A prodigal Titian returns home

The Prado presents the miraculous restoration of a recently discovered painting of ‘Saint John the Baptist’ by the Venetian master

Titian's John the Baptist on display at the Prado after four years of restoration.
Titian's John the Baptist on display at the Prado after four years of restoration.CARLOS ROSILLO (EL PAÍS)

Prado Museum restorer Clara Quintanilla has the rare gift of being able to work pictorial miracles. Proof of it was on display at the Madrid gallery this week as it unveiled a recently discovered painting by Titian of Saint John the Baptist. You only have to compare how the work arrived in the restoration workshop and how it now shines, proudly recovered, in the museum as the central piece of an exhibition that brings together the 16th-century Venetian artist’s two other known paintings of the saint.

These works — a muscular and philosophical looking Saint John painted around 1530 to 1532 from the Gallerie dell’Accademia’s collection in Venice and a later work from between 1565 and 1570 that belongs to the El Escorial monastery outside Madrid, showing the saint reduced to his trembling essence — are accompanied by a photograph showing the original state of the now-restored painting, which dates from 1555.

After suffering years of neglect, wars and horrific attempts at restoration while in the parish church of Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cantoria, Almería province, it was little more than a dark stain, full of blisters and cracks.

The display, which also features several X-rays of the works made by the museum’s technical documentation department, offers an unbeatable glimpse into the work and motivations of the great painter — one of the most in-demand artists of his age — and his workshop, showing how he could vary the same subject over the years to create something radically new.

The exhibition also gives a brief account of the painting’s many ups and downs, which could fill a book. When Miguel Falomir, head of Italian and French painting up to 1700 at the Prado and a major expert on the Venetian School, requested it for study in October 2007, the canvas was categorized as the work of an “anonymous 17th-century Madrileño” and formed part of what is known as the dispersed Prado — a group of 3,100 works sent out to all four corners of Spain when the collection became ungovernable after the annexation of the Museo de la Trinidad’s holdings in 1872.

“In the best-case scenario, we thought we were standing in front of a copy of a lost original,” says Falomir. As a tremendously successful painter, Titian had the habit of making a replica of each new work, knowing that sooner or later his clients, who were constantly competing among themselves, would demand one.

The first X-rays and infra-red reflectograms — another technique for seeing through layers of paint on a canvas — made of the painting revealed corrections to the composition, a sure-fire sign it was an original. No artist copying the image would be interested in recreating its hesitant first strokes.

And in this case, it was an enormously successful original, going by the numerous copies of it that exist and have continued to appear since the discovery, and perhaps because of it.

The first traces of the painting are to be found in Zaragoza, home of the man believed to be its first owner, Martín de Gurrea y Aragón, 4th Duke of Villahermosa (1526-1581). Falomir and his colleagues’ journey to turn “the painting that arrived at the museum in worse condition than any other in its history” into a key work of the Prado’s world-beating Titian collection, which comprises 37 or 38 pieces, involves no small amount of detective work, as well as a sustained and patient restoration process.

It is known the painting was in Madrid at the turn of the 1600s and that it ended the century donated to the San Pascual Baylón convent of the Barefoot Franciscans in Madrid. Even then it was described as a “very dark” canvas.

From there it passed into the holdings of the Museo de la Trinidad and when these were merged with those of the Prado, it left for Cantoria with five other paintings, four of which were destroyed in the Civil War. A lot of damage from those times remain on the work, above all on its darkest areas.

Perhaps too many. Despite all Quintanilla’s efforts, which were funded by the Iberdrola Foundation, Falomir acknowledges the painting is more of documentary than esthetic value, showing the path between the Venice John the Baptist painting and the El Escorial one. It is, nevertheless, a miraculous find.

After the exhibition and a visit to Venice to be shown in the Accademia, the prodigal work will return the Prado’s Titian rooms as testament to its amazing rebirth.

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