ARTEMISIA | Maestro di Griselda, 1493 ca.
The “Maestro di Griselda” (his real name is unknown) was a painter working in Siena in the early 1490s. He is noted for creating profane cycles for private collectors, in particular the three panels with the Stories of Griselda held at the National Gallery in London, from which the painter takes his name, and the cycle with Artemisia forming part of the Poldi Pezzoli collection. This cycle of heroes and heroines of antiquity was commissioned by the Piccolomini family probably to celebrate a family wedding which took place in January 1493. The fact that the cycle was commissioned by the Piccolomini is proven by the presence on some panels of the crescent moon, the family’s emblem.
The painting depicts Artemisia – sister and wife of Mausolus, ruler of Caria in Asia Minor – who, as a widow, erected the mausoleum of Halicarnassus in honour of her husband, and drank his ashes mixed with her tears in order to become a living sepulchre. The painting shows Artemisia holding a chalice and, in the background to the left, the erection of the mausoleum and, on the right, the heroine about to drink her husband’s ashes. There are some long iron nails protruding from the back of the panel, also found on other panels of the cycle; they probably served to anchor the paintings to crosspieces so that the cycle could be displayed on a wooden structure.
The support for the painting is a poplar wood panel of remarkable thickness, three and a half centimetres, a thickness that has played an important part in the work’s good conservation. The thickness of the wood is intact, showing the marks of the planes and chisels used to shape the panel. The painter used a mixed technique with tempera and oil – the latter for colours that required more transparency.
The painting was officially transferred to the collection of Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli in 1857, the year it was restored by Giuseppe Molteni. Shortly afterwards, in the early 1860s, it was hung in the “Sala Nera” mounted in a specially made neo-gothic frame identical to the one used for Saint Catherine of Bergognone, forming part of a pendant. The neo-gothic frame made by Poldi Pezzoli still bears the old attribution to Luca Signorelli, set on the lower part. This was considered correct at the time since it was clear that Luca Signorelli had a strong influence on the “Maestro di Griselda”.
Molteni’s restoration involved cleaning and retouching much of the painted surface. The analysis carried out in 2014 showed the presence of many round-shaped lacunae especially in the areas of the draped garments. These lacunae were probably caused by deterioration of the pigments – in other words, problems with their chemical composition. Other parts of the painting, such as the features, the hairstyle and the sky, were not affected by these lacunae and were therefore in a better state of conservation, so that Molteni’s intervention was more discreet and delicate. For example, he retouched the golden hue of the chalice and the hem of Artemisia’s garments because they had frayed and degraded over time. Finally, to unify and dim the bright colours of the painted surface, he applied an amber-hued patina, in line with the period’s sense of taste.
There were two reasons for the restoration carried out in 2014: one related to conservation, the other to aesthetics. Conservation because some lifting of the paint film was visible and it was essential to check that the surface was properly consolidated. Then, Giuseppe Molteni had attached two metal crosspieces on the back which weighed heavily on the structure, and it was important to decide whether to keep them or not. From the aesthetic point of view, Molteni used paints with pigments that have altered and darkened over time; and after more than a century, the parts that he re-touched have deteriorated considerably.
There was much discussion amongst the team of restorers on how to proceed because it was difficult to create an appearance that faithfully reflected the originality of the work, while at the same time keeping the memory of at least part of Molteni’s restoration. For this reason, it was decided to keep the gilding that Molteni had renovated in 1857.
The restoration started with a thorough examination of the colour stability, and some small areas of lifting were consolidated with localised treatment; then the back was cleaned and treated to prevent woodworm attacks. The cleaning operation was very delicate, the solvent had to be calibrated so that it acted only on the surface without going too deeply into the layers of paint that Molteni had applied to the lacunae. However, it was decided to keep the historical record of his work, re-touching the parts that had faded; with care and attention, sometimes using “velatura”, it was possible to recreate the tone of his restoration.
The eighteenth-century frame, also consolidated and cleaned, has been kept in spite of the old attribution to Luca Signorelli which is set in gothic characters on the lower part of the woodwork.
IMAGO PIETATIS | Giovanni Bellini, 1420 – 1470 ca.
