Tags for: Pintoricchio's Madonna and Child
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Pintoricchio's Madonna and Child

Julianna Ly, Assistant Conservator of Paintings
June 1, 2023
Virgin and Child, c. 1490–1500. Pintoricchio (Italian, c. 1454–1513). 1944.89
Detail of cracked painting, showing removal of varnish on right side
During varnish and overpaint removal detail, normal light. 

Bernardino di Betto di Biagio’s (called il Pintoricchio) 15th-century Italian masterpiece, Virgin and Child, is one of the more intriguing paintings within the Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) collection. Although seen as one of the most significant paintings within the Early Italian collection, its complicated restoration history has rendered it nearly unexhibitable.  

When the painting entered the collection in 1944, the Virgin was depicted wearing a brown colored robe with drapery folds. After identifying this brown colored robe as non-original, former paintings conservator Joseph Alvarez began removing the non-original paint revealing a damaged but surviving blue robe underneath. Due to the extent of damage, the painting returned to storage and remained there until 1989, when the painting received its last full conservation treatment.

3 side-by-side images of the same painting, with varied coloration, labeled "1940, 1960, 1990"
The painting’s drastic change in appearance in 1940 (right before the painting entered the CMA collection), 1960 (during the first treatment at the CMA), and 1990 (following the last recorded treatment of the painting) 

The 1989 treatment was designed within the best practices of the time; former conservator of paintings, Kenneth Bé, decided to apply a singular tone over the area of damage. In a press release about an exhibition showcasing the treatment, the approach to the inpainting was laid out clearly: “The conservation department, in consultation with the director and the appropriate curators, settled on a compromise, painting over the cloak area in extremely dark blues to approximate what the original azurite would have looked like after 400 years and many varnishings; the resulting tone was so dark that no detail implying folds of cloth needed to be added to achieve visual integrity.” However, as our conservation ethics and treatment approaches have changed, it was decided that the treatment should be revisited, and the painting was brought to the CMA painting conservation lab in September 2021. 

However, before embarking on the conservation treatment, it was imperative to fully understand the structure of the painting. Beginning from the top to bottom, the first visible layer is the 1989 treatment that includes Be’s restoration on top of the Madonna’s robe. Past photo-documentation confirmed the original blue remnants underneath. In between these two layers, Bé applied a conservation-grade isolating varnish. This aligns with the American Institute for Conservation code of ethics and highlights the principle of reversibility. In conservation, materials used are vetted for their aging properties and can be removed from a painting with solvents that will not harm the original materials.  

Underneath the paint film is the artist’s underdrawing. This would have been done in a carbon-based ink or media and would have been used as a guide for the final composition. The underdrawing would have been applied on top of a ground material made up of calcium sulfate, or gypsum, which would have been applied on top of a panel in order create a smooth surface to paint on and to fill in the interstices of the wood grain.

stack of 6 layers of painting, labeled "1989 inpainting, isolation varnish, original 5th-century, underdrawing, ground layer(s), wooden support"
Diagram illustrating the layers underneath the painted surface.

However, prior to entering the collection, Stephen Pichetto, notable conservator who worked at the National Gallery of Art on the Kress Collection, transferred and cradled the painting. This likely was done to address the convex shape/warp that developed across a panel painting as the wood would expand and contract with fluctuating temperature and relative humidity. Paintings could also be transferred if the support suffered from wood worm damage. The presence of the cradle and the act of transferring would transform a slightly curved panel, to one that is entirely flat, restrained by vertical members adhered to the back with slots for sliding horizontal members.

This older practice of applying a cradle predicated on the idea that these “cradled” devices would inhibit the natural fluctuations of a wooden panel with the vertical members remaining in place, and the horizontal members ideally sliding and shifting as the wood would expand and contract. We know now that these cradle devices were more detrimental to a painting. Once the horizontal members would also expand and contract, they themselves would lock into place and create more stress on a paint film. 

After fully understanding the structure of the painting, conservators could begin embarking on a full conservation treatment. After months of carefully removing older restoration materials, conservators embarked on an interdisciplinary technical study of the remaining original paint.

person examining surface of a painting under a large microscope
Close examination under the microscope showed non-original paint remaining over layers of original. After in-depth testing, conservators deemed that the safest way to remove this material was mechanically, under the microscope.  

Pintoricchio’s Virgin and Child became the first painting owned by the museum to be analyzed with CT scanning. CT scans are similar to x-radiographs; however, here we are able to slowly slice through the painting taking an x-radiograph at each level.

painting on horizontal table, being loaded into CT scanner
Pintoricchio’s Virgin and Child became the first painting owned by the museum to be analyzed with CT scanning. 

Utilizing new technologies and the close relationship of CMA with other Cleveland institutions, such as X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF) at the CMA, Scanning Electron Microscopy Energy Dispersive Electron Spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), and Computed Tomography (CT) at the Cleveland Clinic, conservators began to unearth clues about the painting’s structure that had been obscured by large areas of non-original paint. 


Conservator, holding paint palette, inpaints detail on antique painting with very fine brush
Assistant Conservator of Paintings, Julianna Ly, is currently working on the inpainting stage of treatment, where conservation-grade paints will be used in order to visually reintegrate large areas of loss. 

With work now underway to reintegrate large areas of damage, this project underscores how conservation directly impacts the interpretation of paintings, and how conservation ethics and aesthetic approaches have changed over time. New data from the technical study in conjunction with connoisseurship travel visiting related paintings by Pintoricchio in collections from Honolulu to London, will help inform the new reinterpretation of this masterpiece.  

Stay tuned for updates on this exciting project!