On a recent morning inside the Harvard Art Museums’ Somerville workrooms, Danielle Carrabino, the Cunningham Curatorial Research Associate in the Division of European and American Art, saw lessons she has taught come to life right before her eyes. Project conservator Allison Jackson was gilding a large wooden frame for Paolo Finoglia’s baroque painting Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (c. 1640), using techniques straight out of the Renaissance, if not earlier.
Dipping a small paintbrush into clear “gilding liquor,” Jackson explained that the mixture contained water, alcohol, and rabbit-skin glue. She applied it to a few inches of the frame. Then, as we’ve seen her do before, she ran a wide squirrel-hair brush across her cheek (to pick up natural oils) and touched the brush’s tip to the top edge of a square of thinly hammered gold leaf. This enabled her to lift and deposit the gold on the frame, where it would become affixed as it dried. Later, Jackson would gently smooth the gold using cotton, and polish it with a hooked agate burnisher.
This deliberate, painstaking work—only a few minutes in a 25-hour gilding project, and just one of the more than 125 frames that Jackson has conserved or re-created ahead of the Harvard Art Museums’ November opening—is remarkably similar to the water-gilding process that has been used for centuries. The technique was described by Italian artist Cennino Cennini in the 15th century, in his Il Libro dell’Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook).
Carrabino has examined Cennini’s work with students in classes she taught at the University of Georgia’s study abroad program in Cortona, Italy; Il Libro dell’Arte is thought of as one of the first how-to guides for art, she said. Observing Jackson, Carrabino was impressed by how relevant Cennini remains. “Not much has changed since the fifteenth century,” she said.
Carrabino had another reason to be excited: this frame was months in the making. Tom Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, and Stephan Wolohojian, the Landon and Lavinia Clay Curator of European and American Art, had originally noticed that the painting’s simple black frame didn’t really complement the work, which depicts the biblical story of Potiphar’s wife seducing Joseph. Wolohojian guided Jackson and Carrabino on the framing project, through its concept and execution phases.
Historical suitability was a primary consideration for the replacement frame. The team researched 17th-century designs, trying out samples of various shapes and sizes. They looked at a number of molding profiles proposed by Brett Stevens, a woodworker in Groton, Massachusetts, before selecting one that alternates recessed and protruding areas. The choice seemed reminiscent of architecture of the baroque period, particularly “since many baroque buildings play with light and shadow by alternating concave and convex spaces,” Carrabino said.
Stevens milled poplar wood for the frame, and the museums’ own Steve Mikulka constructed it. Jackson completed the frame, gilding it in order to play up the gold tones in the painting. “Baroque,” after all, “is about the bling,” Carrabino said. Jackson further boosted the glitz factor by alternating areas of burnished and matte gold, using two time-honored techniques: water and oil gilding.
The final product accentuates the dramatic impact of Finoglia’s painting, which already has a strong sense of theatricality from the artist’s use of chiaroscuro, or the juxtaposition of light and dark. (Finoglia was influenced in his use of this technique by Carracciolo, a follower of Caravaggio, whose 1625 The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is also in the museums’ permanent collections.)
When the Harvard Art Museums open in November, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife will hang in an arcade on the second floor. With its lustrous new frame, the painting will surely catch the eye—and pique the interest—of visitors passing through the Calderwood Courtyard below.