More than 300 years ago in Florence, a prudish descendant of Michelangelo decided to censor a painting by the talented Artemisia Gentileschi, hiding under strategic layers of paint this nude that we could not see.
A careful restoration of several months has made it possible to rediscover today the original vision chosen by one of the first Baroque painters for this painting dating from 1616, entitled “Allegory of the Inclination” and commissioned to the memory of Michelangelo to honor (1475-1564).
The canvas that decorates a ceiling of the Florentine residence of the author of the Sistine Chapel was deposited in September and entrusted to a team of experts. They could therefore study the secrets of this work of Artemisia Gentileschi, whose talent, independence and dramatic life arouse renewed interest in the context of the MeToo era.
The thick drapery and the veils added later to hide the nude are not removed by the restoration, but the images obtained through the study allow us to rediscover the canvas as intended by the artist who in 1593 was born in Rome.
“As we say in Italian, we turned it inside out like a glove with all the technical diagnoses imaginable to understand how the painting was designed, painted, what happened afterwards, and see what we can read under the veils of censorship added to the painting,” Elizabeth Wicks, the curator who leads the team of experts and technicians, told AFP.
This female nude that embodies artistic creativity, sitting on a cloud, was commissioned by Michelangelo’s great-nephew, a man of letters who turned his ancestor’s residence into a lavish museum celebrating his genius.
This great cousin ordered 15 paintings to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of this house. Artemisia Gentileschi, famous during her lifetime and recipient of royal commissions, was paid three times more than her colleagues in recognition of her exceptional talents.
She painted this work shortly after her arrival in Florence from Rome where she was raped at the age of 17 by a colleague of her father’s, both painters. A trial led to the conviction of his attacker.
But seventy years after the work was commissioned, another descendant of Michelangelo, prudish and worried about the possible effects of this nude on his wife and children, asked the famous artist Baldassare Franceschini to cover it.
– X-rays –
Nicknamed “il Volterrano”, from the name of his native town in Tuscany, he covered the breasts of the character represented by Arthemisia with a translucent veil and hid his sex and his thighs with a thick drape.
It is now too risky to try to remove this layer of oil paint, which can take up to two centuries to dry completely.
“I like to think she was already in another world when this painting was censored because I don’t think she would have enjoyed it that much,” notes Ms Wicks. “We don’t like it that much either, but now it’s part of the history of this painting.”
With delicate circular movements, she rubs a piece of cotton wool through solvent over the surface of the paint, bringing the radiant colors of the bare flesh back to life.
Centuries of candle smoke, augmented by polish in the 1960s, gave the skin an orange hue, while the bright blue of the lapis lazuli-tinted sky turned grey-green.
“You can see that leg is lighter because I cleaned it by reducing the layer of varnish,” she says as she looks at the canvas through her magnifying glass.
X-ray scans and various imaging techniques revealed the now-hidden nudity – “What you think you’ll find under the veil is right there, it’s all there!” – but also the modifications that Artemisia herself made to the eyes and hands.
During an exhibition planned for September, visitors will be able to examine the work more closely, see digital images that reveal the different layers and discover the modern techniques that made it possible to trace them.
The painting will then return to its original place on the ceiling.
For the project coordinator, Linda Falcone, it is important to “create a reflection on the art of women, the fact that they were protagonists of their time”.
Artemisia puts herself on stage in this painting dedicated to Michelangelo on which a female character appears: “she says there + I as a woman have the desire to paint +”.
“She places the heroine in the center of the canvas and this heroine has her face,” she adds.