National Gallery drops Renaissance painting, splitting it in two

The Art Newspaper can reveal that a 500-year-old panel painting by Domenico Beccafumi of Marcia was broken in half, in one of the most serious handling accidents known to have occurred in a UK museum in living memory. This happened during deinstallation of the “Renaissance Siena” exhibition, which closed on 13 January. Gallery director Dr Nicholas Penny, who took over in February, admitted that the accident was “extremely serious”.

Marcia was being removed from the wall in the Sainsbury Wing exhibition galleries when it slipped out of its temporary frame and dropped to the ground. The panel is composed of three vertical planks, each nearly one metre high, and the impact meant that the left plank broke completely away from the other two.

Although conservation at the National Gallery is normally only done after approval of the trustees, remedial work was deemed urgent, in order to avoid further damage. Chairman Peter Scott was immediately informed and gave his authorisation.

The two sections were fixed back together and loose paint was stabilised. Inevitably, there were paint losses where the planks had parted, and these appear to have extended for up to a centimetre around the area of the vertical break. This area was retouched.

The head of conservation, Martin Wyld, who was then also acting gallery director, immediately commissioned an audit report, to investigate the cause of the accident and recommend changes to guard against future incidents. The inquiry has been lengthy, but is nearing conclusion.

Although UK museums have not always been open about accidents in the past, the National Gallery is acknowledging the seriousness of what occurred. The incident was briefly reported in the minutes of the 8 February meeting of the gallery trustees, which has just been put on its website. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport was also promptly informed about the damage.

Initial indications suggest that the accident occurred partly because the art handlers involved in the deinstallation had not been properly informed that the frame in which the panel was displayed was essentially a visual device, and Marcia had not been securely affixed to it. However, the frame and fixtures should obviously still have been closely inspected before deinstallation was begun.

Marcia was restored at the end of January, with the painting going back on display where it had been before the Siena exhibition, in lower room A. The gallery claims that the repaired damage is “not visible in normal viewing conditions”. Under present lighting in the gallery, the vertical strip of damage can hardly be seen when looked at straight on, although it is just visible when the painting is viewed from the left side.

There are three Beccafumi panels of Exemplary Women (epitomising virtues), and these had originally been part of a decorative scheme for the bedchamber of Francesco Petrucci, dating from around 1519. Marcia and Tanaquil both belong to the National Gallery, and in “Renaissance Siena” they were temporarily reunited with Cornelia, on loan from the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj in Rome. The three paintings had been displayed together in a temporary modern frame.
©2008 The Art Newspaper