Ambrogio Lorenzetti (recorded from 1319 to 1348)
c. 1328-1330 tempera and gold on wood from the Convent of San Niccolò al Carmine, Siena
This monumental painted crucifix from the suppressed Carmelite Convent of San Niccolò al Carmine in Siena entered the Pinacoteca Nazionale’s collections in 1862. Its poor condition, with numerous paint drops, adversely affected scholars’ analysis of the painting, their attributions oscillating between the 14th and early 15th centuries before it was unanimously recognised as the work of Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
The convent’s history suggests that the crucifix was painted c. 1328–30 when the records tell us of a major renovation campaign involving the modernisation of the church’s furnishings and the production of such works as the Carmelite Polyptych by Ambrogio’s brother Pietro, now also in the Pinacoteca (Room 7).
The suggested date of c. 1328–30 is borne out by the style of the work, which can easily be fitted into Ambrogio’s early output thanks to its close bond with the painting of Giotto, yet it already has certain features that were to characterise Ambrogio’s mature work and a sophisticated Gothic taste evident in the punched decoration on the tabellone – the body of the cross – and the halo. Christ’s face, with its straight nose and elongated eyes, also echoes figures in the chapter house frescoes in San Francesco.
The cross has a certain originality by comparison with other 13th and 14th century models, Ambrogio emphasising the frame with a double moulding and an outer band decorated with arcarding that isolates the (sadly now lost) terminals, and introducing an indentation just above Christ’s feet – solutions which were to be adopted in later works such as Taddeo di Bartolo’s crucifix on display in Room 11.
Ambrogio’s skill in handling naturalistic elements, already evident in the cross painted realistically with the veining of the wood rather than in the more traditional blue block colour, shines through in the figure of Christ. The body’s anatomy is conveyed in its volume and a delicately nuanced chiaroscuro defines its muscles, effectively underscoring the areas in shadow (on the abdomen and the hollow of the arms) in contrast with the light colouring of the figure’s complexion, against which the bright red of the blood stands out in stark contrast. Soft, slender brush strokes define such details as the beard and hair framing the face. In the head bending forward, its dramatic effect accentuated by the halo in relief, the artist dwells on the full lips already veiled with a hint of blue and on the drooping eyelids that impart a moving humanity to the figure as they capture his final moment of pain before he resigns himself to death.
The restoration of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s painted Crucifix
in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.
The large Crucifix, shaped and painted in tempera and gold on wood by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, can be dated c. 1328–30. Now part of the collection of the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena (inv. no. 598), the Crucifix has undergone a complex restoration process lasting from May 2020 to June 2023. The restoration, conducted by Muriel Vervat under the supervision of Stefano Casciu, was made possible by a contribution from the Friends of Florence in response to a proposal from the Direzione Regionale Musei della Toscana which was responsible for the Pinacoteca di Siena at the time, prior to its independence in 2022.
The painting, formerly housed in the Convent of San Niccolò del Carmine, had suffered serious paint drops due to the infiltration of rainwater into the building. These drops had affected both the body of Christ and the gilded decoration of the background, while sparing the face which was protected by the halo in relief.
The Crucifix had been restored from 1953 to 1955 at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro, then under the guiding hand of Cesare Brandi. On that occasion, old repainting over the entire surface was removed and it was decided, in accordance with the approach prevailing at the time, not to make good the major paint drops but to leave the wooden support and the underlying linen layer on display.
A monographic exhibition on Ambrogio Lorenzetti held in Siena in 2017–18 revealed the need to make it possible for observers to appreciate the Crucifix in full, and thus Cristina Gnoni, the Pinacoteca Nazionale’s then Director, suggested to the Friends of Florence that they might consider funding the new restoration project devised by Muriel Vervat.
Thus this new restoration project allowed us to reconsider in a critical light the decision to leave the wooden support on display – a solution in line with the methodological approach of the 1950s, which was unquestionably innovative at the time but which is considered today to penalise a correct appreciation of the work.
With this restoration we have taken on board the legacy of that theory and practice, but in the awareness that the enhancement of a work of art invariably involves new acts of courage and of critical analysis, not totally disowning the past but analysing the work’s current condition and aesthetic situation, and identifying new solutions capable of enhancing the original work (in this case Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s painting) while also taking on board developments in the perception of works of art in general.
