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Historic Pietro da Cortona Painting the Focus of Collaborative Restoration Project at Villanova University

Interdisciplinary team of conservators from The University of Delaware and chemists from Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will lead the two-year public conservation project in Falvey Memorial Library

The 12x19’ oil on-canvas painting, David and Goliath, by 17th century Italian artist Pietro da Cortona (Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, 1596-1669), has hung in the University’s library since 1956

Historic Pietro da Cortona Painting the Focus of Collaborative Restoration Project at Villanova University

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Seventeenth-century Italian artist Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of David – also known as The Presentation of David to King Saul after Slaying Goliath, and colloquially as David and Goliath – has hung in Villanova University’s library for more than five decades since the 12x19’ oil on canvas painting was gifted to the University. Only a handful of collections in the world contain works on canvas by this artist, and for an American collection to possess a painting of this magnitude attributed to Pietro da Cortona is even more uncommon. Like many older works, however, the painting has become discolored and degraded by over-paint and varnish from previous restoration campaigns.

To restore this important work and bring back the vibrant colors associated with Pietro’s palette, Villanova University has commissioned conservators from The University of Delaware Art Conservation Department.  Together with faculty and researchers from Villanova’s Department of Chemistry, this interdisciplinary team will not only bring this work back to life, but will scientifically analyze the painting to trace its history and learn more about the artist’s materials and methods. Making the project even more distinctive is the fact that the work will take place in a publically-accessible venue in Villanova’s Falvey Memorial Library.

The University is committed to this important project benefitting the academic community, as well as the art history and conservation community. To that end, lectures, classes and seminar courses focusing on the technical art history and conservation of the work will be scheduled on site in the “Old Falvey” wing of the library during the course of the project. The University also plans to have public tours and viewing times for the campus and area communities to visit the site.

“I am delighted that this artistic treasure will be restored to its original grandeur,” said the Rev. Kail C. Ellis, OSA, PhD, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Villanova University. “Not only will the restoration be a workshop on the techniques of conservation for the artistic community, it will also be a classroom for students and faculty alike to discover the riches of this artist and the methods of bringing back to life a great masterpiece.”

Conservator Kristin deGhetaldi from The University of Delaware is leading the restoration. Dr. Anthony Lagalante and Dr. Amanda Norbutus from Villanova’s Department of Chemistry, along with graduate student Kristen Watts, will organize the conservation science research and analyze the materials and methods employed in the original artwork, as well as the restoration campaigns.

“There are not a lot of oil paintings associated with Pietro’s circle in the U.S., and the sheer size of this painting makes it very unique,” said conservator Kristin deGhetaldi. “There is an increasing interest from the art history community to learn more about the materials and techniques associated with Old Master paintings, in addition to contemporary conservation procedures. The implications of this project will not only benefit Villanova, but will ultimately help to raise public awareness on conservation procedures, and educate the art history community about this painting and the artist.”

“The field of cultural heritage science is a collaborative effort between scientists, art historians, and conservators where we all play an integral part toward understanding and preserving a masterpiece such as this work attributed to Pietro da Cortona,” Dr. Lagalante noted.  “As scientists, we can help conservators refine their conservation plan by identifying the materials used by the artist.  Likewise, we can assist art historians by providing technical data to understand this rare painting on canvas within Pietro’s oeuvre.”

The painting is presently covered with several layers of discolored and degraded over-paint and varnish.  These unoriginal materials were applied during previous restoration campaigns, but have aged poorly, obscuring the artist’s beautiful colors.  While the canvas is structurally sound, there are areas of lifting paint that will require consolidation and local humidification by the team. There are also scattered regions throughout the painting that were never filled and appropriately inpainted.  Additionally, the current varnish is no longer serving its role as a protective and saturating surface coating.

The treatment of the artwork will require a number of steps and is expected to take close to two years. These conservation steps will include:

  • Unframing the artwork and performing photo-documentation
  • Consolidation of flaking/unstable paint
  • Local humidification to mitigate planar deformations
  • Removal/reduction of overpaint and degraded varnish(s)
  • Application of an isolation layer of stable, synthetic varnish
  • Applying inert fill material to losses in the paint layer
  • Retouching/inpainting fills and abraded areas using stable, reversible paints
  • Final application of a stable, synthetic, and saturating varnish coating

The process of examining and restoring the painting will provide Villanova’s Chemistry Department, and its students, with the opportunity to learn more about historic painting materials, such as the pigments and binding media used by this artist, as well as the analytical techniques used in conservation (i.e. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy, various imaging techniques, etc.).

“What is amazing is that we can take a sample of paint the size of the period at the end of this sentence and analyze it with modern instrumentation to uncover information about how this artist painted almost 400 years ago,” said Dr. Norbutus. “We collaborate with professors and students in the chemistry, biology, and engineering disciplines for access to the shared instrumentation necessary to study this painting.”

In addition to Villanova’s Chemistry Department, History and Art History faculty at the University will also work in collaboration with the team during the course of the two-year project. Mark Sullivan, PhD, director of the art history program, along with Timothy McCall, PhD, associate professor of Art History, who possesses a deep knowledge of Italian art and Old Master paintings, will provide expertise to the team as they examine the painting and the history of Pietro’s work, methods and materials.

Added Fr. Ellis, “In a way, the original intent of the donor is enhanced by this project, namely to inspire students and all who work with them on the values of truth and beauty in the context of a liberal arts education.”

Painting History/Background: Pietro da Cortona’s David and Goliath was hanging in Castle Nemi, outside of Rome, when it sustained damages as a result of the Battle of Nemi during World War II. In 1950, the painting was one of several works donated to Villanova University by the late Princess Eugenia Ruspoli of Italy – an American-born woman who married Italian nobleman Prince Enrico Ruspoli. Princess Ruspoli donated the works to the University as part of the “Friends of Villanova Library” program – an initiative developed by then-library director the Rev. Daniel P. Falvey, OSA, to raise funds for a new Library on campus. After completion of the new library building, it was named and rededicated in honor of Fr. Falvey in 1968. The Cortona painting still resides in Falvey Memorial Library’s original wing, “Old Falvey,” where it has hung since 1956.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others.  There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.