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16th-Century Altarpiece Returns to Indianapolis Museum of Art Following Extensive Conservation
Sebastiano Mainardi, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saint Justus of Volterra and Saint Margaret of Antioch, 1507, oil on wood, 63 1/2 x 61 in. Gift of Mrs. Booth Tarkington in memory of her husband. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN.- The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s most significant example of Tuscan High Renaissance art will again be on view in the IMA galleries after being held in storage for more than 40 years due to its fragile condition. After a complex conservation treatment begun in fall 2007, the altarpiece Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saint Justus of Volterra and Saint Margaret of Antioch by Sebastiano Mainardi (1466–1513), will again be available for public viewing in the IMA’s Clowes Courtyard beginning June 23, 2009.

Despite being in storage for decades, the 500-year-old painting is already familiar to many recent IMA visitors, as it was featured in the Star Studio Exhibition Sebastiano Mainardi: The Science of Art in fall 2007, which allowed the public to watch IMA conservators as they treated this painting. More than 29,000 visitors witnessed a portion of the conservation treatment during the exhibition. The conservation treatment, exhibition, reframing of the altarpiece and forthcoming publication Saint Margaret of Antioch were made possible through a generous donation from Ms. Jane Fortune.

“Because of the completed conservation of this altarpiece, we are again able to share this magnificent work of art with our visitors,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the IMA. “It’s also a milestone for the IMA’s conservation program as we move forward with establishing a conservation science laboratory, which will allow us to harness scientific research to increase our contributions to the fields of conservation, collections care and art history.”

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saint Justus of Volterra and Saint Margaret of Antioch is considered a major work of Mainardi’s from late in his career. Created in 1507 during the height of the Italian Renaissance, the 63.5- by 61-inch painting was commissioned to adorn the altar of a church. The altarpiece has significant provenance, having belonged to popular American novelist and Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington. It was donated by Mrs. Tarkington in honor of her late husband in 1951, and was displayed at the John Herron Museum of Art.

Upon entry into the IMA collections, the work was already in precarious condition and its appearance had changed drastically since 1507. At some time in its history, long before it entered the museum’s collection, the wood panel suffered serious insect infestation. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity in the church where the painting was originally displayed also contributed to its poor condition.

Various restorers over the centuries had made many attempts to reduce the effects of past damage, but some of their methods did not have a desirable outcome. The structure had deteriorated extensively due to an earlier elaborate cradle bracing system constructed for the painting. In 1961 its condition was declared “extremely hazardous,” and the piece was finally deemed to be “unexhibitable” in 1965. Owing to its increasingly fragile condition and the difficulty of conserving it, the altarpiece was then held in IMA storage for more than 40 years.

“The conservation treatment begun by IMA conservators in 2007 required considerable research as well as the expertise of several specialists in Italian Renaissance paintings and their preservation,” said David Miller, conservator-in charge and senior conservator of paintings at the IMA.

Miller traveled to Incisa Val d’Arno, Italy, where he studied another version of the IMA’s altarpiece as well as other paintings and frescoes by Mainardi in San Gimignano and Florence in order to better understand the artist’s working methods and typical 16th-century Florentine framing conventions. As part of the conservation treatment at the IMA, following reattachment and stabilization of the very fragile layers of paint, the cradle was removed, cracks and splits in the wood panel were repaired, and a new support system was attached with adjustable springs to better stabilize its structure by a specialist in the conservation treatment of panel paintings. IMA conservators were then able to clean the painting, removing dirt, discolored varnishes and older repainting from past restoration attempts, before varnishing, and filling in extensive areas of significant damage with new inpainting using more sound and safely reversible methods.

“Although the altarpiece was extremely damaged, the extensive and complex conservation treatment successfully stabilized its fragile structure and recovered Mainardi’s brilliant colors and composition,” Miller said. “The painting’s appearance is also greatly enhanced in a new, historically appropriate 16th-century Florentine Tabernacle–style frame. The glowing and beautifully reframed altarpiece will now go on permanent display in Clowes Courtyard as a prime example of Tuscan High Renaissance art.”

Indianapolis Museum of Art | Renaissance | Sebastiano Mainardi | Maxwell L. Anderson | Incisa Val d’Arno | Italy |

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