In Venice, during the sixteenth century, we encounter the usual adaptations and repaintings, such as that on the panel by Antonio di Negroponte in San Francesco della Vigna, with its addition of an Eternal Father in the style of Diana; whilst in the Sacra Conversazione by Lotto in the Museo Capodimonte in Naples, a child Saint John the Baptist in the style of Bassano has replaced the donor who was being presented by Saint Peter the Martyr. Other 57, 58 alterations were dictated by changes in taste: in the Crucifixion by Giovanni Bellini now in the Museo Correr, the kind of aviary filled with cherubim above the arms of the Cross must have appeared too medieval even for a devotional picture, and it was concealed beneath a cloudy sky. But not always does one find such an understanding of the painting to be altered; the Pietd in the Ducal Palace (also by Giovanni Bellini) was squared up in 1571 by a painter traditionally identified with Farinati. A landscape was added to it without any attempt being made to harmonize it with the fifteenth-century style of the painting, in addition to which, it was set out with an extremely high vanishing point, which is completely out of keeping with the original figures which are seen from below.
A more advanced taste was shown in the 1611 repainting (although it was also 59, 60 reworked in the nineteenth century) carried out on the Saint John the Baptist and the Saint Matthew by Alvise Vivarini in the Accademia in Venice; removed by Pellicioli in 1949, it was characterized by the presence of a lamb in the style of Veronese at the feet of the Baptist. Sixteenth-century examples of restorations such as these which finished by distorting the original were also mentioned by Zanetti: in the Library in San Marco the figures of Mars and a cherub which were repainted by L’Aliense in a “Giorgione”, a fragment of the school of Bonifacio which is today in the Accademia, representing a Madonna and Child with Saint Rosanna and Saint Catherine. In San Martino in Murano, “the panel on the High Altar was by Tintoretto, but it was restored by Palma; a Bishop Saint is by Tintoretto, and also the figure of a poor man, but the rest is almost all by Palma”; in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia,
Il Padovanino had restored the Madonna della Misericordia by Veronese, adding a cherub which does not appear in the engraving of the painting by Agostino Carracci.
These interventions were often the result of the necessity of repairing damage, as was the case, one imagines, with the reworking by Paris Bordone of the Tempest by Palma Vecchio in the Scuola Grande di San Marco. In the Scuole, moreover, the adaptation of series of canvases to new decorations or new surroundings was a fairly frequent occurrence. In 1551, those by Carpaccio in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni were moved from the upper room to the ground floor, and it must have been at this point in time that in 61 The Story of Saint George Baptising the Pagans the opening for the door in the bottom left
section of the painting, beneath the famous group of musicians, was painted in with a summary but nevertheless intelligent intervention. In 1544, in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, some of the canvases had to be adapted to their new positions, and Titian’s advice was sought: “a man whose experience is known to all”, and he suggested that “the canvases should be cut from the bottom, which would reduce them from four to one and a half, and this cut would not damage the aforementioned canvases in any way”. Carpaccio’s painting, with the famous view of Rialto, with the cut in the lower left-hand section which was badly reintegrated in the seventeenth century, gives us an idea of the effects of the reduction in size which occurred in the sixteenth century.
The recipes in the Venetian manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence have reminded us of the materials in use in the sixteenth century, whilst two seventeenth-century manuscripts published in 1849 by Mary Merrifield direct us rather towards the methods used in Venice, and elsewhere, in the cleaning of paintings: these were the Codex 992 of the University Library in Padua, and Giambattista Volpato’s Modo da tener nel dipinger. Volpato clearly defined the attitude which even such a minor painter as he would have had when confronted with requests to intervene on old paintings. In fact, the younger of the two apprentices, between whom the imagined dialogue takes place, asks how to clean certain smoky paintings which he had seen in the master’s studio: “It must be some trick to play a friend or patron, because good pictures either never are washed or the owners perform the operation themselves; and it is not merely a mechanical operation, because the pictures are easily spoiled, for if washed too much, those last retouchings which are the perfection of the work are effaced, and I have seen many paintings spoiled in this manner, by ignorant persons who know not what mischief they do. And I have even seen them wash paintings on panel and canvas in such a way that after being washed, they have scaled off, because the gesso underneath was affected by the moisture, and swelled; therefore it is great folly to wash good paintings.
If cleaning is inevitable, then “Take some ashes, which have been sifted very fine that there may not be any pieces of charcoal or any large substances which may scratch the picture; put them into a small pipkin with pure water, and with a sponge spread them all over the painting, and clean it by moving about the sponge gently, then wash it off quickly with pure water, because the ashes corrode the colour. Afterwards wash it well with clear water, dry it with a linen cloth, and then varnish it with white of egg.”
Oilings are to be avoided “for the oil is not good for pictures, except on their backs when they are scaling off, as I have told you; and in proof of this, and yet I recollect when he was beautiful, and you may observe the children, which being above reach of similar influences, are in excellent preservation”.
