This School of Botticelli tondo depicting the Virgin and Child was bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1912. During the autumn of 2015 it came to the Hamilton Kerr Institute in preparation for a loan. Upon initial inspection it became clear that the heavily blistering and slightly flaking panel was likely to be under internal stress from the battens on the reverse. Due to the importance of the piece and its projected display at the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition at the V&A (2016) and the upcoming Madonnas and Miracles exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (7 March – 4 June 2017), it was possible to raise funds to allow us to fully explore the cause of the blistering and undertake a complete conservation and restoration treatment. During the treatment it was found that certain paint layers and the paint medium deserved further investigation.
The paint and ground layers were consolidated before structural work could commence. Over time, a number of cracks had begun to form in the wooden support from the edges inwards, resulting in local tenting of the ground and paint layers. These fragile layers were secured and visibly improved during the consolidation treatment, which offered a better overall surface of the painting. The presumed tension, manifested in the cracks from the edges of the panel, was supported by the fact that the battens, which appear to be non-original, were unable to move in the original dovetail grooves. It was therefore decided to temporarily remove the battens and plane down the areas causing friction in order to fit them back into their grooves. In their slightly thinned state they will in the future provide support without restraining slight natural movement of the poplar panel in response to minor shifts in relative humidity.
Pigment and Medium Analysis
X-ray Fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) and cross section analysis respectively were employed to determine the pigments used and to observe layer structures in order to enable comparison with other paintings.1,2 An elemental composition reading of specific passages was attained with the non-destructive XRF technique. This in turn allowed well-informed sampling for cross sections to illustrate the build-up of layers. The pigments and layer structure were found to correspond to a typical build-up in late 15th century Florentine paintings3 comprising of a white gesso layer on top of the wooden support followed by a glue priming, and in some cases a white oil priming, which was then finished off with the actual paint layers.
However, unlike many of Botticelli’s paintings, this tondo did not show the characteristic hatching typical of egg tempera painting technique. The presence of brushstrokes and impasto suggested the use of either an oil rich tempera grassa4 (an egg and oil emulsion medium) or neat oil paint. A small sample was removed from an area of loss in the light sky area in order to investigate the medium that was used. With the aid of cross section staining (using ), it was possible to conclude that very little to no protein (egg) was utilised in the paint layers, whereas the glue and ground layers stained positive for protein. A reason for this slightly unusual choice of medium for Botticelli’s workshop and period may have been influenced by guidelines of the commission, the patron, or a desired visual impact.5
Varnish and Grey Layer Removal
After successful surface cleaning and varnish removal a selectively applied grey layer extending over the flesh, Virgin’s robe, and some of the background, became apparent. This resulted in a ‘veil’ concealing the delicate shading of the faces and drapery. During inspection under the microscope, it became clear that this layer extended into cracks and was therefore unlikely to be original. Solvent tests determined a suitable cleaning solution and enabled the safe removal of the grey, obscuring layer. The painting thus regained its original tonal values and balance of highlights and shadows.
Restoration: filling and retouching
Paraloid® B72, a stable synthetic resin, was applied as a transition layer to saturate paint layers after successful consolidation and cleaning of the painting. Subsequently, the losses were filled with a water soluble putty consisting of chalk and gelatine. These losses were then textured to emulate the surrounding area and retouched using the retouching technique traditionally employed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute: First, lightfast loose pigments bound in egg tempera medium are applied to achieve the opaque lower/baselayers of the painting, which are then followed by pigments bound in a synthetic resin, in this case Gamblin Conservation Colours™, to imitate final glazes. A final synthetic resin varnish was spray-applied to even out the gloss of the painting. The composition-gilt frame that had received glazing for the exhibition was lined with gummed paper tape and self-adhesive felt tape to reduce the risk of abrasion from the rebate to the painting’s edges. Brass plates affixed to the frame were shaped to fit the painting and hold it securely in its frame. In order to protect the painting better from fluctuations in humidity and dirt a hardboard backing was screwed onto the reverse of the frame.
Michaela Straub – 3rd year student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute
About the author
Currently in her third year studying easel painting conservation at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Michaela Straub graduated from Aberystwyth University with a BA in Fine Art and Art History in 2012. She has undertaken internships in private studio’s, the Denkmalschutzamt in Germany and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.
To contact Michaela Straub: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bersani, P. P. Lottici, A. Casoli, and D. Cauzzi, ‘Pigments and binders in “Madonna col Bambino e Giovannino” by Botticelli investigated by micro-Raman and GC/MS’, Journal of Cultural Heritage, vol. 9, 2008, pp. 97-102.
- Castelli, M. Ciatti, C. Lalli and A. Ramat, ‘Il Restauro del Ritratto di Giovanne con Mazzocchio di Sandro Botticelli’, OPD Restauro: Rivista dell’Opificio delle pietre dure e laboratorio di restauro di Firenze, vol. 23, 2011, pp. 141-154.
- Dunkerton and A. Roy, ‘The Materials of a Group of Late Fifteenth-century Florentine Panel Paintings’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 17, 1996, pp. 20-31.
- Dunkerton, ‘Modifications to traditional egg tempera techniques in fifteenth-century Italy’, Early Italian Paintings Techniques and Analysis Symposium, Maastricht 1996.
- Dunkerton, ‘Osservazioni sulla tecnica delle opera di Sandro Botticelli alla National Gallery di Londra’, in: D. Gasparotto, A. Gigli, F. Motta, Il tondo di Botticelli a Piacenza, Milan 2006, pp. 67 – 79.