The following text represents a synopsis of research begun at the
American Academy in Rome in 2011.
Throughout recorded history physically changed cultural material,
specifically paintings and their appearance have influenced the
writing of art history. The visual interpretations of those
objects and written documentation about them are representative
of a period's culture, its aesthetics, and its aspirations.
The inevitable change in a painting’s appearance through the
natural aging of materials is further compounded when the history
of an object’s restoration campaign is considered as an additional
component of its visual history and cultural value.
My work at the Academy has focused on researching period documents
and published texts primarily from the 17th-early19th century, and
the referenced paintings themselves in and around Rome. I have
primarily utilized the invaluable resources of the American
Academy's Library, and of the British School at Rome. This has included
a comprehensive reevaluation of the late 18th century art hoax
known as the “Venetian Secret” within the context of a cultural
phenomena and period rage for emulating specific surface appearances
of Italian, primarily Venetian “old” masters paintings of the
16th and 17th centuries. I have studied the rich sources of the late
17th-early19th century artists', and 'Grand' tourists’ manuscripts
and travel journals, and other publications of the same period by
various 'Cicerone' who often guided them.
My specific focus has been to uncover within these documents
interpretations of the appearance of paintings often imbedded in
lengthy descriptions of cultural sites which often exhibited
individual or important collections of paintings as a 'must see'
for the period traveler.
These writings, influenced by their period culture’s understanding
and interpretations of the “look” of “old” master paintings,
abound with speculations on how they and their effects were created.
I have concomitantly visited and inspected in situ hundreds of
specific paintings many referenced in these period sources to
compare their current state with described earlier appearances,
and thoughts about their surface and artist original intent.
Most notably since the late 17th century, travelers-including artists
and writers, amateurs and professionals alike-have recorded their
observations and thoughts about art for their personal reflection or
for intended publication. These have included a plethora of well
known, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, and Goethe to name
a few, but also many connoisseurs such as Jonathan Richardson, Richard
Symonds, Robert Samber, and many others. The art, architecture, and
cultural lure of Italy in general, and Rome specifically, were
Over time, these historic documents have added, with varying degrees
of sophistication and art historical importance, to the lexicon of art
history and our understanding of visual culture and frequently to an
accepted understanding of an artist’s or fabricator’s original purpose
or aesthetic intentions.
Artists’ historically wished to emulate and connoisseurs revered
observed painterly effects of Italian paintings for reasons often
different in each century, or from our own. This source material by
artists and writers among numerous others identifies that travel to
Italy and Rome were for multiple reasons, certainly one of which was
specifically to see art objects first hand. They often brought
aesthetic ideas predicated on established contemporary cultural
perceptions and expectations often founded on the limited number of
earlier, primarily Italian, and some French publications on
connoisseurship frequently in translation, or from the limited but
ever growing list of published English travel material available to
Concerning paintings specifically some of these cultural aesthetics
became aligned with a perceived luminosity and particular effects of
light and color that artists and connoisseurs of the 17th and 18th
century observed in late Renaissance Italian paintings, preferably the
Venetian, by Titian, Tintoretto especially, which they admired.
A partially investigated and understood incident representing this
phenomena that has become anecdotally well known is the art hoax of
the late 18th century called the “Venetian secret” perpetrated on a
number of prominent members of the then relatively new Royal Academy
in London. Many of the facts surrounding the story of this episode
have been published. Less questioned is for what reasons some very
notable artists of the period were searching for the materials and
methods of fabrication which they believed were originally used by the
“old” masters. Artists’ writings of this period suggest
interpretations of what they perceived as important to them about the
appearance of the 'masters,' which may have substantially deviated
from the creator’s intent.
A true "Venetian secret” did not exist and was later called a
“remarkable piece of quackery which flourished for a moment and
deceived the Royal academicians” however, a significant number of very
notable artists in the late 18th century had come to believe that
there was such a thing and that it was worthy of discovery. In fact,
the idea of its existence was so grounded in the English art and
cultural zeitgeist of the period that it created enough of a
pregnant moment for this ingenious fraud to be hatched in 1797.
The story of the Venetian secret and the quest for it, and its
alignment with the concept of an earlier established term patina,
became, in spite of the mixed opinions on both subjects, common
vernacular for artists through the 18th and 19th century.
This quixotic episode from the Age of Enlightenment was a quest for
concrete artistic knowledge, prompted by a desire to emulate real and
observable visual conditions of paintings. My research suggests that
these visual characteristics were sought in an effort to align
contemporary painting practice with a zeitgeist of the time, the
fashionable enthusiasm for the surface characteristics of many Italian
paintings described by various 18th century English connoisseurs as
'Patina.' This term, by then, primarily referred to the effects of the
surface of aged paintings, sculpture, and even buildings
encompassed a real material condition. The visual phenomena of patina,
however, were somewhat ambiguously interpreted and defined, and remain
so to this day. Without question it was variably understood during the
period, although the origins for its use had real material causes at
their core, and historic precedents which I have uncovered in the
course of my work.
