Brilliant colors restored to 15th altarpiece

The Altarpiece of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli, a Renaissance masterpiece by Domenico Veneziano, has been restored to its extraordinarily vivid original colors by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

Created between 1445 and 1447 for the high altar of the church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli in Florence, the tempera-on-panel painting depicts the enthroned Madonna and Child flanked by Saint Francis and John the Baptist on the left, Saint Zenobius and Saint Lucy on the right holding her eyes on a plate (they were plucked out, the legend goes, before her martyrdom). Mary sits under a rib vaulted and columned canopy, soft light shining down through the open courtyard. The tops of three orange trees are centered in the pointed arches high in the background.

This work is oldest known example of a rectangular altarpiece without the gold background that was de rigeur in its Gothic predecessors. It is also the first “Sacred Conversation,” ie, a painting of Madonna and Child with saints that are all on the same scale in the same space. Veneziano’s mastery of light, accurate geometric perspective and intricate architectural setting make the St. Lucy altarpiece one of the most important and innovative from 15th century Florence.

The restoration project began in 2019. When the altarpiece entered the collection of the Uffizi Gallery, it was subjected to a drastic cleaning and glazed with an adhesive. This highly invasive intervention damaged the paint and dimmed the brilliance of the colors to the point where they were unrecognizable. Reversing this damage was a complex operation and took even longer than expected thanks to COVID closures.

It was very much worth the wait. The new restoration has brought back to life the brilliant pinks, greens, blues and bright whites of the original paint. The Easter egg technicolor palette lends the scene a surreal, fantastical look. The extraordinary richness of the details, the floor with pink, green and white marble inlay, the fine lettering on the steps, the meticulous patterns in the decorative design on the pedestal under Mary’s feet and on Saint Zenobius’ cope and mitre.

The work will be exhibited to the public for one day only on December 21st at the Laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (booking is required). It will return to its permanent home at the Uffizi early next year.

How to move a quarter ton of Renaissance masterpiece

London’s National Gallery recently moved a monumental altarpiece by Renaissance master Filippino Lippi. It is 6’8″ high, 6’1″ wide and weighs 526 pounds, so this was no easy feat. The team captured it on video to give people a glimpse of the complex systems and technologies requires to handle fragile works of this scale.

The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Christ while Saint Jerome and Saint Dominic kneel at her feet. The setting is a hilly, verdant landscape. A lion fights off a bear on the left. On the right is a small church. Tiny figures of a man and donkey in the center background may be a reference to the family’s Flight into Egypt.

The tempera painting on poplar panel originally stood in the church of San Pancrazio in Florence. It was commissioned by the Rucellai family, wealthy Florentine wool merchants, around 1485 who installed it in the chapel adjacent to their personal funerary chapel. During the Napoleonic suppression of the churches in the early 19th century, the altarpiece was removed from the former church (San Pancrazio was made the seat of the city lottery in 1808) and returned to the Rucellai family who had originally commissioned it. They sold it to the National Gallery in 1857.

The National Gallery moved the altarpiece from Room 59 to Room 11 earlier this year. Room 11 is smaller and octagonal, which makes maneuvering the space challenging, but even removing it from the long, wide wall of Room 59 posed enormous risks. Thankfully the National Gallery’s staff is up to the task, having custom-designed mechanical aids capable of moving so large, heavy and priceless an artwork. These sorts of devices aren’t available at Lowe’s. As Thomas Hemming of the museum’s Art Handling Team puts it in the video, “Everything’s very bespoke because it’s a very niche kind of requirement to move pictures.”

Thanks to these custom rigs, paintings of all sizes can be moved quickly and securely through the building to a new location, and temporarily stored before they are reinstalled. It is very cool to see them at work.

Norway’s National Museum acquires rare Artemisia Gentileschi painting

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo has acquired a rare work by Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1639-40). Donated to the museum by philanthropic the DNB Savings Bank Foundation, it is one of very few paintings by the Baroque master that is unambiguous in its attribution because she signed her name in Judith’s sword. The painting was only previously known from an old black and white photograph, so until this acquisition, art historians had no idea it was signed.

Judith slaying Holofernes was a subject Artemisia revisited repeatedly. This is one of her later versions. The fine weave of the canvas indicates it was not of Italian origin, which means she has to have painted it when she was in London working with her father and brothers on commissions from King Charles I between the end of 1638 and her return to Naples in 1640.

