After 10 years of painstaking study and restoration that tested both cutting edge technology and human patience, one of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance is returning to the public.
Raphael’s "Madonna of the Goldfinch" is a survivor.
The 107 cm by 77 cm (42 inches by 30 inches) oil-on-wood, showing the Madonna with two children caressing a goldfinch, has outlived everything from the collapse of a house in 1547 that shattered it to the ravages of time and the mistakes of past interventions.
The result of the restoration is stunning. Centuries of brown film and grime are gone. The Madonna’s cheeks are pink. Her robes are deep red and blue and one can almost hear the cascade of a stream in the background Tuscan countryside.
"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.
X-rays, CAT scans, reflective infra-red photography, lasers, men and women in white coats, microscopes, latex gloves — it sounds like the stuff of hospitals and in many ways it is.
But the Opificio is no ER. It has everything but the pressures of time. It is a place of slow healing.
"In the past we decided not to restore something because the risks of damaging or altering the original were too great," said Ciatti, 53. "We see ourselves as a doctor who treats the patient as a whole rather than concentrating on a specific illness."
Raphael, who lived from 1483 to 1520, painted the panel in about 1506 as a gift for the marriage of Lorenzo Nasi, a rich wool merchant.