November 18, 2005
LOS ANGELES—A new exhibition documents the investigation of a finely crafted French cabinet in the Getty’s collection to unlock the mysteries of its origins. With the help of modern science and research, Getty experts have discovered that the cabinet, made in 1580, is one of the rarest and most important pieces of French Renaissance furniture in the United States. A Renaissance Cabinet Rediscovered, opening at the Getty Center on November 22, 2005, offers a behind-the-scenes look at how curators, conservators, and scientists collaborate to learn about art. This exhibition presents the Getty Museum’s rediscovered cabinet to the public for the first time.
The cabinet in question had been the object of debate for decades. Most scholars believed that the piece, made in a style current in 16th-century France, was actually a 19th-century fake. With lingering questions about its origins, the cabinet was never put on view. In 2001, a French exhibition shed fresh light on this type of work, prompting Getty staff to re-examine the cabinet. A Renaissance Cabinet Rediscovered presents the results of scientific and visual analyses of the object, studies of related materials, archival research, and other evidence that have led to the cabinet’s authentication. It is a story of how new information, careful research, and evolving analytic processes can alter our understanding of the art of past centuries.
The Getty’s cabinet aroused suspicion in part because of its excellent condition. Few cabinets from the Renaissance have survived with so little wear and tear. Furthermore, the piece was covered with a layer of pigmented wax to give the surface a unified appearance—a practice commonly used to make newer pieces appear old—leading experts to believe that the cabinet was made in the late 19th century, when Renaissance items were popular with wealthy American industrial magnates. The reproductions were so well made by skilled craftsmen that they were difficult to distinguish from originals before the availability of today’s scientific dating methods.
A Renaissance Cabinet Rediscovered explains the various techniques used by the Getty team, including dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, which looks at the pattern of growth rings in a tree and compares them to examples from different regions and periods, and carbon 14 dating, which measures the relative amounts of different isotopes of carbon present in the wood to determine its age. Testing numerous samples from the oak and walnut sections of the cabinet, the Getty team determined that the oak used came from a tree that was cut down either in the fall or winter of 1574–75 in the Burgundy region of France, while the walnut wood dated from between 1400 and 1600 and likely to be original. Carbon 14 dating was also used to analyze tiny clippings of the green silk and linen fabric lining the middle drawer with similar results.
With a solid foundation of scientifically corroborated evidence, the Getty team conducted a careful examination of the piece, looking at marks left by tools used on the cabinet. Among other findings, they learned that the oak and walnut portions of the cabinet bore identical distinctive "bench dog" marks left by spiked clamps used to secure the wood during production. This proved that the entire cabinet was made on the same workbench, further supporting its authenticity.
Combining their expertise, each member of the team became an investigator, posing difficult questions and offering ways to answer them via scientific means or through art-historical research. This collaborative effort between the Getty’s curators, researchers, and scientists allowed them to piece together crucial information and evidence for a fuller picture of the cabinet’s past.
While the study of the cabinet is far from over, the results gathered so far will serve as the basis for future explorations of this rediscovered masterpiece. Among the questions still to be answered are: who made the cabinet? Who commissioned it? And who owned it over the years?
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Getty Communications Department
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