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Thank you so much for writing this article. I truly got sick in the stomach. I don't think restoration's should happen at all. They should just protect, NOT add to anything (or even take away). It truly becomes a different picture.I will never see the painting in it's original state :(.

H Niyazi

Hello David. Thank you for this summary. I was wondering when MD would chime in, perhaps the fellow who tried to comment on the Salvator Mundi attribution by referring to (phantom) inconsistencies in the Hollar engraving?

One of the great dangers in letting the humanities loose in the lab is they use the words "science" and "evidence" as a weapon.

"Scientific underpinning" is not a finality, it does not reduce a question to black and white, it underlies a process for allowing a more complete description of what is happening, or even not happening.

There can be no doubt the language used by the French restorers, ArtWatch and often Art History Today is emotive, designed to sway the reader not by an array of information, but emotional impressions of the case at hand.

Hence, my question is - would we not be better of with a full review of the restoration data presented by the Louvre. What is dust, what is paint, what actually came off? What was painted over and preserved? If it can be viably demonstrated that some of the dark hues are dust detritus (and insect waste, as seen in the Leonardo Adoration at the Uffizi!) - it should be made known without the arm waving. Hence, what contribution was dust and age making to the missing shadows which seem to be the main visual difference between pre and post.

It is extremely unlikely we will ever have an idea of what the piece looked like when Leonardo finished it. The closest we may get is an estimation by a digital process such as demonstrated by Lumiere technology on the Mona Lisa - whose digitally cleaned colours match more closely the Prado variant recently in the news. Yet, not even the Louvre is ready to peel of La Gioconda's greenish tinge yet!

No pun-ridden medical analogies to sign off from me, I just want to see the complete report, hopefully translated and presented in the manner the Prado did with their evidence. Best leave the feinting spells and melodrama to lesser reporters.

Kind Regards

Edward Goldberg

David--My own formation, long ago, was primarily on the "visual connoisseurship" side and I am still far more comfortable in museums, printrooms--and archives--than I am in laboratories. Having said that, I am often dismayed by the gladiatorial contests between "pseudo-connoisseurship" and "pseudo-science". This is not helping us understand anything that really matters and the "discourse" is outrageously overheated at present (due in large part to the current wave of "discoverymania"--exemplified by the ongoing clown show in the Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence.) No one (at least, no thinking person) is being asked to choose between "science" and "art"--and it serves no constructive purpose to imagine that we are. Edward Goldberg


It isn't possible to accurately judge painterly nuances from photographs, especially those viewed on a computer screen as pixels of light. This is not to justify the treatment of the St. Anne, only to state that these "before and after" images cannot compare to the experience of viewing the object in person, and speculative judgements about a restorer's work should not be made from them without the full supporting body of information and documentation accompanying the treatment.

Any painting which is several hundred years old has already been cleaned and restored before anyone today ever touched it. Details and shadows apparent in a "before treatment" picture might be old restorations, accumulated grime, old partially removed discolored varnish. Agreed, connoisseurship is absolutely essential to conservation. This is without question. But the scientific aspect of conservation should not be derided. Tools such as microscopy and chemical analysis can help to definitively identify what is present on the picture surface. With old masters, there are usually multiple layers of varnish, waxes, retouching, grime, etc., mostly applied or having occurred over the picture's history, well after it left the artist's studio. In many cases, the identification of these materials is very straightforward to an experienced conservator. Nonetheless, very careful examination and specialist collaboration is a requirement for undertaking any important conservation work. One would expect that the St. Anne was examined in great detail, discussed and documented, and its condition fully understood before any restoration work was undertaken, and that careful testing, scrupulous looking, and documentation occurred throughout the treatment process.

That being said, a topic less discussed than cleaning but equally important is the degree to which a cleaned picture is retouched. A quite gently cleaned surface might nonetheless have an artificial and stark appearance after conservation treatment if too many bits of remaining grime and craquelure are retouched away. These residues of age contribute an overall lowering of tonality to old pictures which is not fully understood by most observers, but which is noted when absent sometimes by the mistaken impression that the picture is "overcleaned". A sensitive restorer understands that the overall effect of even tiny dots of retouching may be to increase the color saturation and contrast, and exercises judgement to avoid this.

The problem with conservation is that it does in fact depend upon the judgement and talent of the restorer. There is certainly room for criticism. However, the criticism needs to be based upon in-person observation, and needs to be better informed.

[Thank you, David, for your interesting and insightful blog, and for presenting this topic for discussion. I write from the USA.]


There are thousands of very early old master paintings which are completely original or near enough to it, having never been cleaned, or relined and also with their original frames.

You can forget all the theoretical platitudes of "full reviews of restoration data" "expertise" "science","examinations","analysis" "specialist collaboration, discussion, scrupulous looking, judgement and talent of the restorer etc. etc.".
Once these were all undertaken and the "expert" descision made to hit the painting with solvents ,of any formulation, irretrievable loss was always bound to occur. No solvent yet known can discriminate between age discolouration from whatever source and the artist's oiginal glazes, which may also have darkened. The result of the best restoration that money and the best restorers can buy or achieve is now self evident, as expected, with the inevitable change in the painting's appearance, due to such losses.

It all comes down to aesthetics, not "science" as David quite correctly asserted, and to one basic decision - "To restore or not to restore", as the certain glazing losses and inevitable change to the original surface was always predictable. It is either accepted or rejected as an aesthetic decision. Certainly it now looks "clean", but at the great cost of original glazing losses, as the painting now has a substantially different appearance due to the removal of Leonardo's original sfumato shadowing.

A far more prudent compromise, a third alternative as it were, that these "experts" could quite easily have undertaken but didn't, and which would have caused the work no such losses, is to have digitally removed the composition's discoloured/darkened varnish etc. They could then have had that High Quality image hung beside the painting, for those who cannot accept or allow for the age of the work in its then current form, rather than causing such irretrievable loss. Having now seen this result, it is hoped that course would be taken should the present custodians of the "Mona Lisa" contemplate a similar execise on that painting.
It would be the greatest travesty should they ever consider otherwise, so the less informed
who decry its present understandable "Greenish" appearance, can get their jollies, but not to Leonardo's and the painting's loss.

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