An unknown masterpiece? A “Poussin” in Cortona

Sep 24, 2023 | Authentications & attributions, Discoveries, Exhibitions, Restoration

Artworks are not always found where you expect them. A “Caravaggio” in Malta is fine, but a “Poussin” in Cortona, Italy? An intriguing request came to us from doctor Gioia Olivastri, who, together with the restorer Nadia Nocentini, lifted the veil on a painting, an oil on canvas, part of the original nucleus of works that gave life to the Museum of the Etruscan Academy and the City of Cortona (MAEC).

The frame of the painting bears a label reading “Poussin?” and on the back, on one of the rulers of the stretcher, you can read the name “Poussino”. The subject, “Susanna and the Elders,” is one of the most popular themes among artists during the period in which the painter stayed in Rome.

The possibility that this painting could really be attributed to the famous painter Nicolas Poussin gave rise to an exciting investigation.

Nicholas Poussin, the French “intellectual” painter, arrived in Rome in 1624, during the glorious age of Baroque, but repudiated this style in favor of a rediscovery of classic art, a theme that fascinated Cassiano dal Pozzo, a great archaeologist, philosopher and naturalist employed by the Barberini family. Cassiano became a close friend and patron of Poussin, as well as a link to other collectors, who would make his fortune to the point of giving him a place in the history of French painting.

Investigations have been carried out on him and his technique, especially in France, obviously, and in England, where many of his paintings are now located.

Is it possible that there is one in Cortona too? Thanks to the generosity of the Museum, led by Dr. Giulio Paolucci, to the coordination of the curator Dr. Bruscetti and with the financial support of Dr. Cole Kendall, who sponsored both the restoration and the complex diagnostic campaign, we carried out the first analyses using advanced portable instrumentation. A photographic multispectral imaging campaign was accompanied by the taking of two micro samples, with the aim of putting them under the microscope to understand the stratigraphy of the pictorial film and the nature of the pigments used. Each phase of this diagnostic campaign was carried out in close collaboration with the restorer Nocentini, who played a crucial role in selecting the areas to be subjected to chemical analyses.

The painting, still undergoing restoration, is currently exhibited as side addition to the major “Signorelli” exhibition now ongoing in Cortona.

Choosing the areas to sample is a delicate process, made possible only after careful exploration using multispectral imaging, including UV and IR fluorescence. Only in this way was it possible to identify the authentic areas of the work, completely free of retouching or repainting. In this context, two pigments in particular, blue and violet, have caught our attention. Their choice was guided by the history of artistic production. Blue and violet were subjected to profound chemical transformations during the industrial era, and the analysis of these pigments could shed new light on the dating of the work itself.

The preliminary results of the analyzes were exciting. Chemical analysis confirmed the use of Natural Ultramarine, known as Lapis Lazuli, as well as a traditional palette that also included a red lacquer, mixed with Lead White and Lapis Lazuli to create a delicate violet.

The first results of this extraordinary investigation were presented at the beginning of August. The Museum has shown itself willing to continue with this fascinating research. The next steps will include radiographs and a Scanner Infrared Reflectography at 1700 nm, as well as capturing details of the brushstrokes using a digital microscope.

The second diagnostic phase is now upon us, and we are eager to share further details on the progression of this fascinating story. Will we be able to unravel the mystery of the painting “Poussin?” in Cortona? Art and science continue to collaborate to shed light on a potential masterpiece.

Emanuela Massa
Emanuela Massa