The Paint Whisperer

Who knows what secrets lurk in the heart of a 600-year-old piece of art? Serena Urry does.

The candles flicker as a warm breeze off the Mediterranean whisks through the darkening room where Lorenzo Zaragoza meticulously applies the bole with a small, stiff brush. The bole, a thin, rust-colored slip of clay, water, and glue, needs time to set and dry, so he works quickly, mindful that the enveloping darkness will soon overwhelm his modest array of candles. Tomorrow, once the bole is dry, he’ll begin applying the gold leaf that will serve as the lustrous background to his masterpiece. The paper thin layer of gold will shine in the sunlight and shimmer under firelight, illuminating the life of the Church’s first pope. The Retablo de San Pedro, he hopes, will adorn a holy place behind the altar. It will awe the citizens of Barcelona, confirm the resurgence of Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula, and establish a measure of civilization in a world that was still emerging from the Black Death. Just as certainly, Zaragoza hopes that the retablo will please his benefactors, establish his artistic legacy, and draw him closer to God.

Six hundred years later, Serena Urry peers closely at the retablo—her nose nearly touching the International Gothic panel that depicts the Coronation of St. Peter. It is one of 18 paintings that make up the retablo, and for the next two to three years, she will be cleaning and restoring each of them. A lot of the work will be done quietly in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s lab, but until April 24 she’ll be plying her trade for all to see in Gallery 125, across from the Terrace Café.

Serena Urry
Serena Urry

Photograph by Michael Wilson

Urry is the museum’s chief conservator and it was her idea to open up the restoration to the public. “I think it’s good for people to see how this is done and maybe be inspired by it,” she says. She’s not in the slightest intimidated by the idea of a conveyer belt of artistic back-seat drivers who may be looking over her shoulder as she painstakingly cleans the panels. “Just don’t expect me to talk to them while I’m working,” she says.

Raised in Boston, Urry received her undergraduate degree at Tufts and went to graduate school at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. She arrived at CAM three years ago from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia where she was the senior conservator of paintings. Before that, she spent a virtual career—20 years—at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, until the sudden elimination of her job and even part of her pension. Detroit is where Urry became intimately acquainted with the intricacies of revivifying very old artwork, including the restoration of early Renaissance paintings and one work from the 14th century that pre-dates the retablo. So she’s ready to take on St. Peter.

Urry’s passion for art restoration began in the most mundane of circumstances. True, on a family vacation to Florence, Italy, when she was around 11 years old, she saw priceless works of art that had been restored after the 1966 flood of the Arno River—just the thing, it would seem, to kindle a young woman’s interest in a career as an art restorer. But that wasn’t her epiphany.

“I needed to paint my apartment,” Urry says, recalling her early days in college. “I had this really ugly wallpaper and I could have just painted over it but, instead, I went through what turned out to be seven layers before I got to the wall. At that point, I knew I had the patience to be a conservator.”

While Zaragoza (whose name in his native Catalan is Lorrenç Saragossà) relied on the sun or candlelight, Urry relies on a halogen light that she places high above the panels and to her left. The light, which is the same used in surgeries, sends out a sickly white glow that reveals the true colors in the painting. The panel is mounted on an easel; Urry sits on a swivel chair. To her right is a small utility table with several jars of chemicals—ketones, alcohols, aliphatics, and aromatic hydrocarbons. They will all have a role in bringing Zaragoza’s creation back to life, but Urry, who mixes her own solutions, prefers to keep the ingredients and their properties to herself. For a conservator, such recipes amount to secret weapons in the war to restore an old painting to its former glory—or at least get it as close as possible. “I’m telling you this much so your readers with a chemistry background will know,” she said.

She wraps a tuft of cotton around a long, thin bamboo skewer, dips it into one of her proprietary solutions, then touches it to the surface of the painting and twirls it counterclockwise in a tight circle. (For detail work, she merely dabs the surface.) The swab stains almost immediately. Decades, perhaps centuries, of grime, wax, varnish, and pollutants are liberated in one fell swoop.

The paint shimmers and the dulled colors pop. Details appear. The cardinal’s brow is furrowed where before it was smooth. St. Peter’s robe suddenly shows creases and folds that heretofore did not exist. Tassels emerge on the edges of the canopy shielding the crowned Peter. And look! The mysterious man in the white robe wearing a miter appears to have a six-pointed Star of David inscribed on his right glove. It’s still faint, but with more applications Urry hopes it will emerge fully. “This will be of great interest to the art scholars,” she predicts.

Little is known about the Retablo de San Pedro. We know it was created around 1400 but we don’t know who commissioned it. We don’t know what altar it adorned or even if it ever made it inside a church. Not much is known about Zaragoza either. We know he was born around 1340 and became a documented painter in 1363 while living in Valencia. He then moved to Barcelona, the cultural capital of Catalan, and attracted the attention of King Pedro IV and Queen Leonor of Aragon, both of whom commissioned his work. His style of depicting the Virgin surrounded by angels playing instruments in “angelic concert” was a hit with the royals and was copied by later artists. Zaragoza is best known for his painting Virgen de la Leche in Teruel, which is now displayed in the Catalan National Art Museum. He died between 1407 and 1410.

