The materials and procedures of the great masters
To approach the painting techniques and try to understand the relationship between materials and image, technique and figuration, we have the guide of treatises, recipe books and pamphlets written since ancient times but, apart from some recipes, often incomplete, many lacunae remain about the understanding of the procedures used by the various painters or the ways in which they measured, prepared and used the pictorial material.
This precious but fragmentary documentation is today enriched by technical data revealed through the chemical and physical investigations that artistic diagnostics makes available.
The ancients were more inclined than us to be interested in technique; the industry was not yet developed and the painters were forced to grind the colored powders, make the panels and the canvases, purify the oils, melt the paints and glues themselves, thus ending up developing a passion for the improvement of their materials and keeping themselves informed about the procedures used in other countries to maintain the paints unaltered, the varnishes transparent or the colors bright.
Much of the credit for all this must also be given to the Corporations that did not allow the use of poor and alterable material, to the masters of the “bottegas” (shops) who did not tolerate freedom or sloppiness from their students and also to the religious sentiment that contributed to ensuring that the executions were accurate and the craftsmanship perfect.
The bottega (shop) secrets
The technical discoveries drawn with patience from the reading and interpretation of classical texts, intuitions and experiments formed the basis of “secrets” whose owners generally reluctantly divulged, “the wise way of painting was the privilege of few and jealously kept a secret”, G. B. Armenini XVI Century. Apart from some cases such as that of Teofilo or Cennino Cennini and others, the history of art is full of anecdotes concerning the jealousy of the profession. In reality most of the painters of the past did not have such a perfect material, the real secret of the ancients must rather lie in the logic of color layering, in the mastery of the combinations, in the love of the craft and all that knowledge that even today could be available to anyone.
Technique and art
Far from “paralyzing” the artistic vein, technical knowledge allows us to obtain the maximum of what can be obtained from the pictorial material.
What actually prevents art is instead that tangled working, that taking away and putting in without conscious forecast, that uncertain attempt that outwears the color. Leone Augusto Rosa, La tecnica della pittura dai tempi preistorici ad oggi, Società Ed. Libraria, 1937 – 2nd edition, 1949
Technique and restoration
Any information on conservation and restoration interventions will appear nebulous if one does not know how the work on which one intervenes was materially done. At the same time, if one is not informed about the different pictorial techniques used in the various Centuries, there will be no way to explain why the intervention methods can be so diversified from one work to another.
But what seems even more important here is to go back to underlining how a work of art has its own precise physicality that is determined according to the application of specific techniques, which, if were to remain unknown, would preclude fundamental aspects of the history of that painting.
The works that for the most part have become familiar to us through photographic reproductions, have in fact been transformed in the collective imagination into two-dimensional surfaces devoid of thickness, of pasty brushstrokes and clots of color, it is precisely for those surfaces that it is easy to mistakenly imagine the restoration as an operation in which one only removes a layer of dirt left by time to happily recover the original integrity. Claudio Paolini, Arte su Arte, 1996
Retracing the procedures used by various painters, the methodology proposed here makes the painting techniques of the ancient masters easily understandable. The various stages of processing of the reproduced works make use of the results of artistic diagnostics or rather the interpretation of the documents obtained from it (technical analysis) combined with the contribution provided by an in-depth interpretation of the ancient sources on painting techniques (material documentation).