UV light reveals Giotto details

Restorer examines Giotto painting with UV lightsResearchers examining Giotto’s wall paintings in the Peruzzi Chapel of Florence’s Santa Croce church with ultra-violet rays have uncovered an incredible wealth of detail invisible to the naked eye.

Giotto’s Santa Croce paintings were made on dry plaster, as opposed to frescoes which are painted on wet plaster. That made the color more brilliant when he first applied it in 1320, but dry paintings don’t last as well as frescoes so these beautiful works didn’t have the best start from a preservation perspective.

Then it got worse. The Peruzzi family, who had commissioned Giotto’s paintings for the chapel, decided to redecorate in the early 18th century and whitewashed the walls. Crazy sumbitches.

Restorers in 1840 removed the white paint, but used harsh solvents and wire brushes and all the rest of the horrid arsenal of 19th century “conservation” and so ended up stripping the delicate Giotto paintings. Then to add insult to injury they repainted over some of the damage they did to highlight areas so they could be seen from the ground.

The 19th c. paint was removed by a restoration in 1958, so all that’s left now are the battered remains of Giotto’s own work.

That’s where our team of intrepid researchers steps in. Financed by a grant from the Getty Foundation, the four-month project aimed to utilize non-invasive diagnostic tools to assess the condition of the paintings.

“It was something really astonishing,” said Cecilia Frosinini, co-coordinator of the project that studied the scenes in the lives of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.

“We knew we could get some very interesting results from our scientific diagnostics but when we looked under ultra-violet light, all of a sudden all these very faint paintings that were ruined by old restorations took on a new life,” she said, pointing to one scene while donning protective eye wear. […]

“The scenes are again three dimensional … we were able to see all the chiaroscuro effects,” she said. “There were bodies under the garments … they became three dimensional, you could see the folds of the garments, the expressions of the faces.”

Original Giotto painting from Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce The same painting under UV light

Look at the halos. It’s amazing how much of the original gold paint is still there. On the non-UV one you can only see that small sliver of gold on the right of the saint’s nose. Under UV light all of the sudden the entire round stands out.

Unfortunately, the ultra-violent rays which are so illuminating in short bursts would damage the paint if they were focused on it permanently, so this can only be a short-term application. The team plan to use the information from the UV examination as a map for future restorations.

They’re also hoping to snaggle enough grant money to take detailed UV pictures of the entire chapel so they can create an online virtual chapel for the general public to get as close to Giotto’s originals as we can 700 years later.

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