TRIPTYCH OF ST DOMENIC | Carlo Crivelli, 1482
Carlo Crivelli was a painter born in Venice probably around 1430. As a young man, he left Venice after a broken romance and most of his career took place in the Marches region bordering on the Republic of Venice.
The fifteenth-century polyptych of St Domenic in Camerino is an impressive altarpiece that Crivelli created for this town in the Marches forming part of the feudal estates of the Varano family, one of the most important and culturally active lordships in the region.
For the high altar of the Dominican convent in Camerino, he created a traditional altarpiece on three levels – a lower dais, a central part made up of three panels with the Virgin and Child in the middle, and on the sides, from left to right, St Peter, St Domenic, St Peter Martyr and the patron saint of Camerino, St Venantius. Above the polyptych were three narrative frames depicting the resurrection of Christ flanked by the announcing angel and the Virgin announced.
In the Triptych of Camerino, Crivelli employed a mixed technique including the use of pastiglia, a mixture of plaster and glue that could be applied with a spatula or brush. The lifelike appearance of the elements in pastiglia – St Peter’s keys and the hem of his cloak, the haloes and the handle of the dagger wounding St Peter Martyr – are enhanced by the richness of the golden decorations. Gold was applied in many ways – “a guazzo”, “a missione” – each of which produced a different surface effect, brighter or duller.
Crivelli’s Polyptych of Camerino came to Brera in 1811. Like all the other works which arrived in the wake of Napoleonic suppressions, it was dismantled in 1822 and the “cuspidi” were given to Filippo Benucci on two occasions, in 1832 and 1833, in exchange for other paintings. It seems there was a general lack of awareness that these the complex altarpieces, made up of different parts, should be preserved and viewed as a unitary whole; therefore, each individual panel was squared off and placed in its own frame. And this is what happened to the Polyptych of Camerino: the various parts were reshaped, regularized and displayed, at least until 1822, around the museum. During the 1824 restoration, it was decided to join the three main panels – St Peter and St Domenic, the Virgin Mary, St Venantius and St Peter Martyr – in a single stylised frame decorated with spiral columns in relief and some areas painted in faux porphyry. The backgrounds of all three panels were completely gilded, even covering up the parts of the wood that Crivelli had left exposed, unpainted because the frame was nailed to them. These areas were subsequently decorated with punzoni, the punched metal elements used by goldsmiths to create decorations. The step of the throne where Mary is sitting was enlarged; the parapet behind the saints was straightened and widened.
The 19th century restoration transformed the central register of a polyptych with narrow gothic proportions into a renaissance altarpiece with a unified space set amongst large rounded arches. This was a highly interpretive restoration; the original semi-precious stones were replaced with hard stones, glass beads, and what were known as Roman pearls – faux pearls made from a wooden core covered with fish scales to imitate the iridescent appearance of natural pearls.
Another very invasive restoration was carried out in 1951 by Mauro Pellicioli especially on the back of the panels. To repair the warping of the panels, Pellicioli cut deep grooves on the back which enabled him to flatten the support which was then held in place by very strong wooden crosspieces. With the passage of time, these actions turned out to be negative because the paint film continued to flake off, and because the grooves created deformations on the surface of the panels.
A further operation carried out by Pellicioli was to dismantle the nineteenth-century frame replacing it with a sort of passe-partout frame holding the panels. He also lightly cleaned the surface before applying an amber-coloured varnish to tone down the saturated colours. Finally he proceeded to apply a patina to some areas, very bland like water colour, in order to eliminate chromatic unevenness.
In 2007 when it was decided to undertake full restoration, the main aim of the project, led by Emanuela Daffra and restorer Barbara Ferriani, was to recreate appropriate conservation conditions for the work. The unnatural flatness of the surfaces and the negative consequences such as continuous flaking and falling of the paint film, made it necessary to remove the constraints to enable the panels to take on their natural curvature.
In addition to removing the crosspieces, one of the main tasks was to repair the deep grooves cut in the support by Pellicioli in 1951. At that point, we decided to fit new flexible crosspieces shaped to the wood, able to follow the warping of the panels and adapt to the movements of the support.
Regarding the paint film, more than fifty years after Pellicioli’s restoration, there was a general blurring of the surface with alteration in some of the retouching. We found that all the gilding beneath Pellicioli’s restoration was false since it was applied during the 1824 restoration. We were worried that the gilding, clearly not of the same period as the painting, had been applied to cover some lacunae.
Working very carefully from some areas where the nineteenth-century gilding was missing revealing the original beneath, we were surprised to find that the golden background was not only present but almost intact. Therefore, the modern gilding was removed in order to recreate the painting’s original appearance and proportions. The delimitation of the 19th century additions – which were retained as witness of a specific restoration approach – now provides a better understanding of the work.
ST SEBASTIAN | Dosso Dossi, 1524 ca.