Giovanni Bellini, one of the main painters of the Venetian Renaissance, was born into a family of artists from whom he received his training. Son and brother of Jacopo and Gentile Bellini respectively, he was also brother-in-law to Andrea Mantegna. He was born around 1435 in Venice and died there in 1516.
The “Imago Pietatis” (image of compassion) dates from the years 1460-70, thus forming part of Bellini’s youthful activity. The title of the painting is an iconographic theme linked to the sacrament of the Eucharist and inherited from the Byzantine tradition, which Bellini painted several times in the course of his long career spanning almost sixty years.
The “Imago Pietatis” panel, which is conserved in Milan’s Poldi Pezzoli museum, shows the resurrected Christ standing in a sepulchre, with arms gently folded. The figure of Christ, like the landscape in the background, is depicted in a natural manner with close attention to detail.
The panel is made of poplar wood and was prepared with a layer of gesso and glue before being given a coat of primer which served to isolate the paint film from the gesso of the preparatory layer and to create a chromatic base for the actual painted surface in tempera.
The painting was acquired by Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli probably just before 1864, the year in which painter-restorer Giuseppe Molteni was commissioned by Poldi Pezzoli to restore the work. Giuseppe Molteni was the leading restorer in Lombardy at that time, working closely as trusted restorer with Gian Giacomo and, before that, with his father Giuseppe Poldi Pezzoli.
When the museum opened in 1881, Bellini’s panel painting was displayed together with works by other Venetian artists. Then in 1951, after the post-war reconstruction, “Imago Pietatis” was moved to the Golden Hall alongside other Renaissance masterpieces in the collection. Since the time when the painting first became part the Poldi Pezzoli collection, it has undergone many restorations, the first of which by Giuseppe Molteni who cleaned the painted surface and filled in the lacunae.
In 1948, during the reconstruction of the museum which had been damaged by Allied bombing in 1943, Mauro Pellicioli carried out many restorations especially on panel paintings. Panels that were badly warped were subjected to a straightening procedure by fitting wooden crosspieces on the back. Giovanni Bellini’s panel also underwent this procedure which turned out to be harmful for its conservation over time. As a result of the damage caused by this treatment, it was decided to undertake another restoration in 1953 and, this time, it was Guido Gregorietti (restorer and painter, then director of the museum) who took action to consolidate the painted surface. In 1960 Pellicioli was again called for a further operation of consolidation.
The restoration carried out by the Zanolini studio (Ravenna) in 2011 was preceded by a number of tests and surveys confirming that conservation work was essential in order to safeguard the state of the painting which had worsened over time.
Continuous checking of the panel had shown lifting and flaking of the paint film caused by the cracks that had appeared in the wood. Unfortunately, when Pellicioli straightened the panel in 1948, he removed the two thin stringers, originally fitted by Giovanni Bellini, replacing them with much heavier pinewood crosspieces which were intended to slide on the surface but in fact prevented the natural movement of the wood. With no flexibility, the panel developed four cracks, two each in the upper and lower parts, exactly corresponding to the position of the iron nails used to fix the two original stringers.
Therefore, the two heavy crosspieces added by Pellicioli were removed, after protecting the painted surface with layers of tissue paper.
The panel was left free of constraints for about a month at normal temperature and humidity so that it could regain its original curvature according to the natural properties of the wood. Once the curvature of the panel had stabilised, the four deep cracks on the back were repaired with slivers of poplar wood cut to size.
The next step was to clean the painting, removing the yellowed varnish and the retouching applied over the years, thereby revealing the original bright colours. At the same time, unfortunately, the cleaning also revealed the presence of round spots mostly on Christ’s body, perhaps due to splashes of solvent that fortunately only affected the top layer of colour.
In the past, such damage was skilfully retouched and repainted, as in the case of the lacunae on the hair and the crown of thorns which were repaired, perhaps by Molteni, imitating Bellini’s technique.
After cleaning, the missing areas were filled in with a mixture of chalk and animal glue. Once smoothed over, using the same grain-size as the surrounding areas, the lacunae were reintegrated with pure pigments and fine lines with light shading designed to camouflage the unsightly stains on the body.
ST JEROME | Bartolomeo Montagna, 1482 ca.
Bartolomeo Montagna was born in Orzinuovi (BS) in 1450, but his family moved to Vicenza when he was very small; during his career, he worked as a painter in the Veneto region until his death in 1523. His early training took place in Padua under the influence of Andrea Mantegna, then in Venice in Giovanni Bellini’s workshop.
