More Than Meets the Eye
Art historians use high-tech diagnostics to authenticate masterpieces.
According to Edward Olszewski, chair of Case Western Reserve University's Department of Art History and Art, what you see when admiring a great work of art is only part of a painting's story.
Composed of multiple layers, each painting is its own mystery, Olszewski says.
To uncover the secrets hidden in a painting's layers, art historians like Olszewski use x-rays and infrared spectroscopy to reveal more than the eye can see alone. He says these techniques are becoming increasingly important as more paintings undergo restoration, which while preserving and protecting works, can cover up the artist's true hand.
Currently, Olszewski is examining 32 portraits and religious works by the Renaissance artist Raphael as well as Parmigianino's "Madonna and Child." The Parmigianino painting has undergone restoration, and Olszewski's analysis will help determine what was done by the painter's hand and what others did later.
Olszewski is working with world-renown art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini, analyzing Seracini's image data from the Raphael paintings at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy—home of Raphael and other Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Using infrared spectroscopy, Seracini digitally separates a painting into individual layers down to the carbon ink underdrawing at the very bottom.
Florentine artists were well known for using such underdrawings as guides for their paintings, and in evaluating the Raphael and Parmigianino works, the collaborators have made some surprising discoveries.
For instance, they found that Raphael single-handedly did the underpaintings in his early works, but once he gathered a following and became more established, more than one artist in his studio contributed to the masterpieces.
"Raphael was basically indifferent to the talents of his assistants and felt he was authoritative enough that he could correct any mistakes," Olszewski says.
But some of his apprentices stood out.
Guilio Romano began in Raphael's studio, where he learned from the master and filled in the sparse lines and drawings from Raphael's underpaintings.
"Raphael had such confidence in Romano's work that he would let him paint the picture. Later, Raphael would complete the fine details," Olszewski says.
Romano was so talented that a painting in London's National Gallery and a Raphael in the Uffizi had the wrong attributions. Diagnosticians like Sericini corrected the mistake and gave the appropriate painter credit.
"Seracini's digitized images are so precise that we can even see the artist's fingerprints," Olszewski says.
Olszewski is making short trips to Florence to continue his collaboration with Seracini with support from the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities.