a Restoration”, p. 156), who had said:

Let’s be honest and admit what all restoration directors will say in private. At the beginning of any restoration, you order as many tests as you can imagine, fully aware that only about five per cent of them will be of any use during the restoration. The rest of the analyses are merely window dressing.”

With Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, amidst all the preliminary testing, no-one seemed concerned by the fly that was present in the ointment of Pelliccioli’s celebrated reductive, purist restoration: his liberation of Leonardo’s paintwork had come at a cost in terms of artistic legibility. A law of diminishing returns had been set in motion that would (as we will see in Part 2) produce panic and confusion among the restorers and their supervisors.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at:

Printer-friendly PDF version of this article

Above, Fig. 1: Pinin Brambilla Barcilon (left) and Mauro Pelliccioli (right) at work on Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.
Above, Fig. 2: The “Last Supper” in the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, in 1900.
Above, Fig. 3: The “Last Supper” before 1943.
Above, Fig. 4 and below, Fig. 5: The refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie after the bombing of 1943. The wall bearing the “Last Supper” is present behind the tarpaulin seen below.
Above, Fig. 6: The rebuilt refectory with the “last Supper” after Mauro Pelliccioli’s interventions of 1947-49 and 1952-54.
Above, Fig. 7: The figure of Christ after Mauro Pelliccioli’s restoration.
Above, Fig. 6: The cover of the third part of the catalogue for the 1983 exhibition “Studies for the Last Supper” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Below, Fig. 7, a de Stijl-esque work by Cecil Touchon which uncannily echoes the seeming “aesthetic” of the restorer’s bewildering method of cutting multiple ‘windows’ through the skin of the mural during the cleaning.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.