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Time turned back for masterpieces

Freed from the grime of centuries, sculptures from Renaissance Florence travel to the National Gallery of Art.

November 07, 2005|Tyler Green | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 1419 the Florentine bankers' guild commissioned Lorenzo Ghiberti to create a statue of St. Matthew, its patron saint, as something of an advertisement. The resulting bronze sculpture was to be installed outdoors, about seven feet above the street in a niche on Orsanmichele, one of the most important civic buildings in Florence.

The installation was so successful that "Saint Matthew" occupied its perch for more than 550 years, longer than the bankers' guild stayed in power. But Ghiberti's statue and 13 others at the Orsanmichele became so caked with grime and pollution that 21 years ago Italian officials decided they had to be cleaned.

In celebration of the just-finished restoration, the National Gallery of Art is exhibiting "Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence: Ghiberti, Nanni di Banco, and Verrocchio at Orsanmichele." Three of the 14 sculptures -- each among the earliest examples of Renaissance statuary -- are on view through Feb. 26 at the National Gallery's West Building. All 14 works were restored; the three on view were those deemed most able to travel.

According to officials at Orsanmichele, this is the last time any of the works will travel outside of Florence.

"They were the largest sculptures in Florence, hung the lowest-down," said Eleonora Luciano, the National Gallery curator who installed the show. "By being installed so low, they were almost the first public art in Florence."

As a result of the passage of time and their unique installation, the sculptures had turned black. Gilding and other decorative features had long since weathered away or been obscured -- or had been damaged by previous conservation attempts.

"Most tourists are more or less aware that it's a very important building and that it's worthwhile to give a look to it," said Cristina Acidini, the soprintendente or director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a Florentine institution that works to preserve the city's artistic heritage and which oversaw the restoration. "But I don't think today's citizens of Florence think of them as a living book of Renaissance culture. It's just part of our urban landscape."

No more. The 14 sculptures are being replaced with copies, with the originals installed indoors at Orsanmichele. For the first time in hundreds of years, visitors will be able to see the sculptures close to how they were intended to be viewed.

Restorers spent nearly 21 years cleaning the works with a tool similar to a vibrating toothbrush and with a laser that removes grime without damaging the surface, or patina.

Nanni's "Quattro Santi Coronati," or "Four Crowned Martyred Saints," the second sculpture on view, was intended to be a glittering mass of white marble and gold, created for the guild of woodcarvers and stone masons, of which Nanni was a member. Although the gold is all but gone, the marble's luster is back.

Ghiberti's "Saint Matthew" was once partially gilded, and flecks of gold are again visible on Matthew's robe.

The only Orsanmichele statue portraying Christ and the third work on view at the National Gallery, Andrea del Verrocchio's "Christ and Saint Thomas," was especially weathered because Thomas' right arm and leg protruded from its niche, out into the unguarded air.

"What we found on the marble and the bronzes were only traces of the gold ornamentation," Acidini said. "We're not sure, but probably some details of the garments and of the cloaks were coated with colors. We found traces of blue, for example."

Of the trio, Ghiberti's "Saint Matthew" is the earliest and the landmark work. It was the first monumental bronze sculpture produced since antiquity, Luciano said, and its humanistic representation of Matthew begins the movement away from Gothic expressiveness as part of the beginning of the Renaissance.

"There is something about being first," Luciano said with a smile.

"Saint Matthew" is a particularly appropriate marker of its time. For Florence's immensely powerful bankers' guild, it was a declaration of wealth and prestige. The bankers' guild committee established to monitor the commission included Cosimo de Medici, who went on to become the patriarch of the Medici clan and unofficial ruler of Florence for decades.

Luciano said that the committee told Ghiberti that "Saint Matthew" had to be bigger and better than anything he'd ever created -- and especially more grand than his sculpture "Saint John the Baptist," which he had recently produced for the bankers' archrivals, the guild of dressers and dyers of foreign cloth.

In hiring Ghiberti, the bankers sent a message that money was no object.

"The pricing of the statues makes it clear how they wanted to project themselves," said Megan Holmes, a University of Michigan professor who has written about 15th century Florentine art.

"The difference in cost between marble and bronze was significant. Bronze was 10 times more expensive."

Bronze also required technological innovation. Ghiberti's "Saint Matthew" was cast in two parts because casting a nearly 9-foot tall sculpture created problems.

"The wealth and power of Florence at that time was incredible," Acidini said. "The humanistic culture that was developing at the beginning of the 15th century praised antiquity. So the idea of imitating it [by using bronze], and eventually -- if possible -- overcoming the great examples of antiquity was a very present one."

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