'If Michelangelo can afford a wash and brush up, we're going to do the same for Rembrandt.'
While the conservation scientists concentrate on David, the museum cleaners decide Rembrandt deserves
equally a spit-and-polish.
The cleaning of Michelangelo David in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence was the subject of great
international interest. It is now the fashion that the conservation of high-profile art is carried by white-coated
experts, behind a protective screen, in full view of spectators. Blinding by science ensures that the public,
the art community and academia are reluctant to questions the conservation methods used and the final
appearance of the work of art.
The history of fine-arts conservation, in particular, paintings, has been controversial. In the first half of the
20th century ‘picture cleaning’ as it was then known, used techniques that had remained largely unaltered
from the eighteenth century. Removing an old blackened varnish from the surface of the painting involved
materials such as Spirits of Salt (Hydrochloric acid in a water solution) to black soap applied with a stiff
brush. In order to remove the most obstreperous varnish, it was a practice, up until at least the 1930s, to
flood the picture surface with alcohol and set it alight. This, apparently, weakened the varnish layer to allow
its removal: what one might call a masterpiece flambé.
In the watercolour, the technician dedicated to the conservation of Rembrandt’s Andromeda is, obviously, a
believer in these more traditional cleaning methods. The original painting, in the Hague Mauritshuis, a work
of about 1629 (and which is little more than 34 x 25 cm.) takes up the greater part of the foreground wall in
the present painting.