The panel arrived at Brera in 1808 directly from Cremona, just in time for the solemn inauguration of the museum collections which was held the following year in 1809 to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday. On arrival, the work was generally attributed to Giorgione. Unfortunately we have no record of previous restorations which, in spite of the missing documents, must certainly have taken place over the years. This is proven by the Napoleonic register which contains measurements that differ from the actual ones – the panel was fifty centimetres longer. This substantial cut involved the lower part of the support which was also trimmed on the sides by a dozen centimetres or so.
Furthermore, the presence of halved dovetail joints on the lower edge and on the left-hand side, indicate that originally the support continued. Finally, the lower crosspiece is much nearer the edge than the upper one, showing that the panel was longer.
Before the 2010 restoration, forming part of the “Restitutions” project sponsored by the Banca Intesa San Paolo, there were evident traces of previous restorations which had altered over time. In addition, as often happens with panel paintings, the factor that triggered the need to carry out restoration was linked to problems with the support. The two pieces of wood making up the panel had moved independently of one another, and one of the crosspieces had been nailed to them; both these causes had led to warping of the panel and repeated lifting of the paint film. In addition, the surface of the painting was dimmed by a thick layer of oxidized paint.
The painted surface seemed to be swollen with the formation of blisters which previous restorers had tried to eliminate by removing small pieces of the paint film. The peculiar behaviour of the paint film had to be investigated since it could be caused by old restoration work, or by the artist’s use of pigments that were not correctly mixed and applied. The radiographic survey revealed that the artist had carried out many alterations not just to the details but also involving radical changes to certain aspects such as the saint’s posture.
The head, which is now turned to the right, originally looked upward to the left; the legs, now close together and slightly crossed, were originally spread apart. Also the cloak, which now falls from the right shoulder to cover the saint’s genitals and reappears, again on the right-hand side, from behind his legs, reaching down to the ground, was much more voluminous in a previous version.
Other variations could be seen in the vegetation (upper right-hand side), in the sky and the landscape, and the body drapery. What happened to the St Sebastian panel is due in part to poor interpretation of an unorthodox procedure – the corrugated paint layers of the original painting had been filled by full-bodied restoration, attempting to camouflage the hollows and the surface defects. The aim was to give Dosso Dossi’s work the smooth finish of other sixteenth century paintings.
Some restoration work was immediately visible to the naked eye, for example St Sebastian’s torso was very stained because we realized that previous restoration had removed some of the pigment on raised parts, due to aggressive cleaning, and had brought out the dark background, and to avoid the formation of lacunae, these areas had been thoroughly shaded.
Even with gradual cleaning, it was very difficult to remove the old restoration work which had altered over time and spread to other areas; however, it was easy to recognize the original with respect to the integration of restoration. The main problem, however, was the lifting of the paint film on the surface, in part attributable to the peculiar executive technique used by Dosso Dossi, but also to the two crosspieces that created a bond that was too strong for the support. Therefore we decided to remove them, renovating the traces of the old ones; after establishing the curvature of the support once freed from the constraints of the backing, we fitted other crosspieces adapting them to the new curvature. The anchoring system provides flexible support allowing the panel to shrink and expand slightly.
The restoration, which began in 2010 and ended in 2011, provided a new opportunity to appreciate the painting. Removing the altered substances from previous restorations and eliminating the stains which had created sticky patches on the surface have made it possible to see the real quality of what can safely be considered one of Dosso Dossi’s mature masterpieces.
Dosso Dossi is probably not among the best-known Italian artists of the sixteenth century, but he is certainly one of the most fascinating. The early part of his career is still not clear though he was probably born in 1486; however, there’s no doubt that his time in Venice was a fundamental experience for him. As a painter he is difficult to place precisely in artistic terms – his works are extremely free from the technical point of view, based on mysterious subjects often linked to mythology. A clue to his imagination and temperament is the way he signed his name on the St Jerome panel, now in Vienna. It is something of a puzzle: Dosso Dossi was a sort of nickname – his full name was Giovanni di Nicolò Luteri – and this painting is signed with a capital “D” traversed by a bone (“osso” means bone). During his lifetime, he never had a wide following and, after his death, his reputation suffered because his works were not appreciated by Vasari.
Dosso Dossi created the panel of St Sebastian for an altar in the monastery church of the Santissima Annunciata in Cremona. The church was erected in the late fifteenth century, so the altarpiece, which dates from the first twenty years of the sixteenth century, is one of the oldest furnishings; however, the person who commissioned it is unknown.
St Sebastian is depicted bound to a citrus tree in a misty glen, with a ruin just visible in the background. In fifteenth-century literature, citrus fruits were related to amorous passions. This anomalous aspect, together with the extraordinary beauty of the saint’s body, gives an interpretation of martyrdom as the ultimate achievement of sublimated love. Clearly, in this case, as a painting for a church altar, the citrus fruit alludes to God’s love.
The support for the St Sebastian panel consists of two pieces of poplar wood cut with sharp edges and joined with a glue of nature organic. There are also some wooden pegs within the body of the panels and the dovetail joints. Originally there were two wooden crosspieces to ensure the flatness of the support.
