Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi is returning to the Uffizi Gallery after a five-year restoration conducted by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
The painting was moved to the Opificio’s restoration laboratory in the Fortezza da Basso in November 2011 and became the object of an extensive diagnostic campaign before a joint decision to restore it was reached in October 2012.
Why restore the Adoration of the Magi?
That question undoubtedly crossed many people’s minds when the Gallerie degli Uffizi and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure first announced the news in the autumn of 2012. In fact the idea had already sparked a furious debate among scholars when the possibility had first been aired ten years earlier. Some scholars questioned the likelihood that the painting’s dark, murky surface could possibly reveal anything more than could already be perceived, or at times only imagined, while the general public might have subconsciously taken on board the notion, spread by reproductions in school books and by the aura of legend that had grown up around the painting, that the Adorationwas a deliberately enigmatic, almost initiatic work, its nebulous composition designed to express some kind of abstract content, crowded with figures almost impossible to make out and engaging in indecipherable actions and gestures. In actual fact, the complexity of the Adoration of the Magi is due largely to the fact that it is an unfinished painting, and unfinished in a way that makes it difficult to decipher. When Leonardo da Vinci departed from Florence for Milan in 1482, he left behind him a picture in different stages of completion. The blue of the sky can just about be made out while other areas are still only at the drawing stage; some figures are more advanced than others and picked out in darker colours; images overlap other images, erasing them and altering the artist’s earlier intentions; and certain areas are given over to spatial and volumetric experimentation. Interpreting such a painting certainly was not easy, but for the restorers it was unquestionably a unique experience to have to cope with Leonardo’s constantly changing ideas in different phases of his creative process rather than with a finished work, their more usual fare.
The conservation project
In accordance with the Opificio’s standard working method, the project began with a phase of study, research and diagnosis designed to explore both the work’s material construction and the nature of its conservation issues. These preliminary steps gradually revealed a series of hitherto misunderstood or even completely unknown artistic factors which became increasingly clear as restoration progressed. The acquisition of these factors provided the team with the necessary springboard for developing a restoration project capable of allowing visitors to the Uffizi to better understand and enjoy this astonishing masterpiece.
There were two principal sources of concern: the marked deterioration of later materials on the painted surface, and obvious structural issues such as the gradual separation of the individual planks making up the panel on which the picture was painted (which had progressed almost as far up as the painted surface itself). The layer of dirt and yellowed varnish prevented the eye from grasping not only the composition’s spatial depth but also a myriad minor details. Uffizi Gallery restorers of the past had applied numerous layers of various materials (glue, varnish, egg white and so on) to the painted surface over the centuries and these materials had started to cause the paint to lift.
The team put together for restoring the Adoration, under the guiding hands of Marco Ciatti and Cecilia Frosinini, pooled the results of their diagnostic inspections, of the debate on the picture’s significance in art history and of the indications gleaned on its state of conservation, to develop specific restoration guidelines. The painting was diligently and intelligently cleaned by Roberto Bellucci and Patrizia Riitano, while the wooden support was restored by Ciro Castelli and Andrea Santacesaria in conjunction with Alberto Dimuccio.
Cleaning was restricted to the layers of non-original materials that had built up on the surface over time, their thickness being merely thinned in a gradual and differentiated manner according to the state of each area and of each figure concerned. Equally important for the painting’s future conservation was the restoration of the wooden support and its stretcher bar system, improving the wood movement control function while respecting the original structure.
The conservation project developed by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in conjunction with the Gallerie degli Uffizi also includes a preventive conservation plan designed to monitor the work in the future.
Thus the restoration campaign’s numerous results can be divided into three main aspects:
1. Improved conservation of all the original materials.
2. Deeper knowledge of Leonardo’s creative process and of the techniques that he favoured.
3. Clearer "readability" of the work’s extraordinary expressive values.
All of the figures and details are now far easier to make out, and the masterly construction of space around the figures can also finally be perceived in full, especially in the background, which opens out onto a vision – typically Leonardesque in its treatment of perspective and its atmosphere – that had hitherto been concealed by outright "patination" (i. e. a deliberate layer of pigmented varnish designed to make the entire picture look like a monochrome work). It has also become clear from the countless "second thoughts" and changes revealed by the restoration process that, unusually for his day and even in terms of his own artistic output, Leonardo developed the composition directly on the panel rather than on paper. "This aspect," said Opificio delle Pietre Dure Director General Marco Ciatti, "now allows us to penetrate more deeply into the painter’s creative process and to endeavour to understand the artistic genesis of this outstanding masterpiece thanks to the level of knowledge that diagnostic inspection allows us to acquire today. I use the work ‘masterpiece’ deliberately in this case – although it is a word of which I generally try to steer clear because it is too often used simply as a way of drawing attention to a work of art – because if we think of the date it was painted, the Adoration of the Magi marked a full-blown revolution on the artistic scene in the Florence of its day; and if we look closely we can see that it contains, in embryonic form, some of the ideas that Leonardo was to develop in his later works, including the Battle of Anghiari, the St. Jerome in the Vatican Museums and both the London and Paris versions of the Virgin of the Rocks".
Thus we can confidently state that the final result of the restoration has allowed us to rediscover a masterpiece which is not only of exceptional value in terms of both innovation and invention, but which no one has been able to admire for centuries.
"This is an operation which was no less delicate and no less of a challenge than the restoration of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo or of Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan", said Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike D. Schmidt, "nn fact it entailed even greater difficulties and was even more of a challenge because it has no neutral areas and because the restorers had to tackle a picture that had not even been completed in the mind of the artist who spawned it. In terms of the painted surface, in other words of those figures that the most meticulous scholarship had gradually managed to decipher in the jumble of images which present themselves to the observer’s eye, cleaning has revealed a huge number of meanings and sub-meanings in a play of signs which were invariably added to the panel deliberately and which capture the artist’s ceaselessly developing thought at the very moment in which it was forming in his brain".
The restoration campaign was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Amici degli Uffizi who, according to their President Vittoria Colonna Rimbotti, are "proud to have taken part in a unique venture peppered with countless breathtaking moments around a work of art which merges absolute beauty with material fragility and whose further deterioration absolutely had to be halted and thwarted".
The Getty Foundation in Los Angeles funded the professional expertise required to restore the painting’s wooden support.
To celebrate the presentation of this prestigious restoration to the public, Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi is to be displayed alongside the altarpiece of the same subject (also now in the Uffizi’s collections) by Filippino Lippi. Filippino was commissioned to paint the picture for the high altar of the church of San Donato a Scopeto in 1496 by the same Canons Regular of the Convent of Sant’Agostino who had originally commissioned the Adoration from Leonardo in 1481. As we have seen, Leonardo failed to complete the work and missed the one-year delivery deadline because he took up service with Ludovico il Moro in Milan, thus forcing the Canons to turn to Filippino Lippi. The exhibition also showcases three paintings depicting St. Donatus and St. Augustine on two separate panels (on loan from the North Carolina Art Museum) and St. Ubald and St. Fridianus on a single panel(from a private collection) which are thought to be from the predella of Lippi’s Adoration and which we have brought together to display alongside it for the occasion.
The exhibition is curated, and the catalogue published by Giunti edited by Eike D. Schmidt, Marco Ciatti and Daniela Parenti. It is promoted by the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo in conjunction with the Gallerie degli Uffizi, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Amici degli Uffizi and Firenze Musei.