The painting in the Poldi Pezzoli collection depicts Saint Jerome, a church elder and compiler of the Vulgate, the first Latin translation of the Bible. He is kneeling against a boulder in an act of penance, looking intently at a small crucifix tied to a tree that symbolically grows out of the same rock where his knees rest. The painting contains some of the attributes which identify the saint – in his right hand he is holding the small stone with which he used to strike himself, mortifying the flesh; on the ground near his feet is a red patch, reminiscent of the colour of a cardinal’s hat; on the left in the background, a tame lion is watching him. The background on several levels is painted with a wealth of detail, and includes people, buildings and streets.
The Poldi Pezzoli museum also has a twin panel depicting St Paul, and in all likelihood the two were part of an altarpiece, with a central panel showing the Virgin Mary and Child against a rocky background similar to that of the two saints. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the central panel, but its existence is assumed based on another painting by Bartolomeo Montagna in the Vicenza civic museum, depicting the Virgin Mary Enthroned between Saints Onofrius and John the Baptist.
The painting was acquired for the museum’s collection in 1879 but the first documented reports of restoration date from 1922 when the Porta brothers worked on the painted panel, dramatically thinning the poplar wood of the support and applying “parchettatura” (Florentine parquet). This type of reinforcement consists of a wooden grid in which vertical elements are fixed – that is glued to the panel along the direction of the grain – while the horizontal elements can slide to enable the wood to make natural movements.
Then in 1965, the painting of St Jerome underwent surface cleaning and paint integration of parts that were lifting and flaking in an area burnt by a candle; at the same time, repair work was carried out on the crack which had opened up due to constriction by the “parchettatura”.
In 1983, an ‘archaeological’ type of restoration was carried out by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon aimed at recovering all that remained of the original painting and the materials used by Bartolomeo Montagna, at the expense of the aesthetic enjoyment of the work. This approach involved the cleaning phase and the paint integration, after removing the thick layer of paint and retouching applied by previous restorers. Given the state of the painting, it was decided to use minimal integration for the least damaged parts and not to intervene at all on the lacunae and missing parts. Therefore, in the lower part of the panel as well as the area of the burn, the exposed wood of the support could be seen.
In 2013, the museum management decided to intervene on Bartolomeo Montagna’s painting since the constant monitoring of the crack showed that it was gradually extending and widening. The “parchettatura” also weakened the support which was already in bad condition due to the presence of knots and xylophagic insects which had eaten away much of the wood.
The natural movement of the wood, under constriction, was evident at the weakest point of the panel and the paint surface, i.e. where the burn was located. However, in overall terms, the paint film was easily legible and the protective coating applied in 1983 had not oxidised.
The restoration began with the safety of the paint layer, so “velinatura” with tissue paper was applied to the whole surface. Subsequently, in places where the paint film was lifting or flaking, resin was injected using micro syringes between the paint film and the preparatory layer, and between the preparatory layer and the wooden support.
The next step was the laborious and delicate removal of the “parchettatura” whose vertical components were fixed to the support with very strong glue. Taking care not to damage the thin wooden support, the “parchettatura” was sectioned into small pieces which were then removed with chisels and scalpels. Once the wood had been cleaned of the stucco and consolidated with an acrylic resin, the crack was repaired with slivers of the same wood as the original.
The fact that the panel had been thinned down to a few millimetres in the past meant that a supporting frame had to be specially designed taking into account the fragility of the painting. Therefore it was decided to fit the painting with a frame fixed to the panel with screws allowing some movement, and the area was divided into sections with Plexiglas so as to permit observation of the panel. Silica gel was placed in each section to help maintain a constant level of relative humidity.
As for the restoration of the paint film, the task was to remove the top layer of paint together with the areas of retouching and repainting that had altered over time.
The museum management and the restorers then decided to proceed with integrating the parts that had been left incomplete during the previous restoration. With the help of old photographs and the painting of St Paul, the lacunae and missing parts were filled in with plaster and glue, after which it was possible to accurately repaint some of the details, especially the lower part of the rock and the area of the burn.
In this way, the appearance of the painting was recreated, while making sure that the restored parts could still be identified by using a reversible “rigatino” with a pattern of very fine lines.
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