The portrait that ensnared a king restored

The iconic portrait of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII, that enchanted the king into marrying her, has been cleaned and conserved by Louvre experts for the first time since it was painted, restoring its original colors and glow. The portrait, painted by Henry’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, is much lighter now that the yellowed varnish layer is gone. The formerly murky teal background is a bright blue; the gold and jewels of her gown and headdress visible in great detail. Her skin, once sallow, is a dewy pink again.

In 1538, Henry sent his court painter Holbein to Düren to capture Anne of Cleves’ likeness so Henry could see her before deciding whether to marry her. For ease of transportation, it was painted on vellum that was later glued to wood instead of painting directly onto wood panel. Holbein was usually known for the verisimilitude of his portraits, but he had to thread a bit of a diplomatic needle with this commission. He couldn’t flatter Anne too much or Henry would be deceived in his future wife’s features, but the officials of Cleves would vet it before it was sent to England, so too much realism wouldn’t do either.

Holbein depicts Anne dressed in an opulent red silk gown with gold and pearl trim, her round, cherubic face looking placidly at the viewer through lidded eyes. Her features are petite and symmetrical and her expressionless face evocative of the highly stylized archaic smile of a kouros statue. The Anne in the portrait appealed to Henry well enough, and as an alliance to the powerful, rich Protestant Duchy of Cleves even more so. It would give isolated England a whole new friend group among the central and northern European Lutheran countries. The marriage moved forward.

The woman herself, however, repulsed him. Rather than a petite, delicate cypher, she was tall and broad. When he saw her in person for the first time, he felt the portrait had deceived him. Her did not find her physically attractive, nor did she attract him with her personality. She spoke no English, played no instruments and was generally a listless companion for a social butterfly like Henry. To preserve England’s relationship with the Protestant rulers of Europe, Henry VIII negotiated a very generous divorce agreement and six months after their marriage, Anne of Cleves graduated from fourth wife to “sister of the King,” and left the throne laden with riches and properties. She was friends with Henry for the rest of his life, and lived a long one herself, spending her fortune on sumptuous clothes, fine dining, gambling and hunting.

Early David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio restored

Caravaggio's 'David with the Head of Goliath' before restoration. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Photo by Alberto Otero Herranz. Caravaggio's 'David with the Head of Goliath' after restoration. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Photo by Alberto Otero Herranz.David with the Head of Goliath in the Prado Museum, the only work by the Baroque master Caravaggio in Madrid and one of only four in all of Spain, has been restored, revealing its original colors, tones and compositional elements that were hidden under years of dirt and yellowed varnish.

Created around 1600 when Caravaggio had just burst on the scene in Rome causing a sensation with his intense contrasts of light and dark and embrace of naturalism, this version of the Biblical story of the boy David’s triumph over the Philistine giant Goliath depicts David reaching to grab Goliath’s head, which he has just severed, by the hair to string it up with a rope. This was a radical new perspective for a story that had been so often painted before, and it would exert a powerful influence on artists who followed him.

It entered the Royal Collection in Madrid in 1794 and has been on display continuously since. Last year it was part of a Guido Reni exhibition and its dire need of conservation was so evident it caused comment. In September of this year, restorer Almudena Sánchez began the treatment process.

The principal aim of this restoration has been to reinstate the original image devised by Michelangelo Merisi, “il Caravaggio”, which had been disappearing over time beneath layers of dirt and oxidised varnish. The opaque nature of these old layers of varnish eliminated the space and depth in the composition. This made it more difficult to perceive the dimensions of the place in which David and Goliath are located, given that within the scene as a whole it was only possible to distinguish the parts of the figures brightly illuminated by the focused light source.

This issue was also partly the result of previous selective cleanings, which had essentially concentrated on the foreground planes and the most brightly lit parts of both figures, ignoring the background of the composition and the areas in shadow. The result was to gradually transform Caravaggio’s original chiaroscuro into a violent contrast of light and dark, leaving the figure of David outlined against a flat black background. The composition was consequently reduced to a single plane.

The yellowish tone of the old varnish altered Caravaggio’s original colours, giving a warmth to the pale, luminous tones of the flesh and clothing which totally modified the artist’s concept. In turn, the loss of transparency in the varnish blurred the volumes and eliminated the elements located in the background and in the areas of shadow. In these conditions it was only possible to appreciate the scene depicted by Caravaggio in a partial manner.

