At the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg a unique painting was acquired that was a cast off from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time it was deaccessioned from the Met it was thought to be a Victorian interpretation of a Renaissance painting. The subject of the painting is Isabella de’Medici, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and part of the Medici dynasty that produced 4 popes and 2 queens of France. Over the years the oil painting sustained damage that needed to be repaired, but in the course of examining the work it was found that the painting had a secret.
During the course of restoration a secret under painting was discovered. The top layer was simply a Victorian interpretation of Isabella and was covering up a much older painting. This under layer is now believed to have been created in the 1570s. The label on the back indicated that at some point the work was believed to have been painted by Bronzino (AKA Agnolo di Cosimo), but is now thought to have been painted by Alessandro Allori or at least one of his circle. The confusion over the artist may have been a factor in why the painting was passed over by the Met.
The Victorian layer made over Isabella’s face, made her hand suitably small for the era’s image of dainty women, and removed an urn from her hand. But, this wasn’t the first time Isabella had been silenced. It is widely believe that she was murdered by her husband after her affair with his cousin became known, possibly with the complicity of Isabella’s own brother. Isabella was 34-years-old when she died in 1576, meaning that the painting was most likely created during her lifetime.
It’s interesting to note that Isabella was renowned for her handsome appearance, yet the original painting shows a more realistic view of her, red cheeks, high forehead, and all. Clearly the Victorians sought to align the painting more closely with their interpretation of a great beauty.
Art conservator, Ellen Baxter, explains what it takes to repair a painting like this, as well details the history of the woman and the painting, in the video below.