According to Susan Hudson, director of collections and exhibitions management, the retablo has been in CAM’s collection since 1960. Philip Rhys Adams, the director at the time, handled the transaction from a dealer with offices in Barcelona and Zurich. (The museum typically does not share what it pays for items it purchases for its collection.) The retablo was last displayed in 2010 but was taken down out of fear that vibrations from the construction of the Longworth Wing might harm it.

Time, however, has done its own damage. Urry grabs a hot air gun. Heat is an effective and quick way to remove wax from the surface of gold leaf, but you can’t use it on paint. The gun is about the size of a soldering iron and it hangs on a hook that Urry has attached to a paper towel holder. Such jerry-rigged contraptions are not uncommon in Urry’s field. “Art conservation is very unique work so we don’t have a lot of purpose-made tools for this,” she notes.

She is careful with the hot air gun, turning it to the lowest setting and using it sparingly. The gold leaf turns a milky white as the wax dissolves. There are likely as many layers of wax on this piece as there was wallpaper in her old apartment. “I’m worried the public may think something is going wrong here, but it hasn’t,” she says. “It’s darkest before the dawn. The white residue just means we’re not done.”

A few more blasts of hot air and the gold leaf starts to gleam. It picks up light—almost like a mirror. The white waxy buildup melts away. Urry goes back to the swab and dabs the blobs of wax away. “Here is the shine,” she says triumphantly. “Can you imagine how this must have looked in a cathedral lit with hundreds of candles?”

To prepare for this work, Urry has taken ultraviolet and infrared photos of the retablo to determine what is original work and what was added later. That’s another mystery: It’s obvious the retablo has been cleaned and restored before, but no one seems to know who did it, or when, or how often. Over the years, though, it’s clear that some paint was lost and other paint was added, a process known in the trade as inpainting. Urry will be doing some inpainting herself after everything is thoroughly cleaned. The key will be to match the original paint as closely as possible. It helps that she understands the chemistry, but what really helps is her conservator’s intuition. “You mix a color more with your mind than with your eye,” she says.

By the time she’s ready to add paint, the retablo will be an old friend. She’ll know every eccentricity, every crack and crevice, every damaged spot and hidden surprise on this giant painting. Her face will be inches from the International Gothic canvas for months and, all the while, she’ll be thinking about how to make this old friend not only beautiful again but authentically beautiful.

Under a microscope, she observes the differences in hue from past restorations. “The colors were applied many years apart so they aged differently,” she says. It’s kind of like painting a room in your house back in 1995 and then touching up with the same color in 2016: The new paint doesn’t match. So Urry will use archival materials, developed and proven in art labs, that have been tested to see how they will react over a long period of time. There is an irony built into the process: Despite the keen attention to detail, Urry also knows that whatever new paint she applies won’t necessarily become a permanent part of the work. Art restoration means making sure whatever you do is reversible so that the next restorer—perhaps 600 years hence—can start with the original work.

Urry turns back to St. Peter’s coronation and touches a chemically-drenched swab to the saint’s robe. The gray, lifeless tunic comes to life in a brilliant blue. It’s hard not to gasp, whether you’re an art snob or not. This is ultramarine, a color reserved in medieval art for the holiest icons. Made from ground lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone found in Afghanistan, back in Zaragoza’s time it was rare and highly prized. “This was probably more valuable than even the gold that was used in this painting,” Urry says.

Gothic paint was egg yolk-based tempera and artists had trouble creating flesh tones. They got around it by using an olive green color and layering it with flecks of pink and white. The technique for creating the green layer was known as verdaccio and as Urry applies the cleaning chemicals, the faces, flattened by layers of wax and dirt, spring to life. Urry examines the faces and determines that they are not historical figures but rather “classic faces.” The star of this piece, after all, is St. Peter.

It is morning and Lorenzo Zaragoza is back at work. Weeks ago, he had mapped out where the human figures would go and where the thinly-sliced gold leaf would be placed as the background. The leaf goes on first, over the bole, which he lightly remoistens. This is known as water gilding. The gold is then punched in a decorative pattern with a hand tool. Zaragoza plans extra punches for the halo over St. Peter’s head. The idea is to catch the light and scatter it in crazy directions.

He doesn’t work alone. He has helpers who will place and punch the gold while he supervises. Just like he supervised the woodworkers who cut the soft pine for the massive panels. And the weavers who wrapped them in hand-woven fabric and glued it to the wood to protect them from the elements and insects. And the artisan apprentices who applied the sticky chalk-and-glue substance called gesso, which provides a perfect painting surface. And the carpenters who used hand-forged square nails to link the pieces of the frame together. And the sculptor who created the statue in the foreground. Painters, carpenters, weavers, gilders, punchers, sculptors: It is a team effort, and Urry suspects Zaragoza, who got all the credit, was the captain.

What would Zaragoza think about the missing paint? Like Rose Mary Woods’s 18-minute gap, the bottom half of one individual is simply gone. Was it the work of a vandal? Did the Church remove it because the individual depicted had transgressed? Or was it simply that candles were placed too close and, over time, the paint melted or dried out and flaked off? We don’t know, and Urry is still unsure what she’s going to do about it—try to paint what had obviously been there, or simply leave it alone.

“We don’t know how this is going to turn out,” she says with a wry but confident smile. Whatever happens, Lorenzo Zaragoza will be rooting for her as he watches over her shoulder.

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