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Restoring da Vinci's 'St. John the Baptist' | Conservation Lab

Leonardo’s disputed Renaissance masterpiece reemerges from under 15 layers of varnish.

by Noémie Jennifer
22 November 2016, 3:25pm

St. John the Baptist before conservation, by Leonardo da Vinci. © Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN - Grand Palais / Angèle Dequier

Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist has been successfully liberated from layers upon layers of past treatments, including an astounding number of varnishes—15 in total. On November 9, 2016, the 16th-century painting was put back on display at the Louvre, following nine months in the hands of conservators at the Center for Research and Conservation for France’s Museums (C2RMF). If you do the math, that’s roughly two weeks of work per layer of varnish.

Back when it was announced in January, the restoration was met with concern from some experts, who argued that earlier restorations by the museum had lightened the master’s paintings to an excessive degree. The Louvre, in turn, responded that treatment was imperative: The painting—the most varnished in the collection—had not been touched since 1802, and had darkened significantly. The saint’s cross, animal fur, and several strands of his hair had disappeared into obscurity.

Visitor photo taken after conservation. © Instagram user @yokokokokokokoko, published with permission

The dimming of the painting’s surface was largely due to those dirty, oxidized, irregular layers of varnish, whose thickness totaled 100 microns. Régina Moreira, the restorer in charge of the paint surface, made those measurements as she progressively removed each layer. As a result, the Saint’s hair and animal fur are now far more visible. The materials used by the artist, however—oil and resins—have irreversibly yellowed over time, and continue to lend a golden tonality to the artwork.

Digitization of old X-ray from 06/10/2009, showing holes from wood-eating insects and a protective layer added to the back of the painting. ©C2RMF Lambert Elsa

While hotly disputed—at least at the onset—this restoration has possibly been the most benign in the painting’s 500-year history. A very old treatment, performed during the latter half of the 16th century or in the early 17th, likely removed several glazes, which da Vinci used to produce his characteristic sfumato effect. In 1639, Abraham Van der Doort, the curator of the collection of Charles I of England—who owned the painting at the time—noted that “the arm and the hand were damaged due to a cleaning.” This resulted in a hardening of the contours of the figure, which even led to debates over attribution in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Before and after conservation—to be taken with a grain of salt, as image on right is a visitor photo taken through glass, from Instagram user @stephanedecannes—published with permission. Image at left is a detail from first photograph above, © Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN - Grand Palais / Angèle Dequier

As Moreira worked on the pictorial layer, she encountered and removed several areas of ancient, poorly executed overpainting, particularly in the Saint’s arms and torso, as well as in the background. Vincent Delieuvin, the Louvre’s curator of 16th century Italian painting, tells The Creators Project that, aside from the removal of the varnishes, the state of the painting represented a major difficulty, as it was unclear whether some areas were deteriorated, unfinished, or damaged due to earlier treatments. As such, retouching on the painting was performed with the utmost restraint. Moreira added a coat of conservation varnish, and lightly retouched worn areas of the saint’s arm.

We’ll have to wait for the critics to chime in, but in photographs, at least, the restoration seems perfectly reasonable—to judge for yourself, a trip to Paris may be in order.

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Layer by Layer Reconstructions of Old Master Paintings | Conservation Lab