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July 22, 1998
A woman sits -- hair falling down her back, white shoulders bared -- at the bottom of Last Judgment (c. 1505), a Renaissance painting by Jan Provoost. A close-up photograph of her bare torso exposes the faint tracings of a lock of hair falling forward over her shoulder -- evidence of the artist's earlier intentions. Moving in even closer, a "microphotograph" reveals the precise brushstrokes. These images, along with other examples of digital-imaging techniques, are featured in Investigating the Renaissance, an interactive online exhibit demonstrating the technologies used by art conservationists and historians.
Created by curators from Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, Investigating the Renaissance is a thoroughly informative introduction to the latest technology used by art scholars. Digital imaging has enabled scholars to figure out, for example, the types of paint an artist used, the years a painting was started and finished, and whether a work is a copy or an original. The uses of infrared reflectography, X-radiography, and ultraviolet light, as applied to three early Netherlandish paintings, are neatly demonstrated on the site through high-resolution images and Shockwave Plug-ins. The rich, dark-colored (and anonymous) Portrait of a Man,for instance, can be reduced by a series of mouse clicks down to its black-and-white "underdrawing" -- the foundation many artists of the period sketched and then painted over. This technique has enabled scholars to determine which period and school the artist belonged to.
Many of the details about the histories of works of art used to be shrouded in mystery. But armed with the sorts of sleuthing tools featured in Investigating the Renaissance, art scholars are now able to ferret out all sorts of heretofore inaccessible information. Artists, as it turns out, are going to find it ever more difficult to hide their mistakes and bury their secrets.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.