A Pennsylvania museum has solved the mystery of a Renaissance portrait in an investigation that spans hundreds of years, layers of paint and the murdered daughter of an Italian duke.
Among the works featured in the Carnegie Museum’s exhibit Faked, Forgotten, Found is a portrait of Isabella de’Medici, the spirited favorite daughter of Cosimo de’Medici, the first Grand Duke of Florence, whose face hadn’t seen the light of day in almost 200 years.
Isabella Medici’s strong nose, steely stare and high forehead plucked of hair, as was the fashion in 1570, was hidden beneath layers of paint applied by a Victorian artist to render the work more saleable to a 19th century buyer.
The result was a pretty, bland face with rosy cheeks and gently smiling lips that Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at the museum, thought was a possible fake.
Before deciding to deaccession the work, Lippincott brought the painting, which was purportedly of Eleanor of Toledo, a famed beauty and the mother of Isabella de’Medici, to the Pittsburgh museum’s conservator Ellen Baxter to confirm her suspicions.
Baxter was immediately intrigued. The woman’s clothing was spot-on, with its high lace collar and richly patterned bodice, but her face was all wrong, ‘like a Victorian cookie tin box lid,’ Baxter told Carnegie Magazine.
After finding the stamp of Francis Needham on the back of the work, Baxter did some research and found that Needham worked in National Portrait Gallery in London in the mid-1800s transferring paintings from wood panels to canvas mounts.
Paintings on canvas usually have large cracks, but the ones on the Eleanor of Toledo portrait were much smaller than would be expected.
Baxter devised a theory that the work had been transferred from a wood panel onto canvas and then repainted so that the woman’s face was more pleasing to the Victorian art-buyer, some 300 years after it had been painted.