Titian Cleanings

Quite unexpectedly, the hitherto carefully maintained defences of the National Gallery’s picture cleaning policies are in disarray. Their hollowness has been painfully exposed by glaring disparities of colour and tonality between four paintings assembled for the current Titian exhibition.

The four pictures, commissioned from Titian by the Duke of Ferrara for his study or “Camerino” between 1518 and 1524, have, for first time since 1621, been reunited in their (assumed) original order. They are: the National Gallery’s Bacchus and Ariadne; the Prado’s pair, The Andrians and The Worship of Venus; and, the National Gallery of Washington’s The Feast of the Gods (a work begun by Giovanni Bellini but repainted by Titian to match his other three autograph works.)

In a courageously frank appraisal, the Gallery’s senior curator, David Jaffé, concedes in the exhibition catalogue that some of the paintings present have been victims of “injudicious conservation” – a fact that, remarkably, seems to have gone unnoticed by professional art critics. Mr Jaffe himself, however, as a recent member of the Gallery’s staff, seems not to have been fully apprised by his conservator colleagues of the full extent of their department’s interventions on paintings – or of the frequency of its participation in past cleaning controversies. Although, for example, he rightly compares the Bacchus and Ariadne unfavourably with the Prado’s The Worship of Venus, he erroneously backdates the “storm” caused by the former’s cleaning to the 1840s, in clear ignorance of the storm that greeted the picture’s last cleaning in 1967. When I mentioned the latter event to Mr Jaffé, earlier this week, he confessed to being unaware of it, adding – rather too hurriedly – that if it had been cleaned then it could only have been a very minimal intervention. This was a doubly alarming response. First, it strongly suggests that the Gallery’s conservation department either lacks awareness of its own history, or is slow to disclose it. Second, because the Battle of The Bacchus and Ariadne during the 1960s marked a decisive tipping moment in favour of the Gallery in its long cleanings war. This particular cleaning was opposed with massed scholarly and artistic forces not after the event, as was usual, but in anticipation. In 1966 highly distinguished figures like Ernst Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, Oscar Kokoschka and the then editor of the Burlington Magazine, Benedict Nicolson, publicly implored the Gallery’s Trustees not subject “this delicate and miraculous canvas” to cleaning methods “which they know to be controversial.” They were ignored. In order to defeat this collective expertise the Gallery played the “conservation” card: it was claimed that the painting was falling to pieces. (This ruse was later deployed by the Vatican authorities in justification for the disastrous cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.) If there was any substance in this claim, the culprits, whatever Mr Jaffé was not told, might still have been around at the time. The Bacchus and Ariadne had been subjected in 1929 to what was described in the Gallery’s 1965-66 annual report as “an unsuccessful lining” with “a powerful glue”. To preclude the possibility of subsequent fresh embarrassments, an international group of big-wig restorers was invited to approve the Gallery’s proposed “urgent” programme in advance. It did so.

In May 1967 the picture was withdrawn for what was a most radical and aesthetically disruptive overhaul. The reinforcing canvas lining and its adhesive were stripped from the canvas’s back. A new lining was attached with a “thermo-plastic adhesive” designed to penetrate the original canvas and to attach itself to the paint/ground layers. (Such procedures are now discredited and largely abandoned.) After its new relining, the picture was mounted on a “wood-fibre composition board”. It was then turned over for a “final removal of residues of former overpaint and coatings” before being re-varnished. The Gallery astutely allowed the editor of the Burlington Magazine to be privy to the work-in-progress. He later professed himself to have been persuaded – to his own “amazement” – that his earlier “apprehensions” in general terms, “do not seem to apply to this particular picture”. Glowing reports of the emergence of “fabulous colours” were leaked to the press by ill-informed toadies – such as Ms Betty Harvie Anderson, M. P. who was allowed to take a group of political colleagues to see the restoration. With Nicolson’s defection the chief platform for scholarly dissent seems to have disappeared. By 1985 the then editor of the Burlington Magazine, Neil MacGregor, was contending that the key question was no longer “how, or even whether, to clean” but simply “what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.”

This must have been a great relief to National Gallery’s restorers who had long been obliged to defend the brightness and intensity of its pictures’ blues and reds. In a final, despairing protest in 1970, Pietro Annigoni painted “MURDERERS” on the National Gallery’s front doors. These so-brilliant primaries, he maintained, constituted “atrocious results [which] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. Restorers who proclaimed the “brilliant colours” emerging from under their swabs and scalpels as miraculous recoveries, were in fact guilty of destroying the very glazes with which artists had conferred “unity, balance, atmosphere, expression – in fact all the most important and moving qualities in a work of art” upon their pictures.”

By the 1990s all seemed lost, with “conservation science” invariably trumping aesthetic, historical expertise. A former director of the National Gallery, Kenneth (Lord) Clark, had felt free to confess in 1977 that he created the science department precisely in order to have what “purported” to be material evidence in support of the controversial cleanings. In a recent television programme, a successor director, Neil Macgregor, boasted that the sky in the Bacchus and Ariadne now comprises “the brightest blue, perhaps, in the whole of European painting”. In truth, the claim was historically unsound and, as the current exhibition demonstrates, politically unwise.
Firstly, Titian was praised by his contemporaries precisely for his ability to make the skies of his landscapes recede optically and not, as today in the Bacchus and Ariadne, to leap forward, chromatically eclipsing the picture’s own principal figures.

