In Bergamo, Italy, Humanitas Gavazzeni Imaging Department helps Accademia Carrara find long sought-after answers on painting
Usually fairly quiet, the hallways of the Humanitas Gavazzeni Radiology Department buzz with excitement and curiosity. Technicians and radiographers wander hoping to see the “extraordinary” patient.
“We need patients to be very still for imaging exams. It shouldn’t be a problem with this one” jokes Enzo Angeli, head of the Diagnostics Imaging Department at Humanitas Gavazzeni in Bergamo, Italy.
Last May, Giovanni Valagussa, conservator at the Accademia Carrara Art Gallery, was tasked with cataloguing the museum’s fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian paintings. In the storage room, he came across the “Resurrection of Christ,” a painting dating back around to 1492. The art had been stored in the museum’s storage facility since the 1930s, when art historian Bernard Berenson had dismissed the painting as a copy of a lost work by famed fifteenth century painter Andrea Mantegna.
Valagussa recalls, “A year and a half ago, we started working on our catalogue of ancient paintings and reviewed all the works owned by the gallery. Coming across this painting and looking at it carefully, I had my first doubts. The quality of the painting and some details were striking. They led me to believe it was an original Mantegna.”
Upon close examination, Valagussa observed a small cross and cut marks that had previously gone unnoticed along the painting’s lower edge. These marks sparked a series of investigations and comparisons to determine whether the art may be the authentic work of Mantegna.
Born near Padua, Italy, Mantegna (1431-1506) was an ambitious young Renaissance artist who produced paintings and engravings that gained him a reputation in and beyond Italy.
“Andrea Mantegna is the best representative, in northern Italy at least, of the return to classical art that characterizes the fifteenth century. Mantegna did not just recover the techniques and taste that had been changed during the middle age, he translated them into a more modern expression. He is an iconic painter from the second half of the fifteenth century, when Italian art was at the center of the western world,” explains Valagussa.
Following much review, experts found an identical cross on Mantegna’s “Descent into Limbo” painting, indicating that the two paintings correspond to each other. The detail identified the “Resurrection of Christ” as an authentic Mantegna painting, resolving a tumultuous history of misattributions.
“I went through all sorts of emotions as evidence in favor of the attribution of the work to Mantegna himself was accumulating. Once convinced of the originality of the painting, it felt only right to commit to a full restoration,” comments Valagussa.
To aid with the painting’s restoration, it was decided that the masterpiece from the great Venetian painter should be imaged using computed tomography (CT).
“The first objective of the CT exam was to study the state of preservation of the painting for its upcoming restoration. The exam allowed us to divide the painting into countless 0.6 mm slices,” explains Angeli. “Rebuilding them, we obtained the different layers of the painting which enabled us to analyze its structure. We could see – with great precision – the state of preservation of the wood, observe the presence of fragments and debris as well as study color compositions. This information was also useful to make comparisons with the artist’s other works, supporting the hypothesis of the painting’s attribution.”
Extreme care was taken transporting and imaging the recently rediscovered painting, now valued at nearly $30 million. “The painting was treated with extreme attention and delicacy. It was handled by gloved hands and was escorted by security guards at all times,” discloses Angeli.
“Because it was a first for us, we ran tests on other paintings from the sixteenth century,” Angeli explains. “We put the painting under low dose CT and x-ray examinations. This is a thin patient, there are no human anatomical parts so thin – except, perhaps, a little finger.”
Hospital technicians used GE Healthcare’s Revolution CT to examine the painting’s interior, reading the wooden fibers, the tunnels of woodworms and the presence of foreign bodies, such as nails, while the digital radiography brought out the pictorial layers.
Using the CT scan results, the table will be restored this year with the objective of reuniting it with its partner painting, the “Descent into Limbo,” in the near future.
“The National Gallery in London called us a few days after the news of our discovery had become public. They wanted to confirm our findings as they were preparing an exhibition dedicated to Andrea Mantegna,” said Valagussa. “As soon as the restoration is completed, we will ship the painting to London so that it is showcased with its other half. We couldn’t dream of a better debut; and we hope to hold our own exhibition with the two works reunited here in Bergamo soon.”