The Italian Almanac

Venus by Tintoretto

Italian Art - August 28

How did paintings by Tintoretto and other Venetian Renaissance artists get their special glow? Using an electron microscope, Barbara Berrie, senior conservation scientist at the National Gallery of Art, discovered one of their secrets: tiny bits of glass the artists mixed with their pigments.

“By looking beyond the limits of their usual practice and transforming materials from other trades to their painting, the great artists of the Renaissance created a palette that gave them an immediate and lasting reputation as brilliant colorists,” Berrie said.

It was long thought that Venetian painters, glass makers and ceramic designers each had their own ways of concocting paints and dyes, probably getting the ingredients through apothecaries, as in most of Europe. But Louisa Matthew, head of the Visual Arts Departments at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., found evidence that Venice developed a special market for dyes and pigments a century before other European areas did.

That possibility led to Berrie’s examination of paint samples under an electronic microscope. She discovered rounded bits of powdered glass, only thousandths of an inch thick, in two paintings by Lorenzo Lotto - one in a red gown worn by St. Catherine, another in an orange-red coat worn by Joseph in a Nativity scene. Glass was also discovered in a yellow pigment used in a Tintoretto painting of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee.