A great cleaning (and scalpel work), which Cesare Brandi would be proud of

Oct 27, 2021 | Cutural Heritage, Discoveries, Restoration

“Commonly we mean by restoration any intervention aimed at putting a product of human activity back into efficiency“. So writes Cesare Brandi in his famous essay where he exposes what he considers the mission of the restorer and explains how everything must be done with the utmost respect for the work and time passed. The artwork history adds to its value.

An innovative vision, which has led him to a very critical approach towards cleaning. However, when one relies on diagnostics and proceeds with meticulously and carefully, the results obtained are such that Brandi himself would have clapped.

Nowadays there are numerous important cleaning interventions that have made it possible to restore a work to an appearance much closer to the original one: Vermeer‘s painting “Girl reading a letter in front of the window” (83×64,5 cm), about 1657 and now in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresda, belongs to one of these cases.

Diagnostics should always be part of first approach to the work of art. Its outcomes are extremely valuable for conservation, cleaning, and for artistic historical research if necessary.

In the case of Vermeer’s painting, diagnostics allowed not only to proceed with the removal of a historic repainting in total respect of the original work, but also to understand that the pictorial layer that covered “the picture within the picture” was not contemporary to the creation of the painting.

Brandi wrote “When you come to the practical intervention of restoration, you will also require a scientific knowledge of the matter in its physical constitution“. The diagnostician takes care of that: she informs the restorer and the art historian of the physicochemical characteristics of the work under analysis. This on the one hand allows the restorer to choose those substances and techniques that best match the artwork characteristics for cleaning or any other conservative intervention and on the other hand consents to the art historian or archaeologist to insert that artifact in a historical period. The presence of a painting on the wall depicting a cupid was known since the painting was x-rayed in 1979, but it was thought that the Dutch painter himself wanted to cover it. Further analyses were carried out in 2017 before a restoration aimed at removing the yellowing of the varnish. In addition to the analysis of ultraviolet fluorescence and infrared reflectography, it was decided to carry out a sampling and proceed with the stratigraphic study of the pictorial background covering the cupid. The presence of dust between the last layer of the cupid and the layer of the wall and the chemical composition of the pigment different from that found on the rest of the wall, allows dating this intervention a long time after the realization of the painting, to be exact around the XVIII century. It cannot therefore have been a Vermeer’s choice.

As to why it was decided to cover the cupid, there are numerous hypotheses but mainly either the composition had a too intimate aspect to be exhibited in a room intended to accommodate guests or it did not meet the taste of one of its owners. Nowadays, the painting has been restored to its original appearance after a long and careful cleaning and it is the centerpiece of the exhibition “Vermeer, The Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window by Johannes Vermeer and 17th century Dutch genre painting” at Swinger palace in Dresden. Below are the links of the videos documenting the two restoration phases