- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

After a two-year absence from public view, one of the National Gallery of Art’s most reproduced treasures — a bust of Lorenzo de’ Medici — has returned to its pedestal in the West Building. Visitors, however, may not recognize the likeness of this 15th-century Florentine ruler and arts patron, put back on display July 28.

Once dingy brown and somber blue, the terra-cotta sculpture has been cleaned to reveal its true colors: scarlet hat and scarf, indigo tunic and light-complexioned face darkened by a five o’clock shadow.

This dramatic transformation represents a decade of historical research, scientific analysis and painstaking conservation. It began with a scholarly colloquy held at the museum in 1996 to reconsider the attribution and date of the artwork, given to the National Gallery by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1943, and a bust of Lorenzo’s younger brother, Giuliano. Both Medici portraits were thought to have been created by Renaissance artist Andrea del Verrocchio in the 1470s.

“The bust was ‘the’ portrait of Lorenzo,” says senior curator of sculpture Nicholas Penny. “It was the canonical image of its time. It shows up in a 16th-century painting of Lorenzo by the workshop of [Agnolo] Bronzino. We knew based on other busts from the time that it must have been polychromed.”

Detective work confirmed the curators’ suspicions. Three tiny samples taken from the bust by Shelley Sturman, head of object conservation, showed that paint layers under the brown coating were brightly colored. Sophisticated testing of the terra cotta helped determine that the clay had been fired “just before or after Lorenzo’s death [in 1492],” according to Ms. Sturman.

This information, in turn, helped guide curators at the gallery in their research into the artist responsible for the work. “Renaissance sculpture is often the result of teamwork,” says Alison Luchs, curator of early European sculpture. “We know that Verrocchio helped artist Orsino Benintendi make molds for use in wax figures of Lorenzo. It seems likely that Verrocchio provided life masks for those effigies.”

The wax sculptures, Ms. Luchs explains, were put in churches throughout Florence to celebrate Lorenzo de’ Medici’s narrow escape from an assassination attempt. In 1478, henchmen of the rival Pazzi family succeeded in wounding Lorenzo in the neck and killing his brother, Giuliano, during Mass in Florence’s cathedral.

None of the wax portraits survives, but Ms. Luchs and her colleagues speculate that the National Gallery’s bust may have been copied from one of them. According to a historical account, this statue depicted the Florentine with a piece of cloth hanging from his hat and wrapped around his wounded throat and shoulders. The Bronzino workshop portrait of Lorenzo, thought to be based on the National Gallery bust, also shows him dressed this way.

Proof that the terra-cotta sculpture was based on the wax effigy with the distinctive headdress also came from physical evidence. A knob protruding from the scarf on Lorenzo’s right shoulder turned out to be part of an old repair and was removed. A torn protrusion was found under it, indicating that a sculpted cloth panel once had hung from Lorenzo’s hat and at some point had broken off.

“Our bust was made right after the assassination attempt, or it was made when the Medicis returned to Florence after a period of exile and took control of the city,” says Ms. Luchs. The attribution of the Lorenzo bust, now believed to have been sculpted between 1478 and 1521, has been changed to Verrocchio and the wax specialist Benintendi.

More sleuthing over the past three years by Michael Belman, an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in object conservation, led to the even more startling discovery that the nearly 26-inch-tall bust is one of the few Renaissance sculptures to have survived with its painted surfaces largely intact.

Under Ms. Sturman’s direction, Mr. Belman gathered an additional 29 samples from each part of the bust, using a tiny scalpel meant for eye surgery. Examining the specks under high magnification revealed vibrant hues consistent with Renaissance paintings. Like painters of the period, the sculptor used a technique of glazes applied over a mixture of pigments to make his colors shimmer.

“To find original paint in every sample was phenomenal,” Mr. Belman says over the telephone from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he works now as a conservator. “Most Renaissance busts were stripped of paint in the 19th century, but Lorenzo was never stripped.”

Presented with this evidence, museum officials agreed to a test cleaning of the bust “in little patches on the back where you couldn’t see,” Mr. Belman says.

The tests convinced the museum’s board of trustees that the sculpture should be removed from view in 2004 and cleaned in its entirety.

Mr. Belman then spent 11/2 years removing the grime and overpaint, using quickly evaporating solvents and gels that didn’t penetrate all the paint layers. “The paint was really fragile, so we designed solutions that would only work on the surface,” he explains.

Among his most exciting discoveries were painterly white lines along the front. “We were confused at first,” Mr. Belman says. “Then we realized it was the fur lining on the tunic, a common trait in depictions of Florentines.” Sandro Botticelli’s 1482/85 painting “Portrait of a Youth,” which hangs near the Lorenzo bust in the museum’s Italian gallery, features a similar costume.

Restoring the sculpture also revealed facial details that had been obscured previously: rosy lips and cheeks, dark eyebrows, beard stubble and remnants of eyes. Once dulled by a monochromatic appearance, the restored bust conveys the forceful expression of a survivor. The intense, determined gaze of this handsome Medici makes it apparent why he was called Lorenzo the Magnificent.

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