Science, technology, and lots of dedication, restore damaged masterpiece

Madonna of the Goldfinch: Raphael's painting is known in Italy as Madonna del cardellino.
Madonna of the Goldfinch: Raphael's painting is known in Italy as Madonna del cardellino.Courtesy Wikipedia
After surviving centuries of damage, previous patchwork, and a major catastrophe a painting by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael has been brought back to its former condition thanks to science, technology, and a lot of long-term microscopic care. About 10 years of it!

Raphael painted the masterpiece titled Madonna of the Goldfinch around 1506 as a wedding gift for a local wool merchant. The 42 by 30-inch oil on wood panel depicts the Virgin with two children (representing Christ and John the Baptist) holding a goldfinch. It’s an amazing this thing isn’t languishing in some Florence landfill, because in 1547 the collapse of the owner’s house shattered the painting into seventeen pieces.

A contemporary of Raphael salvaged the artwork by nailing the pieces back together and painting over the breaks. Subsequent owners made further restorations to it, patching them with glue and more paint, and obliterating even more of Raphael’s original brushstrokes, On top of that four plus centuries of dirt and grime covered the image with an ugly yellowish hue that obscured Raphael’s original colors and added to the painting’s deteriorated condition.

When the cobbled-together painting arrived at Florence's Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, it was - needless to say - nothing to behold. Opificio Delle Pietre Dure is one of Italy's finest art restoration laboratories established by the state to protect Italy's many art treasures. The laboratory is set up with the cutting edge technology and expertise necessary to carefully restore many kinds of artwork including tapestries, parchments, stonework, jewelry, textiles, and paintings. The condition of Raphael's ailing painting was so bad; it was first x-rayed from various angles to determine the best way to approach its restoration.

"We spent two whole years studying it before deciding whether to go ahead because with the damage it suffered in the past -- which was clearly visible in the x-rays -- a restoration attempt could go wrong," said Marco Ciatti, head of Opificio’s department of painting.

Watch a video report on the restoration

Chief restorer Patrizia Riitano spent most of the last 10 years with her eye to a microscope poring over the painting while carefully removing layers of added paint and gunk to reveal more of Raphael’s original image. Earlier restorations had used paint similar to that used by Raphael, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. But Riitano’s work wasn’t solitary. She headed a team of more than 50 technicians and specialists who used CAT scans, lasers, and infrared photography to revive the work of art back to its former glory. Fractures were sealed, and wood experts determined the large nails holding the pieces together should be left in place because removing them would cause more damage. But smaller deteriorating nails were removed.

The lab's efforts seems to have paid off, because the restoration's results are stunning. Vivid blue, red, and golden colors long obscured by the paint of previous restorations radiate once again from the canvas, and in some cases unknown background elements buried under centuries of gunk have re-emerged into the light of day.

Three panel comparison with before, during, and after images

The painting will go on display later this month in the Palazzo Medici in Florence, the centerpiece of an exhibition about the restoration. After that it will be returned to its home the Uffizi Gallery.


Artdaily report
Softmedia story
Acadja Art Magazine story

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

iowaboy's picture
iowaboy says:

liked reading this one, as i've been to plenty of fine art galleries in this great country of ours.

while many of them are in the east- new york, boston, philadelphia, washington, dc- we have a nice one here in minneapolis, seen it a few times as well.

and the raphael painting mentioned here is a reminder of what was common for what subjects the painters tend to choose at the time- religious ones, especially in italy, home of the vatican.
possibly in response to the turmoil at the time, the protestant reformation? since there was a counter-reformation.

posted on Thu, 11/13/2008 - 12:02pm
Dr. D.C. Harrison - dentist's picture

Wow. It's just plain magnificent, seeing these timeless masterpieces getting back in perfect shape. Private corporations should start dabbling in restoring more art pieces and historical sites as well. These are all part of our world heritage that we should take part in preserving.

posted on Sat, 01/10/2009 - 3:06am

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