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The historic Pietro da Cortona 12 x 19’ oil-canvas painting “Triumph of David” serves as the focus of a collaborative restoration project at the University.  Leading the project  in a two-year public conservation process in the Reading Room of Falvey Memorial Library is the interdisciplinary team of conservators from the University of Delaware, along with chemists and art history experts from Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Only a handful of collections in the world contain works on canvas by Pietro.  As a result, for an American collection to possess a painting of this magnitude attributed to Pietro da Cortona is even more uncommon.

The University has undertaken the inspiring task of conserving a giant, one that has hung on the wall beneath the lofty ceilings of the Old Falvey Reading Room for decades.  

The space was formerly used as a hall for the storage of microfilm and video tapes, but now has been transformed to a studio where all are welcome to observe art history in the making. Now a 24/7 quiet study hall, Old Falvey has been the home to the 17th-century Italian artist Pietro Berrettini da Cortona’s “Triumph of David” for more than five decades.  Gifted to the University in 1956 from Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, the work, also referred to as “The Presentation of David to King Saul after Slaying Goliath,” and colloquially as “David and Goliath,” embodies the success of the prominent Italian high baroque artist. 

Despite the immense damages sustained during World War II, the conservation team plans to remove degraded varnish and over-paint from previous restoration campaigns in order to reveal the vibrant colors of the original composition.  Over time, the canvas has undergone various interpretations of what conservators have thought to be the original design. 

As a result, varnish has turned sour creating a dark tone to the once bright allure the work had previously.  An extreme case of unethical, bad restoration, the canvas is  in dire need of care.  In order to uncover the original beauty of the work, the University plans to make the project a top priority in uncovering the beautiful details hidden underneath. 

Spearheading the way is the University of Delaware Art Conservation Department in collaboration with faculty and researchers from Villanova’s Departments of Chemistry and History.  As an interdisciplinary team, both areas of study will collaboratively restore the beauty and authenticity to this colossal canvas.  

The team includes conservator Kristin deGhetaldi from The University of Delaware, Anthony Lagalante and Amanda Norbutus from the University’s department of chemistry, along with graduate student Kristen Watts. 

Conservator deGhetaldi explains what an exciting task the project will be.  Despite the objections that the painting was a “lost cause” from outside observers, deGhetaldi believes the canvas will come back to life with time and disciplined work.  Patience is required with such an invaluable piece of history like this canvas. 

For the next two years, her team will work diligently to remove severe over-paint and dirty varnish from previous campaigns. The current varnish is no longer serving its role as a protective and saturating surface coating. 

She stresses the significance of the project: “There are not a lot of oil paintings associated with Pietro’s circle in the U.S., and the sheer size of this painting makes it very unique. There is an increasing interest from the art history community to learn more about the materials and techniques associated with Old Master paintings, in addition to contemporary conservation procedures. The implications of this project will not only benefit the University, but will ultimately help to raise public awareness on conservation procedures, and educate the art history community about this painting and the artist.” 

As a 21st century conservator, deGhetaldi stresses the significance of modern research and technology.  Her team plans to use reversible, aldyide, polvinal acetate-based paint that is safe to remove so in future campaigns, the process of removing paint will be significantly easier than it is today for her team. She describes the paint previously used as being “stuck on like glue, requiring a tremendous amount of work to remove.  Additionally, there were no records kept on the materials used on the canvas throughout its history, which contributes to the difficulty in removing varnish and over-paint.” However, in this campaign, deGhetaldi’s team will document all steps of the conservation. In 25 or 50 years there may be even better and more reversible paint materials, allowing the next conservator to easily strip the paint from the 2013 campaign. Dialogue has opened up between the conservation team and the chemistry department in restoring this diamond in the rough. 

 “The field of cultural heritage science is a collaborative effort between scientists, art historians and conservators where we all play an integral part toward understanding and preserving a masterpiece such as this work attributed to Pietro da Cortona,” Lagalante noted.  “As scientists, we can help conservators refine their conservation plan by identifying the materials used by the artist.  Likewise, we can assist art historians by providing technical data to understand this rare painting on canvas within Pietro’s oeuvre.”

As a team lead by Lagalante, the chemistry department has been diligently researching the different layers of paint eroded on the canvas. 

 Performing microscopy tests on samples as big as a piece of lead from a pencil, the department reveals how the painting was structured and analyzes pigments present. As a whole, the painting is presently covered with several layers of discolored and degraded over-paint and varnish.  As a result, the department provides the conservation team with valuable advice regarding safe paint materials and knowledge on why the painting faded so quickly. 

The materials used in previous campaigns have aged poorly, obscuring the artist’s vibrant colors. Humidification is necessary in lifting paint pigments,  despite the fact that the canvas is a structurally sound object.  

Additionally, there are also scattered regions throughout the painting that were never filled or appropriately inpainted.  Just by simply looking at the work, one might not notice the immense value due to its severe degradation.  

If one looks closely at the drape of the women in the far right corner, one will observe the over-painted blue color.  Underneath the over-paint lies “lapis lazuli,” a fine stone ground up for paint, that at one point in time was more expensive than gold. This rare, luxurious pigment could only be obtained from a particular mine in the heart of Afghanistan. 

The University invites all to view the painting and feel free to ask questions if the conservators are on hand.

Making the project even more distinctive is the fact that the work will take place in a publically accessible venue in the University’s Falvey Memorial Library.  Live web-cam feed will be available of the process, along with organized tours and class observations. 

The Old Falvey Reading Room is being rescued by the University with the goal of opening it again for its namesake: reading. Students will have access to the room around the clock and be able to enjoy its gradual return to beauty while they relax and engage in quiet study.

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