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On Creating Facture, the National Gallery of Art’s New Conservation Journal: Privileged Intimacy with Great Works

Daphne Barbour and Melanie Gifford–

 

Those of us who spend our time closely studying works of art know that shiver of recognition: the moment we realize that we’re looking through the microscope at fingerprints—Jan van Eyck’s?—tapped into wet paint almost 600 years ago.

The Annunciation, Jan van Eyck. National Gallery of Art, Washington Macrophotograph of a shadowed area. Van Eyck blotted away transparent brown paint to make half shadow.
The Annunciation, Jan van Eyck. National Gallery of Art, Washington
Macrophotograph of a shadowed area. Van Eyck blotted away transparent brown paint to make half shadow.

It feels as though we’re looking over the painter’s shoulder; watching his decision to soften the margins of a transparent brown shadow to an imperceptible blur. Technical study is not always dry, scientific analysis: we live for such moments of unexpected intimacy with masterpieces. We want the readers of Facture, the new interdisciplinary journal published by the National Gallery of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, to share this privileged intimacy.

One of the greatest challenges, and greatest pleasures, of working in an interdisciplinary field like art conservation is collaborative work that often crosses the boundaries of conservation treatment, scientific analysis and art historical inquiry. Combining the evidence from these different vantage points challenges traditional preconceptions and yields surprising new insights. Our challenge in editing Facture is not to reduce specialized evidence to simplistic terms, but to express complex ideas in shared language that speaks to a broad audience, from specialist scholars to the serious art lover.

One essay featured in Volume 1 blends the voices of historian, conservator and scientist to draw the reader progressively closer to the Mazarin Tapestry. The essay tells the reader that a set of such “cloth of gold” tapestries cost the Tudor court as much as a battleship. The textile conservator reports that this tapestry is so rich with precious gold that it is surprisingly heavy and cool to the touch, yet the weave is so fine that the tapestry rivals paintings in subtle gradations of tone. While the reader cannot touch the tapestry, Facture’s high-resolution photographs give the reader an almost tactile experience, bringing us so close that we see the play of light on individual gold threads.

Flemish, 15th century, The Mazarin Tapestry. National Gallery of Art, Washington A high-resolution photograph shows individual gold threads as well as the subtle gradations of tone that define the face.
Flemish, 15th century, The Mazarin Tapestry. National Gallery of Art, Washington
A high-resolution photograph shows individual gold threads as well as the subtle gradations of tone that define the face.

A microscope image zooms in closer to show a single thread of silk wrapped with fine silver-gilt foil, floating in space. Analysis reveals that the precious metal foil was hand-hammered with remarkable precision: an image from the scanning electron microscope shows the foil, hammered to 1/8th the thickness of a human hair, wrapped around and around a slender bundle of silk fibers. The resulting fine, flexible gold thread is key to the delicacy with which the weaver rendered the complex design of the Mazarin Tapestry.

Micrograph of gilt-foil-wrapped silk thread from The Mazarin Tapestry
Micrograph of gilt-foil-wrapped silk thread from The Mazarin Tapestry
SEM image of beaten-and-cut gilt metal strip wound around silk core
SEM image of beaten-and-cut gilt metal strip wound around silk core

Facture essays open windows into the creative thinking process at every stage of an art work’s history. They explore the artists’ thinking during the creative process. For example, a new generation of high-resolution infrared reflectography offers a glimpse of the long bundles of delicate underdrawing lines with which Van Eyck shaded the Virgin’s robe in The Annunciation.

 

The underdrawing of Van Eyck’s Annunciation shown in a false-color multispectral infrared reflectogram.
The underdrawing of Van Eyck’s Annunciation shown in a false-color multispectral infrared reflectogram.

In another case, powerful X-radiographs show Severo da Ravenna’s innovations as he adapted lost-wax casting to make multiple small bronzes for wealthy collectors. These refined Renaissance bronzes contrast to works explored in a different essay, which shows how Jacopo Sansovino’s workshop mass-produced cartapesta reliefs of the Virgin and Child for a far more modest market.

Essays in Facture also explore the thinking of those who later inherited precious works of art. Microscopic study shows that when Giorgio Vasari, painter, architect and historian, assembled one of the earliest collections of drawings, he reconfigured functional studio drawings by his contemporaries into independent works of art. For an album page celebrating the drawings of Filipino Lippi, for example, Vasari cut the figure of a flying angel out of a pounced cartoon and wove it into a larger composite work of art unified by inventive architectural flourishes.

 

An Angel Carrying a Torch, a cartoon by Filipino Lippi, reused by Giorgio Vasari. Holes that Filipino had pricked into the drawing to transfer the design are highlighted here in yellow.
An Angel Carrying a Torch, a cartoon by Filipino Lippi, reused by Giorgio Vasari. Holes that Filipino had pricked into the drawing to transfer the design are highlighted here in yellow.

A second essay, based on archival research, uses ledgers and scrapbooks from the vaults of the famous art dealers, Duveen Brothers, to show the commoditization of masterworks in the early twentieth-century: paintings crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, and were framed and reframed to appeal to new buyers. A glimpse inside the Duveen-commissioned frame for the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna by Raphael reveals the proud inscription by the frame’s creator, “Vannoni fece 1928 Firenze.”

Several additional essays include striking photographs that juxtapose works of art before and after conservation treatment, including a terracotta bust of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Van Eyck’s Annunciation. These essays bring the reader into the conservators’ complex decision-making process as they explore how these works have been changed over time and how the conservator can best recover the original artists’ creations. Through cross-disciplinary research drawing on scientific analysis, art history, and conservation treatment we have recovered the deep blue of precious ultramarine in the Virgin’s robe in The Annunciation and recreated an image of the original costume that signaled Lorenzo as a private citizen of Florence as well as the city’s ruler.

(left) Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florentine, painted terracotta, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, after treatment. (right) Computer-generated virtual reconstruction of probable original appearance showing complete costume and the proposed original colors
(left) Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florentine, painted terracotta, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, after treatment.
(right) Computer-generated virtual reconstruction of probable original appearance showing complete costume and the proposed original colors

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area this weekend and would like to find out more about Facture, Volume 1: Renaissance Masterworks, come to our lectures at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday, January 12, at 2:00 p.m. and Monday, January 13 at 12:10 and 1:10 p.m. in the East Building Auditorium.  

Speakers include Daphne Barbour, senior object conservator; Melanie Gifford, research conservator; Lisha Glinsman, conservation scientist; Alison Luchs, curator of early European sculpture; and Kimberly Schenk, head of paper conservation, National Gallery of Art.

Attendees will have the opportunity to purchase copies of Facture and have them signed by us. The lectures are free and open to the public.

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