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The Families of Christ and St John the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ

To complement the historical studies with the results of scientific examinations, the two paintings have been analysed in situ with the use of non-invasive portable analytical techniques
The Families of Christ and St John the Baptist, infrared reflectogram mosaic

University of Bologna Scientific CoordinatorMazzeo Rocco - Associate Prof. - Alma HeritageScience IRT Coordinator - Dep. of Chemistry «Giacomo Ciamician»

Research Group:

  • Mazzeo Rocco - Associate Prof. - Alma HeritageScience IRT Coordinator - Dep. of Chemistry «Giacomo Ciamician»
  • Prati Silvia - Assistant Prof. - Dep. of Chemistry «Giacomo Ciamician»

Context and objectives

The attribution of the paintings The Families of Christ and St John the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ (Sant’Andrea, Mantua) to Mantegna has been the subject of many controversial discussions among art historians, even though today it seems that, in spite of the fact that the paint surfaces were already badly cleaned and varnished since the beginning of the nineteen century, both paintings can be attributed to the last period of Mantegna’s painting activity.

Therefore, with the purpose to complement the historical studies with the results of scientific examinations, the two paintings have been analysed in situ with the use of non-invasive portable analytical techniques, such as digital multi spectral scanner imaging system and X-Ray Fluorescence.

Methodologies and equipment

The scientific examination allows to evaluate the state of conservation, study applied artistic technique, distinguish and locate past restoration interventions and analyze colour and pigments. This has been particularly done by complementing the chemical information gathered through the use of XRF with the false-colour IR technique.

Results

The first analytical results seem to confirm that both canvas paintings have been prepared in the usual way with layers of gesso; the contemporary presence of elements such as Fe, Si, Mn and Al can be associated with the use of umber mixed with red ochre pigments.

Mantegna was a supremely confident draughtsman and there is no evidence in his underdrawings of the use of any aids for the reproductions of cartoons or the enlargements of studies on paper. Instead, he seems to have drawn directly on the gesso making his first marks with a brush and very diluted carbon black ink, perhaps guided by a smaller scale sketch on paper.

Once the placement of the main features was settled, Mantegna developed the underdrawing using a darker more pigmented liquid material still applied with a brush and contours were defined with broad, thick and fluent lines which have been also painted at sight.

The modelling of forms has been achieved at the level of painted surfaces which seems to be a further indication of Mantegna’s late painting production. All these features seem to be present in both paintings.

Particular attention was paid to the understanding of the material composition of the flesh paints. In fact, even though their composition resulted to be composed of lead white with different proportions of vermilion, they show different flesh tonalities such as the case of St Joseph and Zacharias and Christ and St John in The Families of Christ and St John the Baptist (under the name of Holy Family).

To this regard the presence of possible pigment deterioration processes which may have taken place in the past is proposed.