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Exhibitions and Projects
Revelations | 3 Nov. – 30 Nov. 2022

Revelations: Restoration of a painting by Francesco Fontebasso

St Anne Teaching Mary to Read

Due to the poor legibility of the signature written on a stair in the lower right-hand part of the canvas, the painting had long been attributed to different Italian painters. Finally, art historian Matej Klemenčič, supported by archival studies in Venice, managed to identify the missing letters and read the signature properly, yielding the name of the Venetian painter of late Baroque, Francesco Fontebasso (1707–1769).

The motif of Mary’s mother Anne teaching her daughter to read is not to be found anywhere else in Fontebasso’s oeuvre, so it is deemed unique in terms of his iconography. The present painting used to serve at the altarpiece in the chapel of the Škofja Loka (Bischoflack) castle, whereas after the Second World War it was moved to the Ursuline convent in the Ajmanov grad (Heimann Mansion/ Ehrenau) at Sveti Duh near Škofja Loka.

The semicircular topped oil painting is painted on extremely thin and sparsely woven canvas and it is surprising that no major damage has ever affected the painting’s delicate linen support. However, there is considerable damage to the paint layer on the central upper part of the painting, in the area where angels are presented. The painting is presently on long-term loan in the National Gallery of Slovenia. It will be displayed at a Baroque exhibition in three years. By then the painting is going to be restored.

In the past, certain improvements were carried out on the painting but were made at a time when restoration profession was not as defined as it is nowadays and the quality of repairing artworks did not exceed the skill and expertise of local masters. We have decided to remove the improper reconstruction of the original layer and replace it with a more adequate one. The primary task of the restorers is to stabilize the work of art, therefore it is first conserved. It is true that people often connect the term “conserve” with culinary, but in the concrete case it refers to certain steps which slow down the decay process. After initial solidification and protection of paint layers, we under-pasted the thin original canvas with supportive canvas.  We replaced the poorly functional static stretcher with a new, extensible one. The restoration treatment is not done in a restaurant (a dilemma about the term is not so rare) but in a restoration studio. We removed the temporary protection from the face of the painting, as well as surface dirt and the secondary varnish that had been applied in the course of a previous treatment. We managed to keep most of the original varnish. Great care and step-by-step advancement in restoration work is never enough, and particularly great caution must be exercised when removing old fillings, retouches and over-paintings. The fillings and reconstruction, which we have removed, covered not only the damaged area but also the neighbouring original layer. The subsequently applied paint that covers the original paint layer is called over-painting.

The extensive reconstruction we are going to make on this important piece requires cooperation of nature-science, restoration and art history disciplines. In addition to the client’s wishes, the style of the realization also depends on the function of the work of art and the context of its presentation, the state of preservation of the original material, comparative visual materials – photographs – and, last but not least, the ethics and panting skill of the realizer. The studies made will be a visual basis for discussion and the upgrading of the image prior to the treatment of the original.

Mihael Pirnat Jr.

Presented: Thursday, 3 November 2022, 6 p.m

3 November–30 November 2022
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana