The story starts at the Bergen Art Museum in Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. The head conservator, Yngve Magnusson, found a copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna in the museum's storage room.
This was no surprise; the work of Raphael (1483–1520) has long been copied by painters. This one was attributed to the 18th-century German painter Anton Mengs. However, when museum officials looked more closely, they wondered whether the work might be from an earlier time, perhaps even as early as the 16th century. A number of clues pointed to the possibility. For instance, a patch on the left side of the painting may indicate that the work had been restored. But it may also reveal that the painting was made during a time when people painted on scraps of canvas.
So what did Magnusson do? He called Pratt, where chemistry Professor Eleonora Del Federico oversees a lab dedicated to investigating scientific questions in art. The painting is now at Pratt, where Del Federico and a post-doctoral fellow are studying the painting.
Del Federico and her team will analyze the painting, then share their evidence with other art historians, conservators, and curators. Within the next year, all these experts should have a clearer understanding of when this painting was created.
The Pratt Institute Mobile Laboratory for the Scientific Study of Art is funded by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Text and Production: Abigail Beshkin
Video and Production: Jonathan Weitz