The painting will join other works by Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Museum. These include the early work Saint Catharine of Alexandria (1614–15), on loan from a private collection, and The Penitent Mary Magdalene (1640). The National Museum also holds an earlier Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, painted by Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi (between 1608 and 1612), on which she must have worked while she was in training at her father’s studio. The new acquisition means that the National Museum is the museum with the most works by Artemisia Gentileschi outside of Italy.

“We are happy that this masterpiece now will be on display at the National Museum in Oslo. Now, the museum can show four paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, and this is rare for any museum,” says Manager for Art and culture in the DNB Savings Bank Foundation, Anders Bjørnsen.

The painting will only be on display for a few weeks before it travels to Naples for an exhibition, Artemisia Gentileschi in Naples, at the Gallerie d’Italia. The exhibition focuses on the decade she spent living and working Naples (1630-1640), which includes the two year detour in London. Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes will return to Oslo in March 2023.

Export barred on roundel manuscript gifted to Queen Elizabeth I

A unique presentation manuscript given to Queen Elizabeth I by Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker in 1573 has been sold at auction and is at risk of leaving the UK unless a buyer can be found to keep it home. The UK’s Art Minister has placed a temporary export bar on the rare artifact in the hopes a museum or institution can raise its purchase price to keep it in the country.

The manuscript takes the unusual form of nine roundels in three rows conjoined by thin strips of vellum. In the middle of the center roundel is an oval blue and gold illumination of St. George and the Dragon bordered by the motto of the Knights of the Garter (“Honi soit qui mal y pense”). A Latin inscription around the edge of the roundel refers to the gift of an agate Archbishop Matthew Parker gave to Queen Elizabeth I.

The center roundel of the bottom row features a miniature profile portrait of Queen Elizabeth in blue. Three Latin aphorisms surround the portrait in three concentric rings. The rest of the roundels all contain inscriptions only. The top row inscriptions define agate in French. The remainder are Latin texts on agate and its property. The different languages are written in different calligraphic scripts, an elegant touch seen in other manuscripts presented to Elizabeth.

The presentation manuscript accompanied a gift, described by Matthew Parker as “a salt cellar made of gold, into the cover of which was inset a jewel, an agate, containing St George killing the dragon, along with verses in French upon the customary royal insignia; in the curved section or hollow of this was enclosed another agate, incised into which was a true likeness of the Queen on white agate. On the top of its cover, a small golden boat held a rectangular diamond.”

Experts believe the “verses in French” he mentions are the actual manuscript, that all nine roundels were folded up to form a single paper circle 1.5 inches in diameter. That disc was then inset into the cover of the precious salt cellar.

The manuscript is an extremely rare surviving artifact directly connected to the summer progresses, the Tudor monarchs’ practice of packing up the court and traveling through the country with a gigantic baggage train, crashing at the luxury pads of assorted nobles and clergy entirely on their dime. Elizabeth did more than two dozen summer progresses during her 44 years on the throne. Crowds of people assembled to behold the spectacle and pageantry of the queen, her courtiers and household parading through town.

On September 7th, 1573, the summer progress was in Canterbury where she, her retinue, the French ambassador and his entourage of 100 were invited to dine at the Archbishop’s Palace by Matthew Parker. It was the Queen’s 40th birthday, so Parker was not only responsible for the expense of feeding, housing and entertaining hundreds of people and one queen with very expensive tastes, but he also had to step up his gifting game. The salt cellar and what it contained — not salt but six Portuguese gold coins — was a showpiece gift. The Archbishop’s son John Parker recorded that for this one visit, Matthew Parker spent more than £2000 in entertainment and gifts alone, not counting the £170 in cash he gave to the Great officers of the Queen’s household.

After the queen’s death, the presentation manuscript fell out of view,  remerging a century later in the collection of John Sharp, Archbishop of York. It remained in that family for 300 years until it was sold at auction on December 7th, 2021. The new owner applied to the Culture Ministry for an export license, which has now been deferred until December 1st of this year. If a UK buyer comes forward with the recommended price of £9,450 (plus £390 VAT), the manuscript will stay. If they have a good chunk of that price with evidence of ability to raise the rest, the license will be deferred another six months.

[Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] Member Peter Barber said:

“These evocative, obscurely-worded and miraculously preserved roundels take us back to power politics and culture at the heart of Elizabeth I’s court. They are a tangible record of a vital and dangerous moment in our religious and political history when the delicately-crafted Anglican Settlement seemed to be in danger, but their wording still has to be fully interpreted and understood.