Secondly, it has long been apparent from photographic comparisons that wherever the National Gallery owns a painting that was originally part of a larger ensemble, it hangs brighter, flatter, and less spatially/sculpturally coherent than its original companions in galleries elsewhere. This is most notoriously the case with the Gallery’s panel from Uccello’s three part Battle of San Romano cycle. Now, however, with this Titian show, we at last have direct, irrefutable physical, optical proof that Annigoni et al were right all along. Our Titian’s sky simply does not match those of its companions. Notwithstanding variations of condition that are evident today in these nearly four hundred year old paintings, our member of the quartet is grotesquely the odd one out. The strident red/blue/white chords of the Bacchus and Ariadne bear no comparison with their beautifully harmonious counterparts seen in the foreground and on the right of the Prado’s (more recently cleaned) The Worship of Venus. No one will ever again be able credibly to claim that the Gallery’s “cleanings” constitute any kind of liberation of suppressed historical truths. This exhibition may well – and certainly should – prove to be the National Gallery restorers’ Waterloo.


Effective measures should be taken immediately to protect the museums of Iraq which house objects of extreme artistic rarity and historical significance. The governments involved are urged to take action at once to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq and also to seek to recover the objects which have already been looted.

ArtWatch supports efforts to save Iraq’s precious archeological objects and stands ready to assist in any manner possible.

Did Rembrandt paint the Mona Lisa?

With a sinking heart I read in The Independent of 19 February a story about a new research project on Leonardo da Vinci. “Some of the world’s most eminent art historians, led by the Oxford academic Martin Kemp, are about to conduct the first comprehensive scientific study of the great man’s [painted] oeuvre, putting such iconic images as the Mona Lisa under the cold, impartial gaze of science…”

That much was fine. I am all in favor of the cold, impartial gaze of science. I am even more in favor of the study of groups of works of art rather than the incidental examination of individual works. If the Universal Leonardo Project is going to do this, and do it systematically, applying the same tests to all the objects concerned, it will be a great boon. At a reported £1.5 million, part of it supplied by Bill Gates, the project would be a bargain.

My dismay began with the choice of objects to be examined. To set out to study “each of Leonardo’s works,” as Kemp is quoted as saying, is to rob the project at the outset of much of its scientific value. Of the paintings presently attributed to Leonardo, only one or two is documented solidly from his lifetime (1452-1519); conversely, a dozen paintings that are documented as Leonardos do not correspond to an existing work. Present-day expert opinion puts the number of extant Leonardo paintings at a range between 15 and 25 – a margin that reveals that “the great man’s oeuvre” is a matter not of fact but of opinion.

To be really useful, a project of this kind would begin with the systematic examination of a large random sample of Italian paintings from a long period of time, say from 1450 to 1550. A database of the physical characteristics of such a sample would enable one to say what is typical and what is different about those 15-25 paintings. If one isolates them from the start, nothing one learns can possibly distinguish them from other work of the period.

My unhappiness deepened when I read on: “The project has an objective that will have every museum with a Leonardo getting nervous – the question of attribution.” This was truly terrible. Scientific measurement is sometimes able to prove that a work is not what it appears to be. Forgers who are careless enough to use synthetic pigments that were not invented until after the period of the originals they are faking can be expected to be caught out in the laboratory. However, laboratory science is fairly useless when it comes to proving positive attributions – that a certain work of art was made by a certain individual. Artistic techniques and materials were too generally used for that.

True, the Universal Leonardo Project adds one interesting new tool to the kitbox of the paintings scientist: fingerprinting. (In this it was preceded by the excellent work of Nancy Lloyd at the Fogg Art Museum, who found fingerprints in clay models from the Bernini studio.) “Although without a guaranteed Leonardo fingerprint to authenticate the works, a common print found on all the paintings must surely be that of Leonardo, the experts believe.” Do these experts really think that they will find identifiable prints in all the paintings under study? And if the prints do not match, what then? Will they disattribute a painting if they find a divergent fingerprint? If not, then they have no basis on which to advance a matching fingerprint as positive evidence.

Then came the part that got me groaning. “The scenario” of the Leonardo project, according to The Independent, “is similar to another recent attempt to definitively analyse an Old Master’s corpus, the Rembrandt Research Project. This group of experts is credited with in effect rewriting the Dutch artist’s oeuvre after it found many of his paintings misattributed. The experience hurt at least one eminent museum. The Mauritshuis in The Hague, which had thought of itself as the proud possessor of three Rembrandt self-portraits, suddenly found itself with just one. Its star work, Self-portrait with a gorget, was ruled a 17th-century copy and the real thing was found to be a battered work, unrecognized and gathering dust in a Nuremberg museum.”

If I were Bill Gates, after reading that I would take my money back. In 1983, in vol. 1 of its Corpus of Rembrandt paintings, the RRP published the Hague painting as an original and that in Nürnberg as a copy; in 1991 the Mauritshuis version was included in the RRP-controlled exhibition Rembrandt: the master and his workshop, with an entry in the catalogue by an RRP member. It was in reaction to that exhibition that the German art historian Claus Grimm argued for the reversal that was accepted by the Mauritshuis before the RRP came around. (In November 2002 I tested the case in a lecture to an international congress of 1000 medical pathologists. I put the two versions on the screen and asked these non-art historians cold which one they preferred. They voted in overwhelming majority for the Nürnberg version, which the RRP called an inferior copy.)

If anything, the Rembrandt Research Project is a convincing demonstration that scientific examination is useless for establishing the individual authorship of Old Master paintings. That may not have been the intention, but to date it is the most abiding contribution of the RRP to the use of science in the service of connoisseurship. Leonardists who ignore that lesson do so at their peril.

© Gary Schwartz 2003. To be published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 15 March 2003.

This item is installment 179 in a bi-weekly column on art-historical matters (mainly Dutch) published by Gary Schwartz in Dutch in the Saturday supplement of an Amsterdam daily, and in English on the Internet discussion list ffdys.

To subscribe to the list, mail Gary.D.Schwartz@let.uu.nl