In 1616, the 22-year-old artist Artemisia Gentileschi painted a nude woman perched in the clouds and holding a compass at the Florence home of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, Michaelangelo’s great-nephew. The work was the first in the Buonarroti family’s home gallery dedicated to their famous ancestor, and the impasto ceiling painting, likely a self-portrait, was also one of Gentileschi’s first commissions. “Allegory of Inclination” remained untouched for around 70 years until a descendant of Michelangelo Buonarroti commissioned the Late Baroque painter Baldassarre Franceschini (il Volterrano) to paint draping over the nude figure in the interest of modesty.
Now, the former Buonarroti residence is the Casa Buonarroti museum, and a team of conservators there is working to “virtually restore the original appearance” of the painting in a project called “Artemisia Unveiled.” Using imaging techniques such as X-rays and raking light to examine the over 400-year-old brush strokes, the team will determine which additions were Gentileschi’s and which were Franceschini’s, and the final result will be an uncensored image.
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Elizabeth Wick, the restorer leading the project, told the Florentine that the team will not physically alter the existing painting for two reasons: Franceschini’s layer is considered a historic addition that contributes to the painting’s story, and since the two layers of paint were applied only 70 years apart, removing Franceschini’s draping would likely damage Gentileschi’s original coat of paint.
“Through her, we can talk about how important it is to restore artwork, how important it is to restore the stories of women to the forefront,” the project’s coordinator Linda Falcone told the Guardian. Gentileschi’s success in the male-dominated art world of 17th-century Italy, and the woman-focused subject matter of her work, have turned her into somewhat of a feminist icon. Although she earned recognition during her lifetime, Gentileschi’s work has been revisited in recent years through museum shows and other conservation projects.
Each Friday through April 2023, visitors to Casa Buonarroti will be able to see “Artemisia Unveiled” in progress and ask the conservators questions. Once the operation is complete, the museum will display the final image in a special Gentileschi exhibition up from September 2023 to January 2024.