White Coats v. Bow Ties
- Jacopo della Quercia by James Beck
Columbia, 598 pp, $109.50, February 1992, ISBN 0 231 07200 7
- Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel by Robin Richmond
Barrie and Jenkins, 160 pp, £18.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7126 5290 6
- Rembrandt. The Master and his Workshop: Paintings by Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch and Pieter van Thiel
Yale, 396 pp, £35.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 300 05149 2
- Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Science of Attribution by Alexander Perrig
Yale, 299 pp, £35.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 300 03948 4
- Michelangelo and his Drawings by Michael Hirst
Yale, 128 pp, £14.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 300 04391 0
- The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation by James Saslow
Yale, 559 pp, £22.50, April 1991, ISBN 0 300 04960 9
Jacopo della Quercia was one of the great sculptors of the early 15th century, comparable in stature with his contemporaries Donatello and Ghiberti, but his work is less consistent, and more difficult to discuss in the stylistic terms usually associated with Renaissance art. There are three famous works by Jacopo: the tomb of Ilaria del Caretto in Lucca, the doorway of San Petronio in Bologna and the reliefs and statues of the Fonte Gaia, the municipal fountain that originally stood opposite the town hall in Siena.
Although neither San Petronio nor the Fonte Gaia reflects much interest in the antique Roman architecture, ornament and figure style that so absorbed leading Florentine sculptors at the time, the tomb chest on which the effigy of Ilaria lies is carved with nude boys supporting swags of fruit – the first true putti of modern European art, imitated from Roman sarcophagi. Perhaps, indeed, the sculptor had been asked to imitate just such a sarcophagus. In that period in Tuscany it was highly prestigious to use an ancient sarcophagus for a tomb and perhaps none of the right size was available. The effigy would not originally have been placed directly above this frieze of putti. Nevertheless, the contrast between the alert pagan children and the sleeping Christian wife must always have been striking, although not in James Beck’s view.
Ilaria, Beck concedes, ‘may look “Gothic” ’ – as if we were about to claim that she actually was Gothic. Indeed, her narrow, high-collared dress, belted below the breast, with long curving folds falling from belt to feet is Gothic – but, who knows, she might be less so if she took it off. She looks especially Gothic from above, but this cannot have been the view which we were expected to take and so Beck excludes shots looking down at her from his otherwise comprehensive photographic survey. The sweeping lines on the effigy of Ilaria to which Beck thinks we must not pay too much attention are also evident, however, in the Madonna and Child that Jacopo carved for Ferrara at a slightly earlier date. Here they lighten the massive folds of cloak over the Virgin’s knees and give a spring to the pose of the Child who stands on her lap. Even the little pointed shoe which emerges from the Virgin’s skirts and the curls of the Christ’s hair participate in this linear pattern. All the same, the composition is severely architectonic – ‘almost oppressively frontal’, Beck observes.
In the Trenta altarpiece which Jacopo carved in Lucca after completing Ilaria’s tomb, the figures are incorporated in an architectural framework which can only be described as Gothic and are integrated with it to an extraordinary degree: the draperies flow like the fat foliage crockets which wind up the ogee canopies, and the draperies above the Virgin’s head in the central niche form an ogival arch. The elongated figures are bonelessly elastic and have wrists which are flamboyantly unanatomical in their flexibility. Beck admits that there are ‘insistent “Gothic” signs’ here, but he will not remove the inverted commas and tries to deny the vertical character of the figures, asserting that they ‘give the impression of resting stably on a horizontal axis within an implied spatial context’. But there clearly is no sense of repose, no stability and little if anything is implied in the way of space. Beck, unhappy with this ‘indecisive stylistic interlude’, suggests that Jacopo is ‘groping’ and ‘puzzled’. But we are left suspecting that Beck is the one who is groping and puzzled – by the very fact that Jacopo is so decisively Gothic.
Gothic has come to be regarded as the old-fashioned style that was rejected by the progressive Renaissance. Beck wants to avoid this dichotomy but his method of denial is a mode of recognition. The Gothic of the Trenta altarpiece may have come to seem less progressive, but this should be irrelevant to our sense of its merits. When Beck discusses the Fonte Gaia (which survives only in disagreeably weathered fragments misleadingly reassembled under shelter) he exaggerates the degree to which the figures in their broad niches (pointed architecture was inappropriate for so horizontal a composition) are ‘massive, monumental, space-occupying and space-defining’. This is unmistakable art-historical code for ‘progressive in the spirit of Masaccio’, but Jacopo’s monumentality simply wasn’t space-defining in the new Florentine way.
While denying the Gothic element in Jacopo’s work Beck has no trouble acknowledging the elements in his style which could more fairly be regarded as old-fashioned – radically conservative or fundamentally reformist. His debt to the sculpture of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano falls into this category. And so, too, does the debt which his narrative reliefs, especially those at San Petronio, owe to repoussée silver reliefs (a point first made by Baroni in 1956). Much of the work in precious metal from this period has been melted down, but it was the most prestigious form of sculpture. In these reliefs the metal was beaten and punched out from the back: any sense of receding space is rare, and a certain ambiguity of plane is common; rounded projections and tubular drapery folds are preferred to hollows. Here, however, as all too frequently in his book. Beck is hampered by the unfortunate decision not to include any illustrations of work other than Jacopo’s own.
