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Restoration of two male portraits from Italy

Male portrait. Italy. 15th century. Tempera on panel. 34.7 × 41.8 cm. After restoration

In 2012, the State Hermitage acquired four poplar-wood panels carrying two male and two female half-length profile portraits. The paintings are of interest for the museum collection as it has nothing similar. These items are on the boundary between easel painting and applied art. As a rule, such works adorned the ceilings or borders beneath the ceiling in Italian palazzi of the late 15th century.

An analogy to these portraits is provided by the series of 98 little boards carrying heraldic devices and half-length depictions of ladies, gentlemen and emperors that once decorated the ceiling of Bartolomeo Vimercati’s palace in the small city of Crema in Lombardy and are now kept in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. That museum’s catalogue suggests a date around 1500. The size of the Crema panels, 36 × 39 cm, practically matches that of the Hermitage panels. A comparable series of 29 pieces can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and also comes from properties belonging to the Vimercati family. Those panels formed a frieze immediately below a coffered ceiling, which was typical for Lombard palaces in the late 15th century. Each panel measures 46 × 41 cm. The total number of works in the series from which the four boards now in the Hermitage came is not known.

Male portrait. Italy. 15th century. Tempera on panel. 31.7 × 41.4 cm. After restoration

The poplar-wood panels that form the support for the paintings have been badly damaged by death-watch beetle larvae. The crumbling timber had many openings and losses. An “ochrous mass” had been rubbed into the surface of the panels filling some of the “bore holes” and gaps in the timber. Examination revealed blistering of the paint layer and primer, abrasions down to the primer, overpaintings and multiple losses of the paint layer. The coating of varnish was thin, uneven, yellowed and in places dimmed.

  • The portrait before restoration
  • The back of the portrait before restoration
  • The back of the portrait after restoration
  • The portrait before restoration
  • The back of the portrait before restoration
  • The back of the portrait after restoration
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In the course of restoration on the front side of the portraits the paint layer and primer were reinforced, the blistering remedied. On the back the “ochrous mass” was removed and the crumbling timber strengthened. The losses in the wood were filled with mastic. The restorers also removed soiling, uneven layers of darkened lacquer, later overpainting and primer. In the places where the original primer had been lost, restoration primer was applied and toning carried out.

The restoration was completed in 2018 and was performed by Igor Permiakov, the head of the State Hermitage’s Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Tempera Painting.

The project was accomplished with the support of individual members of the Hermitage Friends’ Club.