Feast of the Gods
Chemical and instrumental analysis revealed the rich story behind the painting, The Feast of the Gods.
The Italian Renaissance painting, The Feast of the Gods, which now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., was originally commissioned from Giovanni Bellini in 1512 by the Duke of Ferrara. Subsequent redecorating schemes or the addition of other paintings to the room where Bellini’s piece hung prompted the Duke to request that the painting be revised not once, but twice, first by Dosso Dossi and later by Titian. Through extensive scientific analysis, different parts of the final painting have been attributed to the various artists and reasonable reconstructions of each version have been established. Thus, The Feast of the Gods is an outstanding illustration of how chemistry has played an important role in understanding art history.
Art historians have been able to use two non-destructive instrumental methods to view the various layers of the painting. X-ray photography may be used to see completely through a painting. Interestingly, many Renaissance painters used lead white paint and vermillion containing mercury, and since X-ray radiation is scattered most effectively by such heavy elements, this process proves to be very effective in analyzing such early paintings.
In contrast, infrared radiation (IR) penetrates approximately halfway through the painting since some pigments are transparent to infrared and some are not. When there is a disparity among the visible surface of the painting, the X-ray, and the infrared images, there must be multiple layers of paint present.
Techniques that in any way cause damage to the painting, no matter how minor, are used sparingly, but they too, contribute to tracing the contributions of the various artists. In locations where a crack in the paint layer exists, tiny scalpels are used to remove tiny samples of paint, which are then viewed under a microscope. Thus a sample from a crack in one location may reveal a blue ultramarine sky painted by Titian overtop a blue azurite sky painted by Dossi over green foliage from Bellini over the lead white ground used to prepare the original canvas.
These analytical methods have resulted in a clear understanding of which parts of the final painting may be attributed to each artist and what the image probably looked like at each step in its creation. To view and compare The Feast of the Gods with its X-ray and IR images and view the reconstructed phases go to: http://www.webexhibits.org/feast/