In 2003 the Getty Museum acquired Titian’s 1533 portrait of the Neapolitan commander Alfonso d’Avalos, Marchese del Vasto, from a French collection, touting it as one of the most important works now housed at the Getty.
On the Getty’s website is a press release regarding the acquisition, and the institution’s planned cleaning of the portrait, which reads: Upon its arrival at the Museum, the painting will be installed in the North Pavilion until the end of February. It will then be temporarily removed from public view for study and minor conservation. Despite its age, the picture survives in remarkable condition. After cleaning and revarnishing by the Getty’s expert staff of paintings conservators, the painting will be placed on permanent display.
Besides the troubling comment regarding the planned restoration despite its “remarkable condition” and the plans to revarnish the work, there is also a history of the Getty’s treatment of objects to be considered. The two other Titian paintings owned by the Getty (Venus and Adonis, restored 1995; and Penitent Magdalene) reveal heavy workshop participation, and hence are not particularly helpful in terms of a comparison with the Alfonso portrait. The Getty’s conservation institute has, however, participated in the restoration of other Titians and Venetian Renaissance paintings. As part of their “Conservation Partnerships” program, the Getty restores works from other museums in exchange for the opportunity to exhibit them upon their completion, with the lending institution only responsible for shipping and insurance costs. The results of the previous restorations carried out by the Getty have been disastrous. A before and after image of Titian’s Portrait of Cristoforo Madruzzo (Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil) reveal a flattening of form and loss of the artist’s subtle modeling [see photo gallery for images]. An earlier Venetian painting, Giorgione’s Portrait of a Man from the San Diego Museum of Art was similarly restored by the Conservation Institute, the results of which can be viewed on the San Diego Museum’s website, which is linked below.
Given the visual evidence regarding the Getty’s previous efforts, and the outright acknowledgment of the fine state of the work, the only justifications for the restoration of Titian’s Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos are those that the Getty uses to promote its conservation program: Restorations are often associated with “exhibitions or lead to publications of important new findings in exhibition catalogues and scholarly journals”. Thus, interventions are undertaken purely as a matter of “scientific” discovery and to promote the public relations and academic pursuits of the institution, and not because of any necessity evidenced by the state of the work. Titian’s portrait should be spared the Getty’s harmful policy of restoration for restoration’s sake.