While earlier applications of the word 'patina' were used in
descriptions of other materials it appears that the particular
painterly concept of patina evolves from its earliest discovered use
in Giulio Mancini’s first quarter 17th century manuscript
Considerazioni sulla Pittura. It’s earliest known published
definition however, only appears later in Filippo Baldinucci’s
Vocabolario Toscano dell’Arte del Disegno, considered the first
dictionary of artistic terms, published in 1681. It expanded to a
broader acceptance and more generic use and circulation in the
following century. Origins of both the defining idea and use of the
word, however, have far more ancient roots, and many of those sources
were uncovered in the course of my work.
The physical phenomena that contribute to the visual effects in
paintings that became broadly codified as the Italian word patena in
the late 17th century certainly had significant consequences for both
the understanding and interpretation of paintings in the period
researched. Additionally, as an aesthetic idea patina had a
significant influence on the evolution of style in painting, certainly
in England and later in 19th century America as well.
The use of the term patina in reference to painting in the 18th
century frequently clouded, the objective understanding of the
physical appearance of what in this same period was commonly referred
to as 'modern Italian painting.' That is, for the purpose of my
studies, painting of the late 16th and 17th centuries. Some artists
and writers who journeyed to Italy to see and understand these
paintings in the two centuries after they were created unavoidably
observed them through the veil and effects of age. They often
interpreted and described them, in terms that would become the genesis
and perpetuation of the myth of the "Venetian secret" and its older
progenitor, the often variably understood, and broadly defined,
Perhaps the two most readily observed and troubling visual alterations
that could occur to a painting over time, that would most compromise
artist intent that were often noted, were the changes based on the
poor color-fastness of the pigments used, and the unintended or local
darkening of a painting primarily as a result of drying oil mediums.
These problematic occurrences were the two most substantial effects
that would have unintentional influence, I contend, on the formulation
of the ideas surrounding the concept of patina and its use in the 17th
and 18th centuries.
A pattern can be deciphered concerning how the age altered surfaces of
paintings are interpreted and described in the second half of the 17th
and throughout the 18th centuries. These to some extent become
aesthetic parameters of the art cognoscenti and a helpful key for
understanding visual culture of that period. Some of the aesthetic
attitudes about paintings, as I discovered, which were clearly formed
through the 18th century from perceptions of real physical phenomena,
whether founded on correct interpretations or not, did not become more
accurately identifiable and scientifically understood until the 20th.
This aesthetic language evolved over the century and was first
established by some of the earlier English travelers to Italy in the
second half of the 17th century. It was used by later travelers who
brought with them those ideas already published about Italy, which
later became source material for much that is seen and how a good deal
of 'modern painting' comes to be viewed in Italy.
As a cultivated taste for “old” master paintings continued to grow in
18th century England, a fashionable art market started to develop
around it with increasing numbers of people engaged in collecting,
dealing, and producing copies. There seems little question that there
was a substantive quantity of modern copies of aged Italian paintings,
and some lesser number of originals, arriving in the country intended
for collections and the English market by range of artistic talent.
Many of these copies would have been accomplished in unfavorable
viewing conditions of aged paintings in varying states of visual
alteration. The surfaces of many would have been covered by
substantially discolored varnish and perhaps very darkened surfaces,
as many viewers had complained.
The observance for the first time of these effects of time on
paintings in Italy or later in England would surely have contributed
to the development of distorted perspectives of original artist
intent. This sensibility in conjunction with a clouded understanding
of the aging of materials would have helped to contrive some very
misinformed ideas about style, artist technique, and intended
aesthetics of many 16th and 17th century Italian paintings. These
observations made about paintings and their interpretations were
coming into alignment concurrently with the concept of patina and its
associated value for paintings generated by many connoisseurs; thus,
they were becoming culturally fashionable and part and parcel of
developing a refined taste in pictures.
There are irreconcilable contradictions in the concomitant belief in
the "Venetian secret" which presumably would create an old master glow
of nebulous description, and the desire for a veneer of patina with
its darkened tones. The conflicting and sometimes polarizing ideas
surrounding the aesthetic significance of darkened surface effects on
paintings and their alignment, and even melding with the concept of
patina continued through the 19th and 20th century. This historical
dichotomy concerning differing positions surrounding current
interpretations of patina, its meaning, and its value to painting
continues today and has taken on a contemporary significance for the
interpretation and evaluation of paintings, and will, I believe, for
some time to come.
Albert Paul Albano received a B.A. in Art History and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hofstra University in 1976. He worked as apprentice with Orrin Riley at the Guggenheim Museum before receiving his certificate in postgraduate studies, Art Conservation, from Cooperstown Graduate Programs and M.A. from New York State University Oneonta, in 1980. He has held the positions of Associate Conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Senior Conservator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Director of Conservation at Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware. He is currently the Executive Director of the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA), a not-for-profit art conservation/preservation service and education center in Cleveland, Ohio. He has published and lectured widely both nationally and internationally. He has been awarded a Rome Prize fellowship in Historic Preservation and Conservation from the American Academy in Rome for 2011-2012.