By Christine Sciacca and Catherine Schmidt Patterson
Museum-based research takes myriad forms, from art-historical and archival research on an individual object, artist, or period, to conservation analysis of an object's construction, state of preservation, or long-term care, to scientific evaluation of an object's component materials or physical properties. This complex research requires a pantheon of professionals—curators, conservators, and scientists—to undertake it and, increasingly, to work together on collaborative teams.
Research involving professionals from across an institution benefits from both an expanded knowledge base and a breadth of questions that can be addressed. The advantages of collaboration are evident, for example, in exhibition catalogues, which often contain both art-historical essays by curators and art historians and technical information gathered by conservators and scientists. The work being conducted for the upcoming J. Paul Getty Museum (JPGM) exhibition Florentine Painting and Illumination in the Time of Giotto exemplifies the benefits of institutional collaborative research.
EARLY RENAISSANCE PAINTING AND ILLUMINATION
The Getty exhibition explores the community of illuminators and panel painters who contributed to the stunning artistic production in Florence on the eve of the Renaissance. The show's genesis was four remarkable works in the Getty's collection: the important and unusual Chiarito Tabernacle by Pacino di Bonaguida and three leaves from the celebrated Laudario of Sant'Agnese, a lavish manuscript illuminated by Pacino and a collaborator.
One focus of the exhibition research is Pacino, a prolific manuscript illuminator and panel painter who produced altarpieces and private devotional paintings, as well as luxury copies of manuscripts, which fed the devotional and intellectual demands of his Florentine patrons. A detailed technical analysis of manuscript leaves and panel paintings from Pacino's workshop is under way; this research seeks to elucidate the artist's technique, the effects of material choices on the appearance and aging of his works, and elements of fourteenth-century Florentine workshop practice. For example, did the artist translate traditional illumination techniques into his work on panel, and vice versa? The appearance of many early panel paintings has changed over time because of environmental conditions and restoration; manuscripts, which often maintain their original appearance, may thus reveal important information about the intended appearance of early paintings, influencing both our understanding of these objects and their conservation.
Establishing these links between painting and manuscript illumination, however, requires art-historical insight, conservation observation and evaluation, and a thorough technical investigation of the objects. In short, it requires a collaborative team.
BUILDING A TEAM
This project requires a group of researchers of broad expertise, and a team was assembled from across the Getty. Christine Sciacca, assistant curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum and a specialist in devotional and liturgical art, formulated the scope and themes of the exhibition and identified key works of early trecento Florentine art illustrating the relationship between manuscript illumination and panel painting. Conservator Yvonne Szafran—head of the JPGM Paintings Conservation department, with extensive experience restoring Italian gold-ground paintings, including the Chiarito Tabernacle—has been evaluating the condition of Pacino's works on panel and contributing her knowledge of the medium to the ongoing technical research. Conservator Nancy Turner, from the JPGM Paper Conservation department, has similarly contributed her intimate knowledge of the three Laudario leaves (which she worked on when they entered the Getty's collection) and her considerable experience with the treatment and analysis of illuminated manuscripts. Bringing to the team her experience of using analytical technologies such as X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy in the analysis of art, GCI senior scientist Karen Trentelman—along with assistant scientist Catherine Schmidt Patterson and additional staff of the GCI Collections Research Laboratory—has been engaged in the scientific examination of Pacino's materials.
With the members of the research team contributing complementary skills and perspectives to the work, the project was significantly enhanced by the team approach.
A DYNAMIC ENVIRONMENT
Throughout the research, stylistic and material observations have been presented and discussed by the team in a collaborative environment, both to develop broad research objectives on understanding artistic workshop practice and to formulate focused, short-term goals regarding specific analyses. Regular meetings, study days devoted to observation and comparison of the objects, and discussion during the scientific examination have proven critical for generating additional research questions and new approaches to existing challenges. For example, Szafran's suggestion to X-ray the manuscripts—an analysis more common for paintings—has revealed the manuscript's foliation, both confirming and revising curatorial findings.¹ This collaborative process allows the scope and depth of the project to grow organically, drawing on the expertise, professional networks, and institutional resources of each team member. Sciacca, Szafran, and Turner's contacts at museums around the globe have provided opportunities to examine closely a wide variety of early Florentine manuscripts and paintings, enriching the contextual landscape for the ongoing examination. Trentelman's connections with scientists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago and Turner's rapport with conservators at the Pierpont Morgan Library and the curator at the Free Library of Philadelphia facilitated the scientific examination of Laudario leaves at those institutions by the Getty research team, providing additional data necessary for understanding the complexities of Florentine workshop practice.
As work has progressed, questions developed and explored in the dynamic group environment are yielding tantalizing results. For example, initial discussions sought ways to identify artists active in Pacino's workshop. The research team selected the faces of figures as a potentially fruitful area of study that each team member was well positioned to address. Close visual analysis by Sciacca, Szafran, and Turner initially suggested that the two artists responsible for the Laudario used different painting methods. Detailed scientific examination undertaken by GCI scientists Patterson and Carole Namowicz of several faces in the Getty Laudario leaves revealed that Pacino and his collaborator may have used different red pigments to paint flesh tones. The observation that two artists appear to have chosen different materials and methods to produce the flesh tones of a single commission provides an interesting glimpse into the mechanics of artistic collaboration. Through this information, a clearer understanding of fourteenth-century Florentine workshop practice emerges that challenges the expectation that collaborating artists might closely share resources and techniques.
The analysis of faces is, of course, just one of the questions that this research addresses, but it exemplifies the collective working method that has characterized the project. Ongoing work focuses on, for example, comparative analysis of other features, such as underdrawing, the figures' hands, the decoration of halos, the punchwork in gold leaf, pigment layering, and the overall palette of each studied object.
A MORE COMPLEX AND NUANCED PICTURE
The inherently collaborative nature of this project—which includes materials analysis, comparative visual examination, infrared, UV, and multispectral imaging studies, as well as art-historical, archival, and collections research—requires the participation of scientists, conservators, and curators. This diverse team of Getty researchers is working together to develop new questions, to advance scholarship regarding workshop practice, and to disseminate the research to a wide audience at professional conferences,² in the exhibition catalogue, and in the exhibition presentation itself. Aspects of technical analysis featured in the gallery will provide a richer context for viewing and studying these beautiful and fascinating objects. Moreover, presenting technical information about the objects may entice new audiences to visit museum exhibitions and encourage regular museumgoers to see art in new ways. This approach will reveal a more complex and nuanced picture of this crucial moment in the history of artistic production in a way that would not have been possible without collaborative research.
Christine Sciacca is an assistant curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Catherine Schmidt Patterson, an assistant scientist, works in the Collections Research Laboratory at the Getty Conservation Institute.
2 Y. Szafran, C. Namowicz, C. Schmidt Patterson, C. Sciacca, K. Trentelman, and N. Turner, "Painting on parchment and panel: An exploration of Pacino di Bonaguida's technique," in Postprints of the National Gallery Technical Bulletin 30th Anniversary Conference "Studying Old Master Paintings— Technology and Practice," 16–18 September, 2009, London (in press).