While Tudor gift lists and sometimes the gifts themselves survive, such intrinsic – but cryptic – evidence for the mentality behind the gift -giving is perhaps unique. I fervently hope the roundels will remain in this country where outstanding collections and libraries – not least that of Archbishop Parker himself – would enable their plentiful remaining mysteries to be investigated and explained with a thoroughness that would simply not be possible elsewhere in the world.”

Padua’s 14th c. frescoes get World Heritage status

Last year, a cycle of 14th century frescoes in eight different buildings in the ancient northern Italian city of Padua were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The frescoes cover 40,000 square feet of walls and ceilings painted by six artists over 95 years in both secular and religious buildings. What unifies them is their visual style that marks a turning point in the understanding of spatial relations and optics in European painting. These frescoes incarnate the shift from the abstract formality of Byzantine style to the naturalism and perspective of Renaissance painting.

The most famous of the sites is the Scrovegni Chapel, frescoed by Gothic master Giotto di Bondone. This is considered the greatest surviving example of his work, and not just in the sense that it is in vividly brilliant condition, but because in this pictorial cycle he introduced realistic portrayals of human emotion, spatial perspective and trompe l’oeil architectural effects. It would become a model for his contemporaries and the artists that followed him.

In just two years between 1303 and 1305, Giotto covered the entire internal surface of the chapel with 39 scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ divided into three rows and six columns of panels, plus the arched space of the eastern wall above the altar. The first six are scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, who actually aren’t in the canonical Bible, only in the apocrypha. In an art historical first, Giotto painted them kissing.

The fourth row on the bottoms of the nave walls feature smaller panels depicting the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues in a faux marble stone finish. As with the Sistine Chapel, the long view of the nave culminates in a floor-to-ceiling fresco of The Last Judgement on the entire western wall. The ceiling is a deep blue firmament dotted with gold stars and roundel portraits of the Apostles, prophets, saints, Jesus and Madonna and Child.

The context behind the art is also of great historical significance. Giotto was commissioned to paint this chapel by a banker, Enrico Scrovegni. Patrons of art on this scale were typically high clergy or royalty and aristocracy. The Scrovegni Chapel commission marked a significant shift in the social and economic status of burghers, one made explicit by Giotto’s including of the banker kneeling at the foot of Christ in The Last Judgement, firmly on the side of the Heaven-bound. He holds a model of the chapel itself, making an offering of it to God. With this, the patron was no longer a king or Pope, and he was no longer an extra making a cameo appearance in a devotional scene. He was a central figure in the very thick of the action.

Another one of the eight buildings is even more spectacular an architectural survival as it is a masterpiece of frescoing. The Palace of Reason served as Padua’s marketplace, town hall and civil court. The ground floor was completed in 1219 and is the oldest covered market in Europe, still used as such today. Two loggias were added on top of the ground floor between 1306 and 1309, and a large wooden roof shaped like the overturned hull of a ship. It was built with trusses, liberating the interior from cumbersome central columns. Originally divided into three chambers, the great hall (known as the Salone) became a single wide-open space 267 feet long when the partitions were removed after a devastating fire in 1420.

The original frescoes painted by Giotto on the vault of the Salone depicting astrological motifs, allegorical figures and religious scenes were destroyed in the fire. The room was repainted by Nicolà Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara based on the visible traces of Giotto’s originals. More than 300 panels depict the stars, their effect on human character and events, religious subjects, animals and the civic magistrates — judges, notaries — who worked in that space.

In pride of place inside the Salone is a black porphyry drum on a stepped square base. This is the infamous Pietra del Vituperio (Stone of Vituperation) where insolvent debtors were forced to sit, garbed only in their underwear, and repeat three times “Cedo Bonis” (I give up my goods). He was then relieved of his burden of debt, but had to leave the city immediately. If he returned without permission from his creditors, he would be put back on the Stone of Vituperation and dowsed with three buckets of cold water.

This was the merciful approach bankruptcy; previously debtors in Padua had been imprisoned for life. It was Saint Anthony who successfully pleaded with municipal authorities to stop giving life sentences for debt just before his death in 1231. After the good friar died, however, the city added the Pietra del Vituperio to the bankruptcy process. The stone has been in the Salone ever since, although it hasn’t been used for its original purpose in a long time.

The city has created a single-ticket track with accompanying app dubbed Padova Urbis Picta (Padua Painted City) for visitors to experience all eight of the frescoed sites in the World Heritage list.  You can take virtual guided tour of the extraordinary frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in this digital replica with ultra-high resolution photographs. I highly recommend zooming in on the bottom right of the Last Judgement to get a closer look at the rich details of Hell and its many kinds of sinners.