Conservation United Kingdom

Leonardo in a new light

The Virgin minus fog: National Gallery in London cleans its famous canvas while the Louvre perform a quantitative chemical analysis on the Mona Lisa

Since the National Gallery revealed the true colours of its Virgin of the Rocks, we got Nicola Laboratorio in Italy to digitally clean the Mona Lisa for us, so here is the world's most famous painting--as it could be

LONDON. Notoriously nervous to clean its most famous Leonardo, the Louvre has collaborated with the Labor­atoire du Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France and the European Synch­rotron Radia­tion Facility to perform a quantitative chemical analysis on the Mona Lisa, 1503-06, and the faces of seven other works by the artist. Using x-ray fluorescence, researchers analysed the composition and thickness of the painting’s layers. They found that he used up to 30 layers, each roughly half the thickness of a human hair.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery in London has just cleaned one of its most celebrated Leonardos after spending more than 15 years investigating paintings by the artist and his Milan­ese associates and assistants in its collection. In early 2009 the museum embarked upon an 18-month project to clean one of its most celebrated works, The Virgin of the Rocks, about 1491-1508.

“The treatment was driven by the need to improve the work’s aesthetic quality. The varnish had become something between the viewer and the painting,” said Larry Keith, the museum’s director of conservation, referring to varnish applied by the museum in 1948-49, which had become yellowed and cracked.

Keith, in conjunction with the museum’s scientific department, used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to confirm that the 1940s varnish was a mixture of mastic and turpentine with linseed oil. Organic solvents were then used to reduce the varnish. Keith was keen to point out that the varnish was not fully removed: “The treatment wasn’t about getting off all of the varnish. We wanted to achieve an aesthetic aim to be able to see the depth of the dark colours, which entailed a substantial reduction of the varnish. When we were satisfied with that, the cleaning was finished.”

Was there concern that the cleaning might remove one of the work’s multiple pigment layers, a characteristic of Leo­nardo’s work in which he applied opaque light colours over darker underlayers to build up fleshtones and create a smokey, sfumato effect? “The paint layers are thin and very delicate but that does not mean that they are inherently more soluble. All our research indicates that he used either walnut or linseed oil and there is nothing to suggest that this work is particularly more vulnerable relative to any other Renaissance painting,” said Keith.

“I feel really positive about this restoration. A really good restoration is one that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself,” said Keith, who added: “There are still open questions, but it’s better to leave them open than to impose answers."

...and after cleaning
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8 Nov 10
16:50 CET


"ektachrome blue"? I would call it Aegean Sea Blue.

29 Oct 10
14:57 CET


The National Gallery, London, is notorious for their extensive over-cleaning and "restoration" of paintings. Walking through the Gallery is like opening a box of new crayons, in that the colors are shockingly and disturbingly bright. It is so incredibly irresponsible. The Mona Lisa was so harshly over-cleaned at one point in its history that the figure no longer has eyebrows as the solvents used were entirely too harsh. I really hope that it is left alone.

13 Oct 10
15:22 CET


I believe if Leonardo da Vinci saw how much his art work has meant to these musuems and the world, Not to mention the care they take of them, i think he would be very happy with the work they did on his.

30 Sep 10
15:35 CET


Restoration of our most precious works have become nothing more than monographs by modern day restorers left arbitrarily up to interpretation. The "Madona of the Rocks" by Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery of London should now read Leonardo da Vinci/Larry Keith. Unfortuately the restoration community does not have any standard for cleaning paintings, from archeological restoration to simply conservation is a large gap. In idustrilized countries the use of harmful solvents for cleaners are used uncontrolably leeching into the different layers from glazes to underpainting known as 'pigment migration'. A standard could begin with only the use of solvents,varnishes and materials used at the time. These treasures are all that we have so why are experimenting with them. If restorers are such experts why don't they paint a copy of the masterpiece to show their intention. What do we have to loose.

28 Sep 10
18:1 CET


May I remember the scientific work made by Pascal Cotte inventor of the famous Multispectral Camera from Lumiere-Technology Cf about the simulation of the unvarnished Mona Lisa and his publication with Pr Mady Elias, from the Laboratoire des Nanosciences, Paris VI University CNRS in "Applied Optic", revealing the genuine colors of Mona Lisa 4 years ago... This multispectral non invasive technology is supported by Artwatch UK and in France l'ARIPA, and recently discribed in the last issue of International Preservation News, N°50, pages 21-27 FYI.

27 Sep 10
14:17 CET


I believe the Virgin of the Rocks had a harmony and atmosphere and space more in keeping with his genius. The cleaned painting looks like they scalped the dark glazes off that those artists incorporated to mass and create atmosphere. the painting now looks like the original "dead colors" middle value colors painted before more subtle glazes of transparent earths and blacks. The painting now looks like a flat picture post card with modern emphasis on pure color. What a mistake and tragedy.

27 Sep 10
14:19 CET


It's a bit alarming that Keith feels "really positive about this restoration" as though the job could have gone drastically wrong like so many other over-zealous restoration projects have in the past. I like the idea of only "digitally cleaning" a painting in order to give the viewer an idea of what a centuries old painting might have looked like fresh off the easel. It's foolish to think, though, that by cleaning the original one will regain the true Leo as only his contemporaries had the privilege to view it. In fact, once the yellow patina is scrubbed away - and perhaps some color glazes along with it - it's gone for good. But museums can always reproduce digital images that can continue to be updated and "improved" as time goes on, leaving the original to age gracefully. This drive to improve the "aesthetic quality" of a one of a kind masterpiece is a dangerous notion that should be debated publicly rather then decided on by a few lab technicians over x-ray fluorescent lighting.

25 Sep 10
17:0 CET


This report is alarming on many levels. First of all, the "restorers" should realize that they are demonstrably incapable of dealing with the very delicate layers of paint meticulously superimposed in order to produce the artists' desired effects. Hence the resulting ubiquitous "Ektachrome" Blue wreckage left in their wake, that is only too aparent here. Second, the readers' comments reveal a a scandalous and pervasive deficiency in connoisseurship that only enables the restoration industry (de facto) vandals to wreak greater and greater havoc on the world's cultural patrimony.

19 Sep 10
16:2 CET


Amazing~ thank you for sharing how and why the processes are done. I have this print at my front door~ as a reminder of the wonder of the world we live in.

17 Sep 10
20:18 CET


Steals from the original? How does it steal from the original when it's showing it the way DaVinci intended it to be? I think DaVinci would be horrified if he saw the murky yellowed version and how that varnish changed his vision over time, and I think he'd be pleased that the museum took such incredible care in restoring it.

17 Sep 10
18:47 CET


it makes it look nice yes, but it's not the original. It takes away the look of how old it is, and now it just looks like it was just painted. I can understand why it was done to the Virgin of the Rocks since it was cracking,but it still steals from the original. I am not a happy fan

17 Sep 10
15:45 CET


She cleans up real good!

17 Sep 10
14:48 CET


Absolutely stunning outcome - I'll just have to see it in the flesh!!! Amazing work...

17 Sep 10
14:48 CET


How regenerating! Never underestimate the restorer's knowledge among all the intellectual fuzziness.

16 Sep 10
22:28 CET



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