Technology Helps Humans Work Miracles on a Renaissance Treasure (Wash DC)

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"Madonna and Child With Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Sigismund" arrived at the National Gallery of Art conservation lab 18 months ago with standard symptoms: darkened skin, lost pigment and damaged gilding. Most 500-year-olds suffer such complaints, so senior conservator Carol Christensen wasn't alarmed.

Taking the patient's history proved a greater challenge. The Renaissance altarpiece doesn't turn up in the record books until about 1850, at a church in suburban Siena, Italy. Before that, total amnesia: No one knows who commissioned Sienese artist Neroccio de' Landi to paint it in the late 15th century or where it first hung.

Gallery officials select 20 to 25 works from the collection annually for "major treatment" -- they say "conservation," not "restoration" -- and perhaps 50 more for minor tuneups. Neroccio's Madonna was on the major To Do list for many years, and its turn finally came after Christensen had finished working on several other Neroccios to send to an exhibition in London. It was the logical next step when she was already steeped in his work.

Last week -- after its long sojourn in the gray-walled lab where ventilation ducts snake from the ceiling and electron microscopes stand at the ready -- the panel was hung again among the West Building's Italian treasures....

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