“Commercial restoration” enjoys a reputation which is sufficiently bad for me not to have to dwell on its inadequacies. In the eighteenth century, with the diffusion amongst collectors of the “grand taste” for Italian painting and, in particular, for sixteenth-century Venetian painting, Venice had become a great centre for the commerce of art, where all the practices associated with the art market such as cleaning, adaptation, repainting and falsification were carried out. And it is in the seventeenth century that altarpieces began to be acquired by the great collections, especially the princely ones; for instance, those by Andrea del Sarto in Florence, or the Correggios in Modena, and these have been kept in their original monumental dimensions, without having been painfully cut down because of their excessive size, unlike Antonello da Messina’s Pala di San Cassiano for instance, or even a Marriage of the Virgin by Palma Vecchio which Ridolfi refers to, in the home of Luigi Quirini.
Thefts were also potentially linked to an art market that had to be kept stocked; Boschini referred to Moretto’s Nozze di Cana which had been stolen from the convent of Santi Fermo e Rustico near Vicenza: “… as the painting was vast, the thieves in their haste, were not able to keep it intact, so that rolling it up as best they could, they damaged it disfiguring the human figures. After some time, the painting was found, like a bloodless corpse, as though lacerated by cruel knife wounds, so that it looks worse from its scars than a body afflicted with leprosy”.
A better fate was suffered by Paolo Veronese’s Ascension in San Francesco in Padua; only the figure of Christ now remains in the original church, integrated within a work by Pietro Damini. The Apostles, stolen in 1625, quickly found their way into the collection of Lord Arundel and then, after passing through various other collections, now find themselves in the National Gallery in Prague.
Volpato, notwithstanding the declarations in his manuscript, must have had good first-hand experience of the restoration and preservation of old paintings, in view of the event which is referred to by Verci in precisely this context of thefts and the improper appropriation of paintings. In Feltre, not long after 1674, he appropriated two altarpieces by Jacopo Bassano in the churches of Tomo and Rasai; under the pretext of restoring them, he made copies of them which he then substituted for the originals “having had the especially clever idea of oiling the reverse of the originals, asserting that thus they would be protected from the injuries of time, the object in truth being to confound the smell of fresh paint emanating from the copies”. The matter would only be cleared up in 1682 and, although Volpato was convicted, the pictures were not recovered, and eventually found their way to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
Amongst all the Venetian painters of the Seicento, the best known for his restorations (as well as for his copies of the Old Masters) was Pietro Vecchia. The contest between him and Father Time, which we encounter in the Carta del Navegar Pitoresco, also clearly shows the taste for patina which was widespread amongst seventeenth-century lovers of art:
“Il Vecchia halted Time and said: hey,
What do you think you’re up to with your glazing?
Are you trying to make painting immortal?
Stop, I want you to stay and be astonished.
And he shows Time a really dark canvas
And says to him: for how long, have you been working away
To make a patina over these colours,
So that this painting becomes old?
And Time replies: for more than a hundred years I have been studying, and trying to paint on That which the brush was unable to supply,
And there I think I know more than you do.
Ah no, there you are wrong, Vecchia replies:
I want to rub out what you have done;
And here is the proof. And lo and behold, in one fell swoop.
The painting is cleaned, making it new and shiny
And then Time said: I know
That what I have done can quickly be undone.
If you were as quick in the making [it old],
I would bow down to you and wish you good-day And indeed Vecchia, in his old way,
Careful, diligent and industrious,
Gloriously shames Time,
And returns the picture to its pristine state in no time at all”.
The Madonna and Saints by Battista Franco in San Giobbe, which Zanetti recorded as having been restored by Vecchia, cannot be traced in order to verify his methods; but Giorgione’s Pala di Castelfranco is recorded by Nadal Melchiori as having been restored by Vecchia in 1674, aided by Melchioro Mechiori who, without “touching it with a brush, but solely cleaning it and fixing certain portions which had lifted, wonderfully returned it to its original state”.x These “lifting portions” corresponded, it would seem, to the inserts of the paint layer which were transported onto canvas and then reattached to the panel; most of the left-hand side of the face of San Liberale was treated in this way, a restoration which is one of the most important testimonies of the origins of the process of transfer.
Vecchia was also active as a painter; in the Carta del Navegar Pitoresco, after the contest with Time over cleaning and artificial ageing, he demonstrated his ability in the execution of original works. Michele Piera, however, is recorded by Boschini solely as a restorer:
“That repairing paintings damaged
in accidents, or some mishap,
with such skill and grace
you cannot tell where they are repaired.
Because in a city like this one,
In which there are millions of paintings,
If there was no one to care for them worthily It would be a real shame”. The letters from Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany to Niccolo Cassana, a painter who bought paintings for him in Venice and was his habitual restorer, demonstrated clearly the nature of the adaptations that restorers of picture collections often found themselves having to perform.
The adaptations of paintings to “good taste”, or to the requirements of the galleries of the great, take us quite naturally and easily from Venice to the world of European collectors in the Age of Absolutism.