The operation was preceded by a multi-faceted programme of scientific investigation conducted by the IFAC-CNR and ISPC–CNR in Florence, which not only provided valuable support for the restoration project but also allowed us to explore Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s sophisticated painting technique in some depth.
The Crucifix, which has a thickness of 4.5 cm., is in poplar wood in keeping with Tuscan tradition, and it is lined with a protective linen layer reflecting the tried and tested method of old as described by Cennino Cennini.
The support has deteriorated and the painting has been shorn of certain basic elements such as the cimasa at the top, the terminals with figures of Grievers at either end of the arms, and the base on which it rested and which probably had a depiction of Golgotha or of Adam’s skull. The wide and elaborate gilded frame is original and is remarkable for its ornate double moulding along the edges and its sophisticated arcade comprising intertwined, engraved and painted arches.
Stratigraphic analysis revealed a number of aspects, including the way the blood running from Christ’s wounds was applied using two kinds of red: a basic, thicker red made of cinnabar, overlaid with a darker, shinier layer in red lacquer made from kermes red, a valuable pigment that was costlier than gold and that clearly indicates the importance of the patron who commissioned the work.
The salient points in this restoratoin process were the decisions regarding the treatment of the gold background and the major paint drops impairing the legibility of the body of Christ.
The Crucifix’s gold ground, imitating richly decorated fabric, is of the greatest importance not only because it presents a superb decoration in its own right but also because it reveals a sophisticated approach to the diffusion of light on Ambrogio’s part. The need for this is less obvious today because electric lighting allows us to appreciate every detail in a painting with the utmost clarity, but in Lorenzetti’s day, when the Crucifix was displayed in church, the lighting relied exclusively on natural light filtering through the windows, which changed in intensity and direction according to the time of day, and on the light from candles. These sources of light imparted a vibrant, changing luminosity to the paint that showed to advantage the sculptural quality of the painted anatomy of Christ’s body, where the points of greatest prominence are his shoulders and his knees.
The painted and gilded fabric of the background, resembling leather tooled with geometrical figures using a burin, appeared to be seriously damaged. We decided to make good all the drops with an impasto of plaster and animal glue in order to restore a uniformly flat quality to the surface.
On studying the decoration’s complex design, we became aware that the figures had been produced using a compass to form symmetrical mirror-image modules in the apron on either side of Christ’s body, and that it was possible to join the circles’ lost lines by incising the new plaster with a compass just as Lorenzetti had done in his day; and this, without distorting or inventing anything. In order to clearly distinguish the parts that had been made good from the original gilding, we first reproduced the red of the bole with tempera using the colour selection technique, then we completed the operation by regilding with synthetic gold dust which we applied using the same selective technique.
Cleaning also, and most unexpectedly, brought to light the painted wood and the cross on which Christ is nailed and which, with its pinkish hue and naturalistic veining in imitation of real wood, creates a strong and deliberate contrast with the precious decoration of the geometrical fabric in the background.
The other important decision that we needed to make in terms of both method and execution concerned our approach to the numerous paint drops, a crucial operation if we were to rediscover Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s original poetic and artistic intent and to restore the narrative value of the original painting.
Numerous paint drops on the figure of Christ were fairly simple to make good, in other words to restore to the level of the original surrounding surface and to complete using the colour selection method, thus simply reinstating lost continuity wherever the new work was unlikely to create interpretative difficulties. These links, correctly accompanied by restoration of the paintwork respecting the original matter without falsifying or distorting it, now offer the observer the opportunity once again to appreciate the forms, the composition and the original ideas nurtured by the artist, and the superb elegance of the final result achieved by Ambrogio Lorenzetti – all aspects that were difficult to grasp before restoration.
The large paint drop vertically crossing Christ’s body, with considerable loss of paint matter, was resolved with delicacy and respect for the original work using the colour selection technique. The colour added is clearly distinguished from the original paint because it is of a lighter shade, but in the various areas where it is used it conjures up an image of the hues of the flesh and of the loincloth without recreating volumes or details that have been permanently lost.
A reconstruction hinting more overtly at the lost parts, albeit still using the colour selection technique, was adopted solely in connection with Christ’s hands. This, because we considered that such an operation, reflecting our modern sensitivity, was necessary for the importance of the work’s overall legibility and of its religious and artistic message. In any event, as with all restoration today, these recent operations are absolutely identifiable and reversible.