Lavinia Fontana Conservation and Research Project

Photo of a large painting in a darkened room with silhouette of figure walking in front
© Laura SheeranCredit

Shining a light on a female Renaissance artist

The National Gallery of Ireland has been awarded funding under the Bank of America Art Conservation Project 2018 to support the conservation of Lavinia Fontana's painting The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Part of the Gallery’s permanent collection, this is the largest-known painting by one of the most renowned woman artists of the Renaissance.

This generous funding has made it possible to carry out a comprehensive conservation treatment, allowing us to address structural issues as well as aesthetic ones. The painting will return to a state much more harmonious with the artist’s original intention, and it will be protected for generations to come. Technical and scientific examination and study has been completed, and now the practical treatment plan is underway.

A mini low-pressure plate
Application of a supportive canvas insert

Project update

Read on for an update on the work carried out to date.

First steps: secure and stabilise

The first steps were to secure and stabilize areas of loose and fragile paint and canvas, and to address the underlying causes of instability.

The canvas and paint layers were consolidated with the aid of a mini low-pressure plate (above left ). A large area of historic damage covered the entire lower edge of the painting. This was addressed by replacing the insufficient repairs with a fully supported canvas insert (above right ).

Yellowed varnish being removed using cotton swabs
Areas of discoloured varnish removed from the painting

Removing yellowed varnish layers

The upper layers of varnishes, originally applied in the 1960s and now yellowed, were carefully removed over several months using a mixture of solvents specially formulated for the painting. This solvent mixture was carefully applied with cotton swabs (above left ). 

The removal of these discoloured layers revealed the hidden brightness and vibrancy in the original paint (above right ). A dramatic difference is now apparent in the saturation and legibility of the darker colours in the painting.

Two conservators applying isolating layer of varnish to the painting

Old retouchings and an isolating layer of varnish

We assessed areas of retouching that were applied during historic restoration campaigns to conceal old losses. Where it was found to be covering original paint, or distracting to the viewer, it was removed. The retouchings that were stable and legible were preserved. A gesso filling material was applied to bring the areas of paint loss into plane with the surface of the painting and to provide a stable base for the new retouchings.

Once the aged coatings were removed, an isolating layer of varnish was applied across the surface (above). All of the varnishes and retouching media that we use during the treatment will be applied over this removable layer. Conservators follow the principle of minimal intervention for practical treatments, using materials that are reversible and have known aging, stability and solubility properties. This should help to reduce the frequency and risks of future treatments.

A detail of a conservator's hand with a brush, working on adjusting old discoloured retouchings on Lavinia Fontana's The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
A close up shot of a hand holding a small brush and working on retouching old losses and damages on the canvas.

New programme of retouching

We have now begun a programme of retouching in order to re-integrate areas of loss and damage in the paint layer and allow the painting to be viewed as a whole.

This is a painstaking process involving the application of retouching colours using tiny dots and lines (above). The process will take several months to complete.

Funding for the conservation of this artwork was generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Bank of America logo

Project videos

Video 1: Introducing the Lavinia Fontana Conservation and Research Project

Watch the Gallery team de-install Lavinia Fontana's painting and bring it behind the scenes to the conservation studio. We are also joined by Rena De Sisto, Global Arts and Culture Executive, Bank of America, discussing the funding opportunities provided by the Bank, and why this painting was chosen as a grant recipient.


Lavinia Fontana Conservation and Research Project

Introducing the project



Video 2: Who was Lavinia Fontana?

Dr Aoife Brady, Curator of Italian and Spanish Art, provides some insights into the life of this pioneering artist.


Lavinia Fontana Conservation and Research Project

Who was Lavinia Fontana?



Video 3: The story behind the painting

Dr Aoife Brady, Curator of Italian and Spanish Art, takes a closer look at Fontana's monumental painting.

Lavinia Fontana Conservation and Research Project

The story behind the painting



Video 4: Discovering the hidden details

Maria Canavan, Paintings Conservator, discusses the hidden details of the painting revealed during technical examination.

Lavinia Fontana Conservation and Research Project

Discovering the hidden details


Further information

Find out more about Lavinia Fontana's painting, and other projects carried out by the Gallery's conservation team.

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