October 28, 2010

More than Meets the Eye in Art Masterpieces

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Edward Olszewski

What you see on the surface of a great work of art is just a small part of the painting’s history.

“Each painting is its own mystery and is a laminate of layers,” says Edward Olszewski, chair of the Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University.

Olszewski acts almost as a detective, peeling back the layers of a masterpiece’s history. He uses technologies, such as X-rays and infrared reflectance spectroscopy, to reveal more than eyes alone can see. Such technologies are becoming increasingly important, Olszewski says, because as more and more paintings undergo restoration, an artist’s true hand could be lost.

Currently, Olszewski is examining 32 portraits and religious works by the 16th century artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael.

In addition to the Raphael works, Olszewski is also analyzing an oversize painting of a “Madonna and Child” by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola). In this case, the work has undergone some restoration, and Olszewski’s analysis will help determine what was done by the painter’s hand—and what was done later by others.

Collaborating with Maurizio Seracini, the world-renowned art diagnostician and founder of Editech Art Diagnostics, Olszewski is analyzing Seracini’s image data from the Raphael paintings at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy.  Florence was home to Raphael, along with two other Renaissance masters—Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The Florentine artists were known for starting out with underdrawings as guides for their paintings.

Seracini digitally separates a painting into individual layers from the surface paint to the bottom-most layer where the original form or painting’s outline is sketched in charcoal or painted onto the white lead oxide base over the canvas or panel. The infrared reflectance spectroscopy penetrates the pigments to detect the carbon ink underdrawing beneath the pigments painted over it.

The collaborators made some surprise discoveries.

They found that Raphael single-handedly did the underpaintings in his early works. Once he gathered a following and became more established, more than one artist in his studio workshop contributed to the masterpieces.

“Raphael was basically indifferent to the talents of his assistants and felt he was authoritative enough that he could correct any mistakes,” Olszewski says.

But some of his apprentices stood out as masters.

Guilio Romano began in Raphael’s studio, he learned from the master and filled in the sparse lines and drawings from Raphael’s underpaintings.

“Raphael had such confidence in Romano’s work that he would let him paint the picture. Later, Raphael would complete the fine details,” Olszewski says. 

Romano was so talented that a painting in London’s National Gallery and a Raphael in the Uffizi had the wrong attributions. Diagnosticians such as Sericini corrected the mistake and gave the appropriate painter credit.

“Seracini’s digitized images are so precise that we can even see the artist’s fingerprints,” Olszewski says. 

And just as FBI agents track down criminals using fingerprint data, art historians can now authenticate an artist’s work.

Olszewski is continuing his collaboration with Seracini and is making short trips to Florence with support from the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities to conduct his studies.

Posted by: David Wilson, October 28, 2010 10:15 AM | News Topics:

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