National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
August 25-26, 2021
National Gallery of Art
Dave and EMac loaded cameras and suitcases into my car at 4:00 pm on Wednesday, August 25 and then debated the merits of Kanye West and Alt-Country Music for most of the three-hour drive to Washington, D.C. We arrived at the Holiday Inn on C Street, checked in, and then went our separate ways for dinner (I got to see Emily Zavrel and my son, Miles Bent, a FLAW alumnus from 2017) before turning in for the night. We met in the lobby the next morning at 7:00 am, wolfed down a mediocre breakfast at the adjacent Starbucks, and drove the four blocks to Constitution Avenue where, just like you see in the movies, we found a parking spot literally in front of the exact place we wanted to go: the National Gallery’s staff entrance.
We were met there by the NGA’s Isabella Bulkeley and, a little later, by David Essex, who made sure we had the ladders we needed to photograph works from above – no easy task given the size of some of the paintings in the museum’s Italian wing. After struggling to find the proper camera settings in the subtly lit galleries, the three of us moved quickly to photograph 18 objects in only 75 minutes. Our main target was the altarpiece of the Madonna and Child by Agnolo Gaddi that has been connected to the creation and decoration of the sacristy of S. Miniato al Monte, a church I scanned with the help of my daughter, Catalena Bent, in 2018. But the museum’s rich collections include other important paintings and sculptures that we were able to capture, including a panel of the Madonna by Giotto, a large effigy of St. Paul that was surely produced for a Florentine confraternity, and predella panels by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Domenico Veneziano, and Gentile da Fabriano. The busts of Giuliano and Lorenzo (il Magnifico) de’ Medici were also rendered, as was a relief from the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio that some – not me, though – have attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The exposure settings for the paintings were quite dark, but the magic of photoshop permitted us to enhance them enough to make them legible in our models.
Fortunately, there were no odd/dangerous/frightening anecdotes that demand description here. We moved quickly and effectively through the six rooms we targeted and were able to finish our work – and exit the building – well before the doors of the National Gallery officially opened to the public at 10 am. We were back in Lexington before 2:00 pm, but not before EMac’s embarrassingly scant appreciation of Hollywood Musicals was exposed in horrifying ways (she is now obligated to watch West Side Story, just as soon as I finish my obligatory listening of three Kanye West songs of her choosing). Long car rides reveal dirty little secrets.
Now we move ahead with the modeling of the NGA’s works. EMac began the process by working on Giotto’s Madonna, and the others will be created one at a time in the coming days/weeks. As it can take some time for the Agisoft program to sift through images and connect individual photographs together, we do not anticipate completing these models for some time. But preliminary indications suggest that these will be excellent renderings and will fit nicely into our project. I’m eager to find a way to stitch the narrative scenes of Domenico Veneziano’s predella panels into a larger version of the St. Lucy Altarpiece (ca. 1445) from which they were taken: if we can do this effectively, we will have a new and important process by which specialists, students, and admirers can reconsider the original appearance of art works that have been dismantled over time for various reasons (some of which, let’s face it, were not terribly ethical).
We’ve learned this month that one person, when equipped with the proper camera and with enough light to photograph an object from multiple angles, can capture five objects in one hour’s time. As we look forward to a time when our team may descend upon a single museum as a group to photograph art works, we will be able to estimate with some accuracy the amount of time we need to completely document an entire collection. With two Florentine museums having granted us (tentatively) access to their gallery spaces, we believe we can photograph and model scores of art works in a relatively short amount of time.
Come back to this blog in February and March of 2022 to see if we managed to make that magic happen.