Cleaning artworks in the 15th/16th century

Today, I thought I was going to write my first post in the lost-artworks-series I recently announced. Then, however, I looked at the date and figured I’d rather do something about depictions of the Adoration of the Kings instead. But you know what, in the face of recent events I ditched that idea too and decided to do something entirely different…

By recent events I mean the current controversy over the cleaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with St. Anne at the Louvre. For those of you who haven’t heard/read about this, here’s the gist of it: Over the course of the past few months, this masterpiece by Leonardo has undergone radical cleaning, which means that layers of grime and dirt and darkened varnish have been removed from the painting’s surface rendering all bright and shiny what previously appeared sombre and murky. Now there are some experts, however, who claim that the cleaning was too radical and didn’t remove just grime and dirt etc. but also some of Leonardo’s original colours, thereby inflicting irreversible damage upon the painting.

As the battle is still raging, I’m not a 100 percent sure which side I’m on, mostly because I don’t know enough about the actual technical details. What I find slightly irritating in any case, though, is the fact that – according to a recent detailed article in the New York Times – the whole controversy seems to be rooted not so much in technical but in aesthetical concerns. In the article one experts is quoted as saying:

“There is no unique truth, but it is fair to say that we haven’t shared the same views about what should and should not be suppressed, the degree of cleaning,” said Mr. [Jacques] Franck, who has written extensively about Leonardo’s painting techniques. “I would have felt quite happy and at ease with a dirtier picture — without bright hues.”

Now the one thing I can say about my take on this whole affair is that I don’t share Mr. Franck’s opinion. Frankly, I don’t understand why we should contend ourselves with a dirtier picture when we have the technical means to remove the dirt. Especially sinceLeonardo himself stressed the importance of using bright colours in painting (as H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem has reminded us in one of his recent tweets). Also – and here I finally get to the essence of this post – it seems to me that in Leonardo’s own time both artists and their patrons had a definite interest in keeping artworks from getting dirty and in cleaning them if necessary. Admittedly, there is very little evidence regarding this practice because this sort of thing rarely shows up in written documents. But there is a small handful of examples I’ve stumbled upon over time, and I thought it’d be a good idea to share them here.

The one famous example is certainly the so-called Bamberger Altar [Bamberg Altarpiece] executed form 1520-1523 by Veit Stoß, one of Germany’s foremost Renaissance sculptors:

Veit Stoß, Bamberg Altarpiece, 1520-1523, Bamberg, Cathedral (Image from Wikimedia Commons © Berthold Werner)

For reasons which needn’t interest us here, this altarpiece ended up in Bamberg Cathedral (hence the name), but it was originally made for the Carmelite Church in Stoß’ hometown, Nuremberg. Incidentally, it was commissioned by the prior of the Carmelite convent, one Andreas Stoß, who happened to be the artist’s son. I probably wouldn’t mention him if it wasn’t for the fact that he left precise written instructions on how to treat his father’s carved wooden altarpiece. Among other things, he writes:

“Et omni anno binies mundetur. Et ne magna lumina super altare propter fumum. Sufficiunt due parve candele de cera. Alie vero extra altare locentur.

And each year it shall be cleaned twice. And no large candles on the altar because of the smoke. Two small waxen candles suffice. Others may/shall be placed at a distance from the altar.”

While this highly interesting document proves that even in the early 16th century at least some people were concerned about artworks being cleaned, unfortunately we have no idea whether the prior’s instructions were actually carried out.

There is, however, evidence that something similar was indeed done elsewhere in the late medieval / early modern period: In 1460, the bishop of Brixen in the Southern Tyrol had a man on his payroll whose job it was to keep the cathedral cloister free from litter and to keep the mural paintings in the cloister free from dust!

Brixen, Cathedral Cloister with early 15th century wall paintings (Image from Wikimedia Commons © sailko)

Finally, the third relevant example I know about is or rather was in the chapel of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. Before the interior of the palace was refurbished and redecorated in the 16th century, the altar in the palace chapel was adorned by a painted altarpiece dating to 1335. Almost a hundred years after its installation, in 1432, the account books of the Signoria inform us that the altarpiece was cleaned from grime and soot. To afford further protection, a thin veil was hung before the painting (presumably to be removed whenever mass being said).

Ok, technically that was it, this is the end of the actual post… There is an afterthought, though, that just popped into my mind: The 14th century altarpiece from the Palazzo della Signoria doesn’t exist anymore so, hey, in a way I did write about a lost work of art. And there’s another thing I just realised: Both images in this entry actually contain a depiction of the Adoration of the Kings! As much as I’d like to take credit for this and claim it was planned right from the start, I must say it really is a mere coincidence. Anyway, in case you’re interested, here are more detailed pictures of the Adoration scenes:

Adoration of the Kings, c. 1410, Brixen, Cathedral Cloister (Image from Wikimedia Commons © sailko)

Veit Stoß, Adoration of the Kings from the Bamberg Altarpiece, 1520-1523, Bamberg, Cathedral (Image from Wikimedia Commons © Tilman2007)

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2 Responses to Cleaning artworks in the 15th/16th century

  1. Great post! This is a topic that I had never really considered much before. Although I knew that Leonardo’s “Last Supper” began to deteriorate in quality soon after it was created, I never gave much thought to the cleaning/restoration practices in the 15th/16th centuries (and even afterward). If only we knew more about the cleaning process. I wonder what cleaning “products” were used back then. Just water?

    • Thanks, and good question… Some 18th century sources I just found online say that paintings should be cleaned with water, soap and a sponge. I wonder if this would be applicable for the 15th/16th century too. Any experts on Renaissance cleaning agents out there?

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