Madonna in gold and egg tempera - A Work of Unique National Importance
Right now you can experience the newly restored Virgin and Child painted by Cecco di Pietro in the collections. The painting has been restored by conservator Troels Filtenborg who describes his work in the following. The restoration was undertaken thanks to the special appropriation from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for the preservation of works of Unique National Importance.
Cecco di Pietro, Virgin and Child playing with a Goldfinch and holding a Sheaf of Millet, c. 1372
Cecco di Pietro was one of the leading painters in Pisa during the later part of the 14th century. He painted altarpieces as well as frescoes and, occasionaly, also carried out restorations.
Painted with egg
From a technical point of view, the Virgin and Child is in many ways typical of its time. The entire background has been gilded with gold leaf while the figures are painted in egg tempera on a panel of poplar wood. Egg tempera is paint made by mixing the pigment with egg yolk. It is actually quite a stable material. When old paintings nevertheless often have lost part of their paint layer it is typically due to the wooden support. Insect damage and an unstable climate, for instance, can lead to warping and splits in the panel or even collapse of the surface of the wood. All factors which can result in flaking and loss of paint.
The reason for restoring the Virgin
The above was also the case with Cecco di Pietro’s Virgin. The painting had several old restorations in areas where the original paint had been lost. Discoloration of the retouchings had in the course of time become so pronounced that it was an aesthetic problem. This was particularly noticeable in the blue mantle of the Virgin and in the floor of the foreground.
The gilded background had also been overpainted in many places with gold bronze paint and had in several areas been covered with new gold leaf. Finally, in order to tone down the new gold, it had been painted with a brown glaze.
Impossible to reconstruct the blue mantle
The paint of the blue mantle is paler today than it was originally. Besides, the shadows of the drapery have been lost. The reason is probably a combination of deterioration of the paint and maybe one or more heavy-handed cleanings in the past. But the painter’s incisions in the surface have been preserved, indicating the position of the folds in the fabric. During the latest restoration I have not attempted to re-create the shadows. Without any indication of the shade of the original colour or the width of the shadows there was simply no basis for a reconstruction.
The restoration in 2006
At the restoration the old discoloured retouchings and overpaint were removed with solvents which did not damage the original paint. Egg tempera and gilding with an age of more than 600 years like in this painting are often fairly robust materials in the sense that they tolerate solvents like for instance isopropanol or acetone which in other contexts would be considered aggressive. On the other hand, agents like water and moisture can be harzardous to use on such a painting.
The cleaning also removed the later gold leaf and bronze paint, revealing the original gilding underneath. Although this is obviously more abraded it has a quite different glow and depth. The contours of the old gold leaves are visible where the leaves overlap, showing their size to be approximately the same as our contemporary gold leaf.
In a few places where new gold leaf was laid on, this was abraded, toned and cracked in order to integrate it visually into the surrounding gilding.
Paint losses in the figures were retouched so that they are not discernible to the naked eye. For that I employed modern, synthetic paint. This is stable in the sense that it can be removed, even after many years, without risk of damaging the original paint.
You can see the Virgin right now
The restored painting - the result of almost 600 hours of work - is now on display in the collections in room 268b with the title Gothic Painting - Gold Ground and Divinity.