FLORENCE, Italy: After 10 years of painstaking study and restoration that tested both cutting edge technology and human patience, one of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance is returning to the public.
Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch is a survivor.
The 107cm by 77cm oil on wood, showing the Madonna with two children caressing a goldfinch bird, has outlived everything from the collapse of a house in 1547 that shattered it to the ravages of time and the mistakes of past interventions.
The result of the restoration is stunning. Centuries of brown film and grime are gone. The Madonna's cheeks are pink. Her robes are deep red and blue and one can almost hear the cascade of a stream in the background Tuscan countryside.
"This patient gave us the most shivers and the most sleepless nights," said Marco Ciatti, head of the department of paintings at Florence's Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, one of Italy's most prestigious state-run art restoration labs.
"We spent two whole years studying it before deciding whether to go ahead because with the damage it suffered in the past, a restoration attempt could go wrong," he said.
X-rays, CAT scans, reflective infra-red photography, lasers, men and women in white coats, microscopes, latex gloves - it sounds like the stuff of hospitals and in many ways it is.
But the Opificio is no emergency room. It has everything but the pressures of time. It is a place of slow healing.
"In the past we decided not to restore something because the risks of damaging or altering the original were too great," said Ciatti, 53. "We see ourselves as a doctor who treats the patient as a whole rather than concentrating on a specific illness."
Raphael, who lived from 1483 to 1520, painted the panel in about 1506 as a gift for the marriage of Lorenzo Nasi, a rich wool merchant. Known in Italian as the Madonna del Cardellino, it shows the Virgin with two children symbolizing the young Christ and John the Baptist. The goldfinch is a symbol of Christ's future passion because the bird feeds among thorns.
When the Nasi house collapsed in 1547, the work shattered into 17 pieces. Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio, a Raphael contemporary, used nails to join the pieces and paint to hide fractures. It later became part of the collection of Florence's powerful Medici family, who commissioned several interventions aimed primarily at covering traces of the fissures.