The generous collaboration of Friends of Florence and American Friends of the Prado Museum
, which made matching contributions to reach a total of €150,000 euros, with the Prado Museum has facilitated the restoration of The Annunciation and other works not held at the Prado Museum and to be included in the major exhibition opening on May 28th: Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance. The extensive exhibit, with almost 80 pieces, is curated by Carl Brandon Strehlke, curator emeritus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, The Annunciation, was painted by Fra Angelico in the mid-1420s, and is considered the first Florentine altarpiece in the Renaissance style, using perspective to organize space and forsaking Gothic archways in favor of more rectangular shapes, in line with the aesthetic implemented by the architect Brunelleschi in his innovative approach to the churches of San Lorenzo and the Santo Spirito.
The main purpose of restoring the work, carried out by Almudena Sánchez Martín at the Prado Museum Restoration Workshop, is to recover the rich, vivid colors and intense light that imbue the scene. Both are characteristic elements both of this piece and of the artist's work in general.
It was extremely necessary to remove the layers of dirt and pollution obscuring the surface and eliminate the oil over-paintings performed during historic interventions to the work, concentrated on the intersection between two of the four wooden panels on which the work is painted. In the past, the wooden backing developed structural problems as two of its panels separated, opening a crack coinciding with the figure of the angel, and dividing it into two. The instability this caused to the pictorial layer provoked loss of original paint along the union of the two panels. Several attempts had been made to repair the damage and preserve the piece, of which we have documented evidence only of the most recent, which took place at the Prado Museum by Jerónimo Seisdedos between 1943 and 1944.
The purpose of these historic restorations was to repair the damage and ensure the conservation of the work, however, in some of the oldest interventions, in addition to restoring losses on either side of the seam, these attempts had also painted over extensive areas of the original work, principally affecting the figure of the angel and lapis lazuli mantle of the Virgin. Over the years, these additional layers deteriorated badly, ultimately manifesting as blemishes that severely affected the overall image and understanding of the artist’s original composition.
These over-paintings applied to the unstable panel seam, completely covered some compositional elements. In the upper area, they concealed an important part of the architecture and in the figure of the angel, they changed the form of the wing, arm and rose tunic, continuing onward to the bottom edge. The old interventions also modified the angel’s front wing, by hiding its original form and radically transforming it, leaving an evident asymmetry with its pair. While the back wing was curved, the wing in the foreground seemed straight and sinuous, following the vertical where the gold-leaf had been lost due to the panel fracture. Upon removal of the over-painting on the wing, original gold elements were discovered that gave the necessary information for its restitution. First, a gold particle appeared that marked the beginning of the base of the wing, and secondly, as the overpainting removal progressed, the original incision in the gold became evident to show exactly the curve for the wing designed by Fra Angelico. The recuperation of the original design for the wing of the Archangel Gabriel constitutes one of the most transcendent moments in the entire restoration process, due to the importance of the figure in the scene and the location of the recuperated element in the center of the composition.
The success achieved in the process of cleaning and eliminating the over-paintings has been possible thanks to the technical and professional means employed at the Prado Museum. The availability of new cleaning methods, thanks to the latest research and innovations in the restoration field, have permitted the cleaning required with the guaranteed protection of the painting. The removal of the dense layer of pollution, intensely adhered to the surface, was achieved by use of a silicone gel which acts as vehicle for an aqueous medium, protecting the painting while permitting to act only on the layer of pollution until its complete removal.
On the other hand, the mentioned over-paintings, which were very old and of oil, required a slow, prolonged intervention, progressively eliminating them until the original painting was fully recuperated.
Thanks to the cleaning, the work by Fra Angelico has recuperated its original luminosity, practically unknown until now. A light with which he creates and models the volume of each element of the composition. A light, almost supernatural, that permeates the portico and shines without creating shadows, in contrast to the room in the background illuminated with natural lighting that enters through the window and reflects on the wall. The removal of the gray veil, has also brought to our perception the preciosity in the great master’s technique and the marvelous colors in the lapis lazuli, red lacquer and green malachite.
The subsequent phases in the restoration consisted of stucco in the missing areas to level the surface, and recreate the chromatic loss, first with watercolor and then by varnish with pigments. This process demanded an extremely meticulous execution given the characteristics of Fra Angelico’s technique, elaborated with subtlety and precision, natural to the miniature artist he was at the beginning of his career.
The good state of conservation of this painting preserved extremely fragile elements of the composition, made with brushes with very few bristles and hardly any paint material, such as the eyelashes of the Virgin and the angel, Adam’s beard or the miniscule letters in the book posed on the lapis lazuli mantle of the Virgin.
Along with this masterpiece, other Florentine works included in the exhibit have been restored in Italy thanks to the economic contribution from Friends of Florence and American Friends of the Prado Museum, such as Virgin & Child, by Michele da Firenze, currently housed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello; Donatello's terracotta Virgin and Child, also featuring two angels and two prophets and owned by the Museo di Palazzo Pretorio; and Gherardo Starnina's Trinity, from the Chiaramonte Bordonaro collection.