Siena, Italy… Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s painted Crucifix (c. 1329–30) from the Convent of San Niccolò al Carmine, meticulously restored thanks to the Friends of Florence and generous support from The Giorgi Family Foundation, was presented to the public in a dedicated gallery in Siena’s Pinacoteca where it will remain on display until January 8, 2024.
Conducted by Muriel Vervat under the direction and scientific supervision of Stefano Casciu, Regional Director of the Musei della Toscana, the restoration of the 14th century Sienese masterwork by an artist considered to be one of the great masters of his age, took almost three years to complete.
When this temporary exhibition comes to an end, the Carmine Crucifix will return to Room 7 in the Pinacoteca, installed alongside other works by Lorenzetti (1290-1348), known chiefly for his fresco illustrating Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall.
When the municipal authorities of Siena placed the Crucifix in the city’s Regio Istituto di Belle Arti in 1862, it became part of the body of work that was to make up the Pinacoteca Nazionale’s collection. From what is known of the Carmelite convent’s history, the Crucifix was painted c. 1329–30, a date borne out by its style. It appears to be a youthful work painted at a time when Lorenzetti was still under the influence of Giotto. However, certain features are characteristics of the artist’s mature work, including the elaborate decoration on the tabellone–the body of the cross–and Christ’s halo. In terms of its structure, even though it is now missing certain parts, it is within the context of crosses painted in Siena between the 14th and 15th centuries which were remarkable for their complex carpentry, polygonal star-shaped terminals, and moulded frames, facets of a Gothic style the artist further refined.
The depiction of Christ reveals Lorenzetti’s exceptional skill in handling naturalistic elements. The body’s anatomy is masterfully conveyed in its volume and a delicately nuanced chiaroscuro defines its muscles, effectively underscoring the areas in shadow (the abdomen and the hollow of the arms) versus the lighter coloring of the figure’s complexion. Bright red drops of blood also stand out in stark contrast.
Lorenzetti’s soft, slender brushstrokes define details such as the chestnut hair and beard framing the face, in which we can perceive the final moment before Christ resigns himself to death. The head bends forward, its dramatic effect accentuated by the halo in relief, while the lips are already veiled with a hint of blue and the drooping eyelids poignantly convey suffering.
The Crucifix had a number of conservation issues when work began. The infiltration of rainwater into the convent in the 19th century caused extensive damage, although the face of Christ was partially spared having been protected by the halo jutting out from the cross proper.
The Crucifix had been restored previously from 1953 to 1955 at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro under the direction of Cesare Brandi. On that occasion, the restorers rediscovered the original paintwork by removing previous repainting and replacing it with neutral block colors below the level of the painted surface. While conducted in accordance with conservation practices of the time which are still broadly valid today, that effort produced a fragmented result.
During a monographic exhibition on Lorenzetti held in Siena in 2017–18, it was clear that his Crucifix should be restored and appreciated by viewers in full. Cristina Gnoni, the Pinacoteca Nazionale’s Director at the time, suggested to the Friends of Florence that they might consider funding the new restoration project devised by Muriel Vervat.
The operation was preceded by a multi-faceted program of scientific investigation conducted by the IFAC-CNR and ISPC–CNR in Florence, which not only provided valuable support for the project but also enabled the investigation of Lorenzetti’s painting technique in some depth. Stratigraphic analysis revealed a number of features, including the way the blood running from Christ’s wounds was applied using two kinds of red. These included a basic, thicker red made of cinnabar, overlaid with a darker, shinier layer in red lacquer made from kermes red, a pigment which was costlier than gold and which clearly indicates the importance of the patron who commissioned the work.
The restoration also offered an important opportunity for conducting a more in-depth study of the artist’s executive technique and careful reflection on conservation choices, particularly with regard to the gold background and the major paint drops affecting Christ’s body. The cross’s gold background is not merely a decorative choice. Restoration has also revealed it to be a sophisticated study on the approach to the diffusion of light on Lorenzetti’s part.
More information: https://www.friendsofflorence.org/