Although Jacopo cannot easily be described as a ‘progressive’ his sculpture was later singled out for special praise by Michelangelo. While it is possible that Michelangelo exaggerated the degree of his esteem precisely because Jacopo had been neglected, his admiration was surely genuine. Michelangelo’s lack of interest in pictorial space, in perspective recession (as distinct from the foreshortening of the human form) and in the incidentals of landscape setting distinguished him from his contemporaries. Jacopo’s narrative reliefs at Bologna reveal a similar lack of interest in the representation of space: aerial and linear perspective are almost entirely absent. In the Nativity scene, for instance, the Virgin reclining after childbirth, the ox and the ass, the Christ child, even the hillside all seem to press forward, out of the relief.
The blunt, almost clumsy force of Jacopo’s finest reliefs, in which the figures have drastically simplified features and the men especially have large powerful hands, may well also have appealed to Michelangelo, as would the almost fleshy thickness of Jacopo’s drapery even at its most Gothic – a plasticity most evident in the ‘thick, abundant, but never ponderous or confining material’ which envelops the Virgin above the door of San Petronio. Michelangelo would have studied this sculpture when he worked in Bologna and Beck feels that his Bruges Madonna – a ‘tiny’ marble, as he inexplicably describes it – might be considered as a ‘homage’ to Jacopo’s.
Jacopo seems to have been far more accomplished as a carver than as a modeller. Michelangelo was also more attracted by carving and his reluctance to create full-size preparatory models for his marbles, or, at the very least, his willingness to ignore them, may explain the failure of some of his sculptures. A similar reluctance might explain why Jacopo’s relief for the Baptismal Font in Siena is so poor. Beck wonders whether he had ‘technical setbacks, for as far as we know he had not worked in bronze since ... 1401, more than a quarter of a century earlier’, but it would have been unusual for a sculptor to play any part in the casting, and the problem may simply have been that Jacopo had no aptitude for shaping clay or wax models for the founder. The poor quality of the reliefs carved on the doorway of San Petronio by Jacopo’s assistants might also be explained by his failure to supply them with clay models to follow.
Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993
From Michael Daley
Nicholas Penny’s defence of current art restoration techniques is baffling (LRB, 11 February). While admitting that ‘destructive restoration’ was often the responsibility of ‘much-vaunted scientific techniques’, and that ‘something is lost’ in every restoration, he nonetheless claims that better advice is to be had from ‘laboratory scientists and archival historians’ than from artists or ‘today’s “man of taste” ’. It is hard to see why this should be thought to be so. Evidence from a laboratory might tell a curator what a substance is, but not what its purpose was. The archival historian might discover how much a painting cost, or by whom it was commissioned, but not what it looked like. Such gleanings, however interesting, provide no basis for any intervention, let alone for the radical and destructive interventions currently in vogue.
The present dependency culture (of historians on conservation scientists) is proving highly debilitating. Dr Penny says, for example, that he ‘knows few art historians … who believe that a mistake was made in the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling’. So much the worse for them – one was, and art historians should have been the first to spot it. Numerous shadows applied with glue-size paint have been removed from figures on the ceiling. Without offering any evidence, today’s restorers have claimed that this painting was the work of restorers over a century after the ceiling’s completion. But the now-missing shadows were recorded in copies made by Michelangelo’s contemporaries within a few years of the unveiling and long before any restorers were hired. I have repeatedly drawn attention to this fact in the newspaper and art magazine articles to which Dr Penny refers. No art historian has ever disputed this evidence. Why, then, is its clear import not accepted? Do all historians share Dr Penny’s apparent belief that the ‘evidence of microscopic examination’ cited by the Vatican’s restorers, in defence of their own actions, somehow neutralises the artistic and documentary record of Michelangelo’s peers? Or do they believe that all of Michelangelo’s copyists had decided that his figures were insufficiently sculptural and had accordingly, and in unison, added shadows of their own – shadows, moreover, which somehow anticipated perfectly those now alleged to have been added to the ceiling by later restorers?
Penny claims that polemics against the restoration which appeal to ideas of chiaroscuro are a ‘misunderstanding’. But a misunderstanding of what? The ceiling was praised precisely for its unprecedentedly dramatic chiaroscuro. This is a matter of record – are today’s historians ignorant of this fact? Some of them, like Dr Penny, have, contrarily, praised as ‘revelation’ the newly-emerged ‘colourism’ of the work, for which not a single contemporary corroboration is to be found. What kind of scholarship is this? It purports to be scientific yet ignores profuse artistic and documentary evidence. It accepts without reservation technical evidence that is strikingly at variance with other technical accounts. A recorded examination of the ceiling in the 19th century found that the glue-painting could only have been Michelangelo’s because it had been applied when the ceiling was brand-new and not yet cracked – no glue had run into the cracks, the glue-paint had cracked with the plaster. It is a matter of record that the ceiling had cracked before any restorers were hired. Do historians have any grounds for rejecting the implications of this technical testimony? If not, why do they persist in denigrating critics of the restoration? And why do they continue to support a cleaning long after the restorers themselves have abandoned their controversial methods and substances?
