Restoration of an Italian Renaissance Jewel

How’s this for a bit of elbow grease?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a special new exhibition to open January 15th entitled “A Renaissance Masterpiece Revealed: Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child”, which will run through April. The centerpiece of the show is Filippino Lippi’s Madonna of circa 1485, which was painted for the powerful Strozzi family in Florence. The panel has undergone a truly miraculous restoration, removing years of overpainting, grime, dirt and brown varnish, which had completely changed the look of the picture. However, these layers of muck in fact preserved the original, bright blues, pinks, and yellows underneath, as you will see in the comparison below.

Lippi’s family background is nothing if not interesting. His father was the great Florentine painter Fra Filippo Lippi, who started out as a Carmelite friar. When he proved to be a better doodler than a contemplative, the prior encouraged him to study painting, at which he excelled. In 1458, Lippi Senior was commissioned to paint an image of the Madonna and Child at a convent outside of Florence where one of the novices, the beautiful Lucrezia Buti, sat as his model for the Madonna.

The painter and the model fell in love, and ran away together. Filippo refused to surrender to the authorities, and Lucrezia refused to return to her parents or the convent. She then became pregnant with Filippino, whom she gave birth to later that year.

No doubt some of my readers will see this as an unfortunate turn of events from a moral perspective, and they would be right. However, what is done is done, and one does not get to obviate the consequences of one’s choices. Of course, had Lucrezia been living in the present day, no doubt she would have had her arm twisted by Planned Parenthood and so on to abort the child – being an unwed, underage mother facing arrest and prosecution or worse. Had the world’s greatest practitioners of infanticide been around at the time, we would have lost one of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance period.

In any case, eventually the two lovers were released from their vows and allowed to marry, and the couple subsequently had a daughter as well. Filippino was initially trained by his father, who continued to work as a painter, and later was apprenticed to Sandro Botticelli, who himself had trained under Filippino’s father. Filippino eventually went on to surpass his father in terms of artistic achievements, in the eyes of many art historians.

Because of his tutelage under Botticelli, many of his Filippino Lippi’s earlier works are difficult to distinguish from those of his master, similar to the way in which works by Perugino and the young Raphael can often be hard to tell apart. However Lippi’s own style continued to develop and mature, and garner the respect of his fellow artists and artisans. This extended to the point where, upon his death in 1504, Lippi was so highly regarded by his contemporaries that all of the artists’ workshops in Florence closed on the day of his funeral so that the painters, sculptors, etc. and their assistants could attend the funeral mass.

In any case, here we see the “before” version of the Strozzi Madonna and Child, now at the Metropolitan, with everything having a yellowish-brownish hue from the years of dirt and varnish:

And here is the cleaned painting, demonstrating the crystalline, jewel tones that Lippi is known for (in pieces such as his “Tobias and the Angel” here in the National Gallery), including lapis lazuli, berry red, and pale yellow:

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