Exposition : « Flora by Francesco Melzi. Conservation Completed », Hermitage Museum, Saint-Pétersbourg, jusqu’au 31 mars 2019
From 17 February 2019, following the completion of restoration work, the painting of Flora by Francesco Melzi (1493–1570) will be on display in the Apollo Hall of the Winter Palace.
The Hermitage’s Flora was acquired in 1850 from the collection of King William II of the Netherlands as a work by Leonardo da Vinci, an attribution that had endured until the middle of the 19th century. Later it was ascribed to several pupils of the great master – Bernardino Lunni Giampietrino and Andrea Solario, before finally Andrei Ivanovich Somov included it in the 1899 catalogue of the museum as the work of Francesco Melzi. In it Melzi depicted Flora, the goddess of springtime flowering and patroness of plants, an image popular in Greco-Roman Antiquity, from where it was enthusiastically adopted by Renaissance artists. In classical mythology Flora was the wife of Zephyr, the god of the west wind, and the mother of all plants, a giver of life and nourishment. The stones of the mysterious grotto in which the artist has placed her are covered with plants and flowers. Flora has gracefully turned head to examine an aquilegia, while jasmine and anemones can be seen in the folds of her cloak. All these plants have a symbolic meaning: the name anemone comes from the Greek for “the wind”, aquilegia is associated with fertility, while jasmine represents purity.
Francesco uses a female type that was characteristic of Da Vinci’s Milanese period: a soft shape of face with regular features, a high clear forehead, evenly arched eyebrows and a downcast gaze. The distinctive, barely detectable “Leonardo smile” plays on Flora’s lips. The delicate fabric of the dress, contrasting with the heavy cloak that is thrown over her left shoulder and conceals the lower part of her body, leaves her left breast bare. This is precisely the way that Flora was depicted in Antiquity, symbolizing the goddess’s maternal character (as Mater Florium). This work was made in the finest traditions of the school of Leonardo da Vinci – soft translucent chiaroscuro modelling volume and an exquisitely restrained treatment of colour. The composition as a whole, as well as its individual parts, is marked by an aristocratic elegance.
The restoration was preceded by a technical and technological examination of the materials and technique used to create the painting. In modern restoration practice a scientific approach to cleaning works of art is assisted by a wide range of physical and chemical analyses intended to provide the restorer with the fullest possible information about the state of preservation as well as the technical peculiarities and structure of the painting, to caution against hasty conclusions and help in the choice of sensitive procedures that have a minimal impact on the work. The technical state of the work prior to restoration was not a cause for concern, while the artist’s original painting with its richness of colour was, as a result of repeated renovation, concealed beneath a thick layer of varnishes of various dates that had heavily yellowed and in places turned opaque. This distorted the impression of the colour scheme and disrupted the chromatic harmony of the composition. Old restoration retouching in damaged areas had darkened considerably. The background details were practically indistinguishable. Flora’s cloak appeared to be a flat patch of a local blue-green colour. Despite Melzi’s work having been transferred from the original wooden panel to canvas back in the 19th century, the removal of later accretions revealed the artist’s original brushwork to be well preserved with only minor losses and abrasions.
After the removal of yellowed varnish that distorted the whole colour scheme, a very different, colder overall tone was revealed. Before the restoration, the background appeared to by a single surface; afterwards it had acquired depth and the stone slabs of the grotto became visible. The ivy acquired a particular charm thanks to the fanciful play of light and shade on its leaves. The flowers lying in Flora’s lap could be perceived more distinctly. The restoration of the picture also made it possible to bring out the natural intensity of the pure aquamarine with which Flora’s cloak was painted. Francesco Melzi was a wealthy man and could allow himself the luxury of making generous use of that expensive pigment. (Traditionally, for reasons of economy, pure aquamarine was applied in fine finishing layers over preliminary coats of azurite, a cheaper blue paint.)
The curator is Tatyana Kirillovna Kustodieva, Candidate of Art Studies, leading researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art.
The restoration of the painting was carried out by Maria Viacheslavovna Shulepova, an artist-restorer of the first category in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Paining in the State Hermitage’s Department for Scientific Restoration and Conservation.