In 1912 Henry Walters bought a huge altarpiece by the Italian Renaissance artist Michele Coltellini signed and dated 1506 (http://art.thewalters.org/viewwoa.aspx?id=1627). But because it was so grimy, so difficult to see and admire, it remained on a rack in deep storage for decades.
For two full years, between 2003 and 2005, Coltellini’s dirty altarpiece was the sole project of a single Walters conservator named Gillian Cook.
As the cleaning unfolded it became increasingly clear that despite the layers of dirt, there was something very exciting and wonderful beneath. For unlike nearly all paintings of this scale from the Italian Renaissance, our Coltellini, in its entire 500-year history, had never before been cleaned! Which means that beneath the grime the painting was pristine.
Gradually, through the meticulous work of our conservator and with the aid of thousands of saliva-empowered Q-Tips a cleaners, a gem of a Renaissance painting began to appear. One which, like very few others, still retained those translucent top glazes of paint that allow light to travel into and come back out of the work. And by which, the colors are made to glow.
Come and see for yourself, for we have given Coltellini’s great altarpiece, “The Madonna and Child Surrounded by Saints,” pride of place at the center of the east wall in our Early Renaissance Gallery.