In the late 17th century, an Italian aristocrat scandalized by a portrait of a nude woman insisted her body be painted over with strategically placed veils and draperies. Thanks to digital imaging and other modern tools, art lovers can now peek under the swirling fabric to view the original baroque painting, bare breasts and all.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1616 oil on canvas “Allegory of Inclination” depicts a naked young woman sitting atop a fluff of clouds and holding a compass, a star as her guide. The restored version appears in Artemisia in the Museum of Michelangelo, an exhibit in Florence, Italy, on display through January 8 at Casa Buonarroti, once Michelangelo’s home and now a museum and monument to the Renaissance master’s life and work.
The painting was the first ever frontal nude by a woman, according to Linda Falcone, coordinator of Artemisia UpClose, a multifaceted project that aims to thrust the trailblazing Gentileschi into the 21st spotlight. “A woman painting a nude woman, and creating what is thought to be an idealized self-portrait, potentially made the work all the more unique and controversial,” Falcone said in an interview.
Michelangelo’s great-nephew Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger commissioned Gentileschi to paint “Allegory of Inclination” for a ceiling at Casa Buonarroti, where Michelangelo’s family continued to live following the artist’s death in 1564. About 50 years after Gentileschi completed the work, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger’s nephew Leonardo had the life-size nude taken down from the ceiling to be censored by another painter, Baldassarre Franceschini.
Leonardo “felt that the painting was too naughty to be seen,” Elizabeth Wicks, the lead art conservationist on the project, told BBC News. He had parts of it obscured to guard the modesty of female family members in the home he’d inherited.
Removing the added paint physically would have threatened the delicate oil glazes beneath. What’s more, erasing the blue draperies would have erased a key part of the painting’s history.
So scientists used infrared reflectography and other imaging methods to penetrate deep into the painting’s layers. They collated images from the best scans with software made specifically for the project that allowed them to study the painting nanometer by nanometer, pinpointing and tracing the figure’s original contours. Some of the added paint was so thick, the researchers needed X-rays to distinguish between Gentileschi’s brushstrokes and those of the painter who later hid parts of her work.
“It took an X-ray to see through the white lead pigment covering the figure’s thighs, but, in the end, we got it: a science-based image of Artemisia’s original,” Wicks said in a statement. X-rays recently helped uncover secrets of another famous painting, Leonardo daVinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Technology has also allowed viewers to see classic paintings in extraordinarily high resolution and completely immerse themselves in legendary artists’ most iconic works.
The restoration effort involved an international team of conservationists, curators, art historians and philanthropists and revealed secrets beyond the previously obscured nude figure. On the inside of her right calf, for example, Wicks discovered a fingerprint dating back to the work’s creation. “The fingerprint was made when the original paint was wet, and it is highly likely that of Artemisia herself,” Wicks said.
“Allegory of Inclination” is considered the work that launched Gentileschi into the Florence cultural scene. She was in her early twenties and five months pregnant when she put brush to canvas to paint it. She went on to become one of Italy’s most prominent women artists, befriending luminaries like astronomer Galileo and receiving commissions from the powerful Medici family.
The public can now go up close, at eye level, with both the digital re-creation of Gentileschi’s original “Allegory of Inclination” and the censored painting temporarily removed from Casa Buonarroti’s ceiling.
“We want to make Artemisia Gentileschi a household name and to generate interest in her groundbreaking artworks,” Margie MacKinnon, co-founder of project co-sponsor Calliope Arts, a nonprofit that aims to expand public knowledge of women’s contribution to art and social history, said in a statement. “Her backstory is so dramatic, her paintings so powerful and her accomplishments so impressive, people wonder, ‘Why haven’t I heard of her before, and who are the other women artists I need to learn about?’”