Baxter's examination proved this particular portrait held a secret. Underneath the surface layer of paint hid an authentic portrait of
"I've been in this field a long time," Lippincott says. "This has happened only three or four times. It was a big moment."
The painting is one of five featured in "Faked, Forgotten, Found," an exhibit showcasing conservators' forensic analysis of several Renaissance paintings in the museum's collection. It opens
The exhibit offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on the intersection of art and science taking place in the museum every day.
"Because they have scientific, as well as art-historical skills, they can add essential information to the detective work that is at the heart of curatorial research," Zelevansky says. "They're crucial to the workings of any first-string museum."
The Carnegie has about 75 Old Master paintings in storage, many acquired from 1920 to 1980. The Medici portrait came to the Carnegie in 1979 as a gift after a local collector died, Lippincott says.
Conservators use a CSI model to investigate what they have, Baxter says. She saw the Medici piece as a crime scene with "serious, serious problems" and got to work examining cracks in the surface paint.
"We needed more information," Baxter says. "Ultraviolet rays let us see years of history and damage represented at the surface level."
According to the museum's records, the painting depicted Eleanor of
A trip to Monroeville Imaging Center unraveled even more of the mystery. Scans showed a surface layer of paint covering the woman's face and hand.
"In the X-ray, we saw a ghost," Lippincott says.
As Baxter began removing the surface layers, an entirely different subject emerged. Under the healthy glow of the young woman on the surface was a woman with baggy eyes. She held an urn in her hands. She had a high forehead -- a trend that signified intelligence and the origin of the expression "high brow." Her coloring was far less warm than the newer paint portrayed. Portions of her neck and ear had been obscured by the addition of hair and collar. The unevenness of her eyes had been corrected, her lips drawn into a bow, her nose straightened. Her hand was thinned.
Lippincott researched Medici portraits to find anything similar to the expensive garb and jewels the mystery woman donned.
"She had a scandalous life," Lippincott says. "She had a bad marriage, many lovers. But she was the apple of her father's eye."
The portrait, painted shortly after Isabella's father's death, was most likely a "propaganda piece," Lippincott suspects, meant to restore the woman's image in the public eye. A faint halo curves atop her head and she bears the expression of "a repentant Magdalene," Lippincott says.
The painting likely was altered in
Baxter has spent many hours working to restore it to its original state. Her work, while undetectable by the casual viewer, will be blatant enough for experts to know it's been restored.
"It's not a technically difficult treatment," she says. "It's more time-consuming."
One mystery remains. The painting is unsigned and could have been created by one of several who worked for the Medici court.
Other intriguing items explored for "Faked, Forgotten, Found" include the museum's genuine painting by
The goal is to give viewers a firsthand look at the conservation process, while expanding their appreciation for otherwise hidden gems.
"These things are physical objects," Lippincott says. "So many people only view them on their screen. But you're only getting about 15 percent of the experience."
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