- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

Venetian painters of the 16th century were masters of color and expressive brush strokes. They pushed art in a modern direction with their large landscapes, dramatic portraits and provocative female nudes.

But these movers and shakers of Western art weren’t always as assured as their luminous paintings suggest. They often tried alternative poses for figures, different landscape features and background treatments, covering up their initial attempts with layers of opaque and translucent paints.

Many of their secrets are revealed for the first time in “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting,” the new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Detective work by conservators and scientists into 19 of the show’s 52 paintings is displayed alongside the finished pictures by these virtuosos.

Explained in two galleries are the CSI-style forensics undertaken by conservators Elke Oberthaler of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and Elizabeth Walmsley of the National Gallery, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the scientific investigations and evidence usually hidden from the public.

Their sleuthing proves that the Venetian artists were groundbreakers in terms of both aesthetics and technique. “We know that they were innovative,” Ms. Walmsley says, “but to see their innovations from the underdrawings to the paint layers showed me that the innovations were more extensive than I thought. The technical examinations make you appreciate their creative process even more.”

One of the most experimental paintings in the exhibit, the conservator says, is Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers,” painted around 1506. “The artist started out with one sketch and started painting in basic colors, then changed his mind and did more drawing, then more painting,” she says.

The old philosopher on the right of the picture, for example, originally was depicted with an elaborate headdress. The figure in the middle had a shorter robe. In the background, the building once occupied the crest of the hill, and the sky was more open, with fewer trees.

Helping in the hunt for these artistic clues is a procedure familiar from a trip to the doctor or dentist: X-rays. Using this technology, the density of materials used to create the painting, including all changes made to it over time, is recorded on film.

By the 1930s, X-radiography was in use to determine the authenticity and authorship of artworks, and now it helps art historians understand a painter’s working methods. When conservators X-rayed Giovanni Bellini’s “Lady With a Mirror,” they found the artist had applied a stippled texture to all areas except the figure, a subtle effect barely discernible on the picture’s surface.

A newer tool, infrared reflectography, is used to detect the preliminary sketches beneath the layers of paint. It sends infrared light through the picture that is reflected back and recorded on a monitor. The artist’s initial ink or charcoal drawing, which isn’t always detected by X-rays, absorbs the light so it appears black in the reflected image.

These underdrawings play a significant role in understanding artistic development and originality. Bellini, who began some of his works by transferring an image drawn on paper onto a panel, essentially painted between the lines. Giorgione, in contrast, frequently departed from his original drawings.

An infrared reflectogram of “Portrait of a Woman (Laura)” shows the short-lived Giorgione first painted a more modest figure against a blue sky. He changed the size and position of leaves around her head twice before arranging them on the left and right over a dark background. The revisions have led scholars to wonder whether the painting is meant more as an allegory than a portrait of a real person.

More apt to change his mind was Titian, who used his first sketches as just a rough indication of where figures were to be placed. In “Virgin and Child (Gypsy Madonna)” the artist drew the infant facing straight ahead, then moved His head slightly to the side. He initially showed Christ walking away from Mary Magdalene in “Noli Me Tangere,” then reversed the pose so Jesus leans toward Mary. In making these changes, Titian achieved a greater sense of naturalism and rapport between the paired figures of his paintings.

The Renaissance trio also experimented with the colors and composition of paints to achieve subtle shading and radiant hues. Artists benefited from a larger color industry in Venice that provided glassmakers, potters and furniture painters with new, more varied shades and better pigments. Giorgione, for example, used top-quality azurite to create the striking blue garments in “Adoration of the Shepherds.”

Microscopic studies of tiny paint chips reveal that the artists sometimes mixed glass and sand into their paints and applied translucent glazes to create light-reflective surfaces. Barbara Berrie, a conservation scientist at the National Gallery who has analyzed paints of the Renaissance period, recently discovered that Bellini added orange glass to the blue hue brushed onto the horizon of “Feast of the Gods,” a large work that underwent several revisions by the artist. The surprising discovery proved that this master, the oldest of the three Renaissance painters, liked playing around with the latest special effects just like his younger colleagues.

“Bellini was keenly aware of color mixing and working to find just the right hue,” Ms. Berrie says. “He was more adventurous than we realized.”

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