THE “ORATORIO DI MOCCHIROLO” | Maestro di Mocchirolo (?), 1360 ca. – 1370 ca.
The start of the visit to the Brera Art Gallery was marked by the presence of a reconstruction of the fresco decoration from the Oratorio di Mocchirolo (Lentate sul Seveso, MB) with architectural features that are typical of the Brianzolo area, showing that the works were commissioned in the second half of the fourteenth century by agents linked to the Visconti family, when Milan was a real central European power.
The cycle consists of a sacred iconography – the Crucifixion, the Redeemer depicted in an almond-shaped frame, Saint Ambrose enthroned, and the mystical wedding of Saint Catherine – and on the right side, the whole family of the benefactor Count Porro – the men on one side and the women on the other – depicted as true-to-life portraits. And not just portraits but also elements, such as the carefully detailed garments, showing their social standing and the fashion at that time, so much so that the year can be pinpointed to around 1370.
Attribution has recently moved towards an artist about whom little is known, and who left no corpus of other works – a certain Petrus de Nova, because a document of 1368 mentions an artist by that name working at Bergamo cathedral, who asked for permission – in the same years as the frescoes were painted – to take a job at Moncairolum, which could well be the modern Mocchirolo.
In the 1940s, the frescoes were in a serious state of conservation because of rising damp and humidity affecting the masonry walls of the oratorio. Fernanda Wittgens, director of the Brera Art Gallery from 1941 and superintendent of the Milan Galleries from 1950, obtained the donation of the frescoes from the owners, Renato and Luigi Passardi, and decided to detach them and relocate them in a specially designed section of the Brera Art Gallery. The operation drew a lot of criticism and required many bureaucratic steps, in particular an authorisation to detach the frescoes from the architectural structure to which they were closely linked, in the eyes of the law. A ministerial ruling dating from 1939 allowed detachment only when authorised by the Higher Council for Antiquities and Fine Arts.
After obtaining the permit from the Council in 1949, Wittgens proceeded to detach all the painted surfaces that had been retouched by restorer Mauro Pellicioli who also dealt with the transport and relocation in the Brera gallery.
At the time of detachment, conservation problems were mainly due to the presence of soluble mineral salts caused by rising damp, leading to efflorescence on the surface of the paintings. The problems of adhesion between the layers of plaster was at the origin of the decision to detach them. For these reasons, in 1912 and again in 1942 and 1943, work had already been carried out, evidently not effectively, in order to re-establish adhesion between the painted layers.
The technique employed by Mauro Pellicioli for detaching the frescoes involved applying pieces of canvas called “calicot”, on the surface using a very strong glue of animal origin. A number of incisions were made around the edges and then the canvas was rolled up, extracting part of the painted surface. The extraction involved the top layer unevenly and, in some cases, the layers below (the term “detachment” is used even for deeper layers of plaster).
On the back of the extracted portion, a second canvas was then applied using another strong adhesive, calcium caseate, while the canvas on the front of the painted surface was removed with warm water.
The canvases with the detached paintings arrived at the Brera gallery rolled up, and were then laid out in a specially constructed section, faithfully recreating the architectural features of the oratory with the small nave, the altar step, the presbytery and balustrade area, where most of the frescoes were positioned.
The side walls were prepared in masonry and the roof vaulting was created with wooden slats, forming a support structure with the curvature of the original. In this setting, Pellicioli proceeded to restore the frescoes using various means; on the back, directly on the paint film, he applied coats of paint to enhance the obviously depleted colours; reintegration of the decorated part was designed to be mimetic, using tempera paints and watercolours; finally, the whole painting was treated with a layer of gum arabic protecting and brightening the surface.
After a few years on display at the Brera gallery from 1950 onwards, the frescoes began to show signs of conservation problems in part related to the traumatic extraction technique. The action of rolling the pieces caused horizontal cracks to appear, and consequently the painted film began to flake; the warm water used to remove the adhesives during the detachment process had also depleted the original materials applied “a secco” (dry); this was especially noticeable in the azurite-blue of the Virgin’s garments on the right and left sides, in the background sky for the Crucifixion and Redeemer scenes. Finally, the finishing touches applied with tempera had altered over time and the layer of gum arabic had yellowed and was uneven.
In 1989-90, the wall paintings were restored again by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon who did not use a unified approach but diversified the method according to the particular problems. After re-attaching the flakes of the paint film and removing the gum arabic from the surfaces, the restorers used scalpels to remove the altered stuccowork and retouchings, thereby recovering several parts of the original paint film, followed by a traditional “rigatino” on the stuccos and repairing abrasions with a “neutral” finish.
After Pinin Brambilla Barcilon in 1989-90, no further substantial restoration has been carried out except for periodic maintenance consisting of light cleaning and dust removal. The painted surfaces are checked regularly, and the frescoes are currently on display in an area where the thermo-hydrometric stability ensures proper conservation.
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