The restoration of the depth of field revealed significant areas of the complex composition previously lost to the darkness, including Goliath’s buttock on the right, his bent leg rising off the canvas behind David’s back. A previously invisible pale round of light around David’s head has also been uncovered.

X-rays revealed that Caravaggio had made a major change in composition: Goliath’s head was first captured still living, eyes wide, mouth open in a yell. Caravaggio changed that in the final version, half-closing his vacant eyes and making the opening of the mouth smaller so you can’t see his upper teeth and tongue.

According to Almudena Sánchez, the restorer who has undertaken the project: “This restoration reveals a new Caravaggio, giving us a previously unknown image of the painting, the true image of this great masterpiece which after so long in the shadow has recovered the light with which it was originally conceived.”

Holbein’s cheek surgery via paintbrush

Conservation of the 1533 portrait of Derich Born by Hans Holbein has found that Holbein started with a much fuller face before shaving Derich’s cheekbones to their current prominence.

Derich Born was a merchant from Cologne who in partnership with his brother sold military equipment to Henry VIII in the 1530s. At the age of 23 when the portrait was painted, he was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League, living in the walled Hanseatic community of the London Steelyard. In 1541, the Born brothers got into a dispute with the Duke of Suffolk over payment due for a shipment of lead. To ensure the powerful duke did not target the Hanseatic association in revenge, Derich and his brother were expelled from the community.

Holbein made seven portraits of the most prominent Steelyard members. They are all depicted as wealthy, but not in an ostentatious way, without the flashy clothes and luxurious surroundings of his other subjects at the Tudor court. Sitting against a backdrop of fig vines, Born wears an embroidered silk chemise and a black satin doublet covered with a fur-lined robe. He wears one gold ring on his index finger. The garb is opulent but restrained as was the style among the wealthy merchants of Cologne at that time.

His elbow rests on a stone balustrade that is engraved with a Latin inscription that translates to: “If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self. You would be in doubt whether the painter or his father made him. Der Born aged 23, the year 1533.” This was Holbein’s response to renown humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam’s eulogy of Albrecht Dürer as the greatest contemporary artist, greater even than the Greek master Apelles because Dürer was able to convey extraordinary naturalism without color. Holbein is proclaiming his own skill at conveying the life-like appearance and very character of his sitter. He doesn’t use a lot of colors either.

Holbein certainly worked for the high praise he gives himself. Conservation after the portrait was loaned to the Getty for its Holbein exhibition in 2021 looked under the surface, using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and infrared reflectography to reveal changes to the shoulders, head and cap, but it was the right contour of the face that he returned to repeatedly, redrawing it three times to give Born ever-more chiseled cheekbones and turn him from a chubby-cheeked youth into Daniel Day-Lewis.

The painting never did go home to Cologne with Bron. It was acquired by Charles I. The Earl of Arundel acquired it after the king, either by gift of the king or after the garage sale of the Royal Collection thrown by Oliver Cromwell after the king’s execution. It was acquired again by Charles II from the Arundel collection in 1666 and has been in the Royal Collection ever since. The newly-conserved portrait is now on display in the new exhibition Holbein at the Tudor Court, in Buckingham Palace. The exhibition runs through April 14, 2024,

Michelangelo’s Secret Room opens to the public

Forty-eight years after it was first discovered, the room where Michelangelo was said to have hidden from his political enemies for three months in 1530 is officially opening to the public. Whether Michelangelo actually secreted himself in the room under the New Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo until the coast was clear is unknown, but his masterful drawing is seen all over the walls.

The space is cramped, to say the least, at just 23 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and eight feet high at the highest point of the vault. The walls are decorated with figural studies, most of them larger-than-life-size, many of them overlapping, drawn in sticks of carbonized wood and red chalk. Subjects include the head of Laocoön from the ancient masterpiece of sculpture that Michelangelo had seen unearthed in 1506. Other figures reference sculptures and artworks by Michelangelo himself, like the legs of Giuliano de’ Medici from the marble idealized portrait Michelangelo sculpted for the tomb of Giuliano in the Medici chapel just above the secret room.

Michelangelo worked on the Medici mortuary chapel in the New Sacristy off and on from 1519 until his permanent move to Rome in 1534. Things only got hairy in 1527, when political upheaval after the Sack of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spurred Florence to revolt against Medici rule and install a Republic. Michelangelo was closely involved in the Florentine Republic, appointed by the government as one of the Nine of the Militias, in charge of the fortifications of a city that was soon to be besieged by the combined forces of Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and their new ally Clement VII.