Artwatch International, East Barnet, Hertfordshire
From Susan Wilsmore
After more than fifty years of the National Gallery authorities denying that the Gallery’s paintings were at risk, and in the face of the latest conservation research findings to the contrary, the National Gallery Renaissance curator Dr Nicholas Penny somewhat nonchalantly admits that ‘something is lost, however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation, if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.’ This should focus our attention back onto the National Gallery’s cleaning methods which, in the meantime, have been exported to other galleries and museums worldwide.
The damaging effects of solvents are reported in the August 1992 edition of Studies in Conservation. Twenty to 30 per cent (sometimes up to 50 per cent) of the substance of oil paint may be ‘leached out’ by solvents. The potential damage to paintings, both immediate and long-term, is of very serious proportions. ‘The immediate result of leaching,’ says the report, ‘is shrinkage of the medium by up to 50 per cent in volume which can lead to cracking … The swelling nature of most solvents is itself a cause for concern. The oil medium will attempt to swell in all directions but can only freely do so outwards … On drying the loss of any soluble material may lead to the formation of inaccessible voids in the film. Such voids near the surface could result in optical problems, e.g. blanching.’ The ultimate danger is spelled out clearly: ‘Solvents can leach out certain components from a dried oil film. These components act as plasticisers … The paint layers will become more prone to cracking and delamination.’
For any particular painting then the question must be: what is gained by intervention (‘cleaning’) to offset the possibility of such high costs? Any acceptable answer must be found by applying satisfactory conservation principles. In Penny’s hands we find no such comfort. The two principles enunciated by Penny, even in their over-simplified formulation, are not applied by him to particular cases when they arise, or if they are applied, it is without due consideration for the consequences of his argument, let alone for his practice at the Gallery. The two principles given are: ‘First, will it [the method of cleaning and conserving a work of art] be good for the work, will it improve its chances of survival? Second, will it enable us to see the work more clearly as the artist intended – will it be closer to its original condition?’ Penny ignores the second principle and invokes familiarity to explain the acceptance of a new nose on an old bust. Yet clearly his question – ‘Do you remove from an ancient Roman marble bust a nose which was given to it in the 18th century?’ – has an affirmative answer according to the second principle of the artist’s intentions. It is not, as he asserts, simply a question of ‘tact and presentation’.
University of Hertfordshire
Vol. 15 No. 7 · 8 April 1993
From Nicholas Penny
Susan Wilsmore concludes oddly that I would advocate the removal of an 18th-century nose from an antique bust because this would bring the sculpture closer to its original condition and to the artist’s original intentions (Letters, 11 March). I have, in fact, complained in print about the rash removal of old restorations to sculpture. If the nose is well done, I would recommend that it be kept and precisely because the sculptor did intend that there should be a nose. If the nose job changes the character of the face or if the nose (being in plaster) has discoloured, then it may be a different matter. Generally if a nose is removed I would recommend adding a new one, not least because chiselled scars are more distracting than natural breaks. It would be best if it were obvious that any new nose was new, but only on close scrutiny – that is where ‘tact and presentation’ come in. As for ‘familiarity’, it is surely the case, with a collection in which ancient sculpture has not been restored, that we soon get into the habit of adding noses in our imagination, and also true that if we are expecting restoration we learn to look for it.
Ms Wilsmore also repeats claims about solvents used in cleaning oil paint – not a problem addressed in my review. Were it to be established that a solvent used in cleaning destroyed the oil paint to which it was applied, there would be no argument in favour of its use. Mr Daley, in his letter in the same issue, refers to shadows recorded by copyists soon after Michelangelo had finished painting the Sistine ceiling. The copies – they are drawings and prints, not paintings – made of the ceiling in the 16th century are illustrated and discussed in the catalogue of the exhibition Michelangelo e la Sistina held in the Vatican in 1990. Few have survived which were in fact executed soon after the ceiling was finished and not all of those made later constitute reliable evidence, but none of them support the claims Daley makes. I am surprised to learn that it is a ‘matter of record’ that the painting was ‘praised precisely for its unprecedentedly dramatic chiaroscuro’. As for the cracks on the ceiling, one went across the chest of an ignudo and when it was repaired in the 1560s a portion of the original painted plaster was buried within it: this was found to be without trace of the glue-painting which Daley believes to be by Michelangelo. Here, too, the reader is referred to the Vatican catalogue, which records an examination of the ceiling far more profound than any that could have been undertaken in the last century.