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Raphael Masterpiece Gets Technological Restoration

October 28, 2008

One of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance is returning to the public after 10 years of painstaking study and restoration.

Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch” is the famous oil-on-wood painting, showing the Madonna with two children caressing a goldfinch.

The restoration has removed centuries of brown film and grime.

“This patient gave us the most shivers and the most sleepless nights,” said Marco Ciatti, head of the department of paintings at Florence’s Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, one of Italy’s most prestigious state-run art restoration labs.

“We spent two whole years studying it before deciding whether to go ahead because with the damage it suffered in the past — which was clearly visible in the x-rays — a restoration attempt could go wrong,” he said.

Ciatti, 53, said in the past we decided not to restore something because the risks of damaging or altering the original were too great. “We see ourselves as a doctor who treats the patient as a whole rather than concentrating on a specific illness.”

Raphael lived from 1483 to 1520 and painted the panel in about 1506 as a gift for the marriage of Lorenzo Nasi, a rich wool merchant.

In Italian, the painting is known as the “Madonna del Cardellino,” showing the Virgin with two children symbolizing the young Christ and John the Baptist. The goldfinch is a symbol of Christ’s future passion because the bird feeds among thorns.

The work shattered into 17 pieces when the Nasi house collapsed in 1547. Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio, a Raphael contemporary, used nails to join the pieces and paint to hide fractures.

Later on, Florence’s powerful Medici family acquired the work, and commissioned several interventions aimed primarily at covering traces of the fissures.

Patrizia Riitano, 52, has worked on the restoration for the past 10 years.

While Riitano was the main restorer, the massive undertaking was a multi-disciplinary team effort involving about 50 people, including wood specialists and photography techs.

“I am just a technician,” the chief restorer of the project said with humility. “But, yes, I think I probably know this painting almost better than Raphael. He looked at it, sure, but all these years I have been looking at it with a microscope.”

“To think of it, I have spent more time with him than with my daughter,” said Riitano, a 30-year veteran of restoration.

Earlier restorers painted over Raphael’s brushstrokes and painted outwards to cover cracks. She instead removed the coverings and painted inwards to reveal more Raphael.

“I wonder if he is satisfied. I hope so. Perhaps he’ll send me a message from the beyond, maybe an SMS,” she said.

The painting will go on display next month in Florence’s Palazzo Medici in an exhibition on the restoration. It will then return to its long-time home in room 26 of the Uffizi Gallery.

“We will celebrate it like the return of our prodigal daughter,” said Antonio Natali, the head of the Uffizi.

Ciatti, the head of the paintings department, said that, as rewarding at the project was, the real joy was sharing innovative techniques and scientific discoveries.

“We are also a research and teaching center. Every restoration, whether the artist was a giant or not, is part of a greater effort to help future restorers. We publish everything we do,” he said.

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