The siege was protracted, lasting a grueling 10 months until Florence finally surrendered on August 10th, 1530. Michelangelo was in the cross-hairs of Clement and the Medici, now restored to power. So he hid somewhere and he was so adept at it that even his contemporary biographers could only guess at his location. He emerged in November when the Pope announced that Michelangelo would be pardoned if he went back to work on the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy. Little did Clement know Michelangelo had been steps away from it the whole time.

The room, never publicly known or documented, was put to practical uses. The walls with their glorious sketches were plastered over (twice) and it was a charcoal dump until the middle of the 20th century when the trap door leading to it was covered with furniture. It was rediscovered in November of 1975 when restorers were cleaning a corridor under the New Sacristy on the hunt for a new possible exit for the Museum of the Medici Chapels.

The director of the Museum of the Medici Chapels at that time, Paolo Dal Poggetto, decided not to open the room to the public out of concern that the charcoal drawings would be damaged by exposure to crowds. Every once in a while someone pulled some strings and got a tour, but the general public has never been allowed to lay eyes on the walls before. The closest they’ve gotten is high-resolution images and video of the drawings displayed in several of Florence’s museums.

The completion of a new exit (the same one they were looking to build in 1975 when they found the room) and modern technology has made it possible to make the Secret Room accessible to the public in a controlled way. A maximum of four people at a time will be allowed into the room for reserved time slots for only 15 minutes with a maximum of 100 people per week. Conservation conditions will be scrupulously monitored and the new LED lighting, installed in 2018, will only be on for brief periods, alternating with long hours of darkness.

The room will open on November 15th for an experimental run lasting until March 30th, 2024. Tickets will cost a total of 38 euros and can be booked online here.

17th c. Nymphaeum of the Rain on the Palatine restored

The Nymphaeum of the Rain, a frescoed semi-subterranean leisure room in the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine in Rome, has been restored and reopened to the public after decades of closure. Now visitors will be able to enjoy the cultural context of Baroque Rome on the Palatine even as they enjoy the its ancient culture with the reopening of the Domus Tiberiana.

Built in the second half of the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the Farnese Gardens were the first private botanical gardens in Europe. The Nymphaeum of the Rain was built on the northern slope of the Palatine in the 1600s. was commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese as a “summer triclinium,” a refuge from the heat of summer in Rome to sup and contemplate surrounded by a fine collection of ancient sculptures.

It was his heir, also named Odoardo, who transformed it into a far grander space. The terraces and staircases topped by the twin aviaries, the remains of which are all that remains of the much larger Farnese Gardens, were built at Odoardo’s request by the family architect Girolamo Rainaldi. The cardinal’s old “triclinium” was turned into a sumptuous nymphaeum, inspired by the nymphaea of ancient Rome and Greece, natural or artificial grottoes used as sanctuaries to the water nymphs and as refreshing assembly rooms for recreation.

In the summer heat, he would welcome guests for parties and concerts into the cool, shady freshness of the nymphaeum. Its fountain, artfully designed to look like a stalactite formation employed a complex series of pipes to move water from the main fountain of the garden through limestone rocks, faux stalactites and seven metal trays from which numerous jets sprang, recreating the sights and sounds of natural rainfall inside the nymphaeum. Baroque artist Giovan Battista Magni, known as il Modanino (1591/92-1674), decorated the walls and ceilings with climbing vines and created the illusion of an opening at the top of the ceiling where birds, grape vines and musicians adorn an arched balustrade looking down at the assembled visitors below.

The garden fell into neglect and disrepair in the 18th century and when it was acquired by the newly-unified Italy in 1870, much of what remains was demolished to excavate the ancient palace underneath it. The very top of the terraced garden, including the nymphaeum, survived, but in parlous condition. The frescoes were lost, faded or plastered over, and only rediscovered at the end of the 1950s. For decades it has been too unstable, suffering greatly from moisture penetration, to allow tourists to get a glimpse of its frescoed plaster walls and ceiling framing the elaborate Fountain of the Rain.

The Archaeological Park of the Colosseum embarked on a major conservation project to restore the Nymphaeum in 2020. It took three years to repair the water infiltration problem and restore the damaged structure. The Fountain of the Rain has been restored to its original design, with its hydraulic system of seven different metal trays of different size that replicated the sound of rain and its fake stalactites. The restoration of the full frescoes with its climbing vines and musicians looking down on the room from the ceiling sheds new light on the original function of the space, a faux garden pergola where music, poetry and the arts were enjoyed in an environment of simulated nature and ancient influence.