WASHINGTON — During the 15th century,a Renaissance master crafted the biblical hero's frail arms and brazen smirk. Centuries of waxing with whale oil and lampblack left his bronze complexion spotty,dull and in need of a makeover.
Six hundred years later,21st century laser technology has restored him to his ancient glory.
In honor of his re-birth,the bronze “David,” created by Andrea del Verrocchio around 1469,is being displayed at the National Gallery of Art through March 21.
It took a team of artists,scientists and historians more than two years to restore the four-foot tall youthful warrior. They used optical and electron microscopes to study the stratigraphic micro-samples,and infrared spectrophotometry to study the organic and inorganic compounds. As a result,today we can see the statue as Verrocchio intended.
Technology allowed scientists to identify what chemicals had been used to preserve the David over the centuries so restorers could determine how to clean the sculpture without damaging it. The exhibit catalog,“Verrocchio's David Restored,” published by the High Museum of Art,tells the story of the statue's history and restoration.
Through detailed examinations,restorers found that David had been coated with at least five surface treatments since the 18th century,hiding the intimate details of Verrocchio's masterpiece.
“The biggest surprise was the amount of gold that actually survived,” said Gary M. Radke,professor of art at Syracuse and guest curator of the David exhibit,which was organized by the High Museum in Atlanta. “The surface did protect it,and it allowed us to reclaim some of the gold that was there.”
In 2001,conservationists,whose job is to preserve cultural property for the future,began work on the David at its home in the Bargello Museum of Florence,Italy. Restorers then began the tedious process of cleaning the bronze. The sculpture traveled to Atlanta before landing in Washington.
A bit of history might be helpful here.
The Medici,Florence's on-again,off-again ruling family,commissioned Verrocchio to create a bronze in the spirit of earlier Davids during the height of the Renaissance.
Most art historians agree that Verrocchio's sculpture probably influenced Michelangelo in 1504 when he sculpted the marble behemoth David that stands in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence.
Years of political turmoil and religious warfare followed,eventually casting the Medici from power and scattering their extraordinary art collection across Europe.
In the subsequent centuries,Verrocchio's David was moved from palace to palace and eventually lost in the shuffle. Sometime between 1825 and 1865,the statue was recognized as Verrocchio's masterpiece and taken to the Bargello. All the while,various keepers of the David used organic waxes and oils to preserve the bronze and to conform it to the tastes of the time.
Fast forward to the 21st century.
Preservationists who had previously restored other Renaissance bronzes,like Ghiberti's “Gates of Paradise” and Donatello's “Judith,” wanted to begin working on the blackened David.
“By the time we got the sculpture,it looked like a mess,” Radke said. “The original surface was hidden under five layers.”
The first process to restore David to his original glory was basic; restorers,peering through a microscope,used dental tools to gently scrub the bronze with a distilled water and sodium bicarbonate,or baking soda,mixture.
However,the job got a lot trickier when they needed to expose the precious gilding sparingly employed by Verrocchio.
By taking microscopic samples,the restorers found David's hair,shoes and delicate tunic were highlighted with tiny flakes of gold. To their surprise,they also found David's eyes were gilded.
Restorers then utilized a laser,originally designed for cosmetic and medical procedures,to carefully scrape away centuries of grime without disrupting the glue that attached the gilding to the bronze.
“The laser was set to a relatively low frequency,” Radke said. “It had to be strong enough to vaporize the wax … but not so strong that it destroyed the gold.”
This process was painstaking.
“The real trick is there was no rush,” Radke said. “It does require a great eye for detail,an unbelievably fine hand-and-eye coordination and patience.”
The group restoration revealed details that have lead to various hypotheses about the statue. For instance,art historians now believe Goliath's head was originally displayed behind and to the right of the statue,rather than between its legs. They also believe that David may have been modeled after Verrocchio's prized pupil,Leonardo da Vinci.
“It's really awe-inspiring,” said Mark Rabinowitz,a Washington conservator with Conservation Solution Inc. “I have the unique opportunity to lay my hands where the artists did and to discover the painstaking details. … You can see the love that went into producing the art.”
Although Rabinowitz did not work on the Verrocchio piece,he has participated in the conservation of other important works of art,including two marble sculptures on the north facade of the Capitol.
“I'm always pleased when something as well-known as the David is saved and returned to a legibility and visibility that hasn't been seen for centuries,” Rabinowitz said.