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Louvre Unveils Restoration of Colossal Venetian Masterpiece

December 1, 1992

PARIS (AP) _ A colossal banquet scene by Venetian master Veronese has returned to public view at the Louvre after a near-fatal crash that sliced the canvas in five places.

But some prominent French artists are crying foul, saying the three-year restoration that removed centuries of patina and grit altered the work’s character and may have changed some of the original colors.

″The Marriage at Cana,″ the largest Renaissance painting in France, has been put on display until March 29 along with 15 other Veronese works from the museum’s permanent collection.

Completed in a record 15 months’ time in 1563 to decorate an entire wall of a Benedictine monastery in Venice, the giant painting - 22 feet by 32 feet - depicts the biblical repast at Cana where Jesus Christ miraculously transformed water into wine.

The painting has been hailed as the first banquet scene of modern times and considered a masterpiece because of its spectacularly symmetrical architecture, perspective and attention to detail.

However, the meticulous cleaning job, which has laid bare magnificent hues of red, blue, green and gold, has drawn fire from art purists who contend it has destroyed the work’s ambiance and fundamental character.

A group of 160 artists calling themselves the Association to Protect the Integrity of Artistic Heritage, headed by the respected artist Jean Bazaine, published a statement accusing the Louvre of violating the painting’s integrity.

A similar controversy erupted during the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Yet, curators, critics and art historians have argued convincingly that the cleaning has breathed new life into the work.

″I think that viewers will now be able to appreciate Veronese’s painterly skills as well as the work’s complexity,″ said Pierre Schneider, art critic for the weekly news magazine l’Express.

A team of restorers wielding cotton swabs and experimenting with special solvents removed countless layers of grime, dust and varnish that had accumulated on the surface of the canvas over the centuries turning bright reds, greens and golds into a gloomy study in dark yellow and faded browns.

Visitors need just turn their heads to see the toll that time takes on fragile art. Several of the other Veroneses on show have not been restored.

The restored work is breathtaking. For example, the sumptuous patterns of the silk and brocade fabrics are clearly visible, as are the musical instruments, eating utensils, dishes, food on the table.

″This isn’t a restoration, it’s a veritable resurrection,″ said Nathalie Volle, the chief curator who oversaw the project. ″The main discovery was that the work was a veritable symphony of colors.″

Volle told reporters that the most dramatic change in the painting involved a large male figure standing in the forefront and wearing a turban.

″For centuries, this figure was dressed in a reddish-brown robe that turned out be green once the top layers of paint and varnish had been removed,″ Volle said.

A hazy, brooding sky turned into the lapis lazuli blue of a clear summer day.

Also on show - on the opposite side of the Salle des Etats where the restored work is on show - is a life-size X-ray of the painting.

The X-ray tells the story of the tempestuous history of ″The Marriage at Cana.″ First, there are dozens of holes from the wooden nails which attached the mural to the abbey wall until Napoleon’s soldiers tore it down to bring back to France as war booty.

The X-ray also reveals some of the work’s long-hidden secrets. One stiff figure dressed in black turned out to have been created on paper and then glued onto the canvas. The X-ray, however, was taken before the painting’s most recent brush with destruction.

Last June, as workers checked its wall anchorings, a specially-built tower supporting the painting jiggled, sending a powerful ripple through the two-ton canvas which then crashed to the floor.

″I wasn’t there when it happened, but when I arrived 20 minutes later, everyone was in tears,″ recalled Pierre Rosenberg, head painting curator of the Louvre.

″It was a very emotional and dramatic moment. Fortunately, the damage turned out to be minor. But because the canvas was wrapped in protective gauze, we wouldn’t find out until a few days later.″

Rosenberg said the canvas was pierced in five places - in the columns and balustrade - which meant repairs were relatively easy.

″Surface abrasions are far more serious,″ Rosenberg said. ″But we were very lucky. There was no damage to any of the figures.″

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