OMAHA, NE.- A nearly 475-year old portrait by Venetian painter Titian (pronounced tish-in; Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1487-1576) is back on view today in Joslyn Art Museum's Medieval and Renaissance gallery following an 11-month absence. Georgio Cornaro with a Falcon (1537), oil on canvas, which entered Joslyn's collection in 1942, was accepted into the J. Paul Getty Museum's Conservation Partnerships in October 2007. The program allows conservation of important works of art owned by other museums to be undertaken at no cost, with the provision that they are displayed at the Getty for a period of time after treatment. Titian's portrait of Giorgio Cornaro was on view at the Los Angeles-based Getty from March through August 2008.
The portrait has suffered considerably in the hundreds of years since it was painted. Over time bits of paint have flaked away, colors have changed, the canvas has deteriorated, and varnish, applied over a painting to protect it, discolored, clouding and obscuring the image. The best intentions of restorers and previous owners contributed to further damage. At the Getty's painting conservation studio, Mark Leonard, chief conservator, performed straightforward but painstaking work on the portrait, transforming it. Before conservation the painting was considered a tired example of the work of a great artist: the merits of Titian's genius were hidden primarily behind a muddy varnish. With Titian's colors, his profound use of lights and shades, and his great sensitivity to the character of his sitter again revealed, Joslyn's portrait of Giorgio Cornaro takes its place as one of the finest works of the Italian Renaissance in an American museum.
Titian has been considered one of the most important figures of Venetian art. Born in the Dolomite Mountains north of Venice, he moved to the city to apprentice as an artist at about age 13. He studied most notably with the Bellini family and worked either under or with his slightly elder contemporary, Giorgione. By 1516 he had painted a high altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin for the Venetian church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and was named the official painter to the Venetian Republic. Titian worked for many of the courts of Italy, in particular the Este family in Ferrara and Mantua, the Gonzagas in Mantua, and the court of Urbino. For these patrons, he painted some of the most compelling, transformative, and influential works of the history of art, creating new ways of presenting traditional compositions using color, light, shadow, and inventive techniques. One of the most sought-after artists in the world, Titian, at his maturity, worked for Emperor Charles V of Spain and his son, Philip II.
While earlier Venetian Renaissance portraitists were influenced by the Florentine Leonardo da Vinci and the German Albrecht Durer and also borrowed techniques from Netherlandish artists, such as brighter colors and more psychologically charged poses. Titian moved even beyond this, imbuing his representations with a forcefulness that captured the personality of the sitter. Poses are given a heightened psychological tension as heads turn away from the direction of the body, expressions are natural and sympathetic, and colors are given a richness and saturation that approximated the lushness of Venetian high style. Occasionally his portraits were creations of pure form which connect with each other by color and texture, as in his portrait of Giorgio Cornaro where, in an over-all dark tonality, key elements are picked out by light, such as the bird, the harness, the hand, and the face.
Giorgio Cornaro (or Corner, in Venetian dialect) (1517-1571) was a member of one of the most important families in Venice. Descended from a Doge (the elected ruler of Venice) he was admitted to the Venetian Grand Council at age 20, about the time the Joslyn's portrait was painted. The family had widespread land holdings and enterprises, including being one of the most important breeders of falcons in Europe, hence his portrayal with a peregrine in Joslyn's painting. Cornaro's life was one of artistic patronage and military service. In 1551 he commissioned one of the greatest of villas by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the Villa Corner. He captained war galleys for the Venetian navy, meeting his fate against the Turks in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.
Although there are suggestions that Titian's portrait of Giorgio Cornaro spent some time in France in the 17th century, it is first documented in the collection of the Earls of Carlisle at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England. In the early 20th century it was in a collection in Berlin and was acquired by the legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen in the 1920s, who owned it jointly for several years with the eminent British art dealers Thomas Agnew and Sons. By the 1940s it was in the possession of the Parisian-American firm of Wildenstein and Company, from whom Joslyn acquired it in 1942.
While documentation of the painting's conservation history only dates back to 1956, when it was treated at the respected conservation lab of what is now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, one can surmise earlier treatments. Paintings are frequently cleaned when they pass through the art trade, and the portrait of Giorgio Cornaro was handled by major art dealers in the 1920s and again in the 40s. In the early 1980s it traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was examined at that museum?s lab and returned to Omaha with a fresh coat of varnish.
The conservation treatment at the Getty was straightforward. Using a mild organic solvent solution, the existing varnish and old restorations were removed revealing only the paint applied by Titian. In this state, before any intervention to restore the painting to an approximation of how Titian intended, one could see how much the picture has suffered over the years. Much of the damage was a result of an old relining, a treatment in which a supporting canvas is attached to the aging original one and pressed down so as to adhere better. Unfortunately, the paint is flattened during the process. In addition, original paint may have been damaged from an earlier restorer?s effort to remove old varnish with an overly strong solvent or unnecessary scrubbing.
When what paint remained was only that by Titian's hand, an initial coat of varnish was applied to protect this original layer. Then began the painstaking process of filling in the areas of damage to match Titian's composition and colors. Only water-based paints are used for this step so that any retouching can be dissolved if necessary. On completion, another coat of varnish was applied, thus encapsulating the work by the modern conservator between easily removable layers of varnish.