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Revealed: how altarpiece broke in disastrous fall at London's National Gallery

Recently published records show that 14th-century work suffered serious damage in 1989

The Art Newspaper has learned that a 14th-century Italian altarpiece from the National Gallery in London fell and broke in two in 1989. According to recently published trustees’ minutes from the time, the gallery’s then-director, Neil MacGregor, told the board that it was “probably the most serious non-malicious damage in the gallery’s history, [and] particularly regrettable as the altarpiece had one of the very few original 14th-century frames surviving”.

At the time of the incident, The Crucifixion (1369-70) by Jacopo di Cione (in the 1980s, the painting was thought to be by his brother, the painter Orcagna) had been left on an easel overnight in the photographic studio, where it was being shot for the gallery’s exhibition Italian Painting before 1400, which opened in November 1989. It was left there because there was a shortage of handling staff. The piece fell off the easel and hit a camera on a tripod during the night or early morning of 28 to 29 May 1989. The work is composed of three poplar boards (1.5m high), and the left one broke off. The delicately carved and gilded upper canopy was also badly damaged at the top.

Fragile—and fractured The incident was reported to the gallery’s trustees the following month. The minutes state: “The reasons why the painting had fallen off the easel had now been established. No one had been at fault, but the extent of internal picture movement [within the galleries]—more than at any time since the [Second World] War—had been a contributory factor… the decision to clamp the picture sideways on the easel could be seen to have been mistaken. It had been taken without reference to the most senior conservation staff, but such reference was not required… no one had appreciated just how fragile the canopy [of the altarpiece] was—a whole box of woodworm dust had been collected, and it appeared that in some areas, only gesso and gilding were holding it together.”

The subsequent conservation treatment involved glueing the detached left board and infilling the losses. The canopy was consolidated with acrylic resin. A marine-ply panel was then added to the back, to take the weight off the top of the frame.

In publicity terms, the museum released misleading information. The damage was reported in its monthly bulletin in October 1989, but worded so that outsiders would not realise that there had been a disastrous accident.

The bulletin reported: “Over the centuries, the canopies above the central panel had become so eroded by woodworm that they were unfortunately damaged during the process of examination… the woodworm damage probably happened over many decades during an infestation of the sacristy or oratory in Tuscany, where the altarpiece was sited in its early history.” There was no mention that it had fallen and broken in two.

The altarpiece was quickly conserved so that the work could be included in the Italian paintings show. Although it dealt with technical and conservation issues, the detailed 16-page entry in the exhibition catalogue merely repeated the brief comment about accidental damage to the canopy.

The entry in the gallery’s definitive Italian Paintings before 1400 catalogue, published in 2011, provides even less information. The accident is not mentioned in the section about “panel structure and condition”, other than a reference to “significant worm damage and some splits” that happened during its 640-year history.

A gallery spokeswoman tells us that the panel has been rejoined “and the few small flakes of original paint which were detached were replaced”. She adds: “An internal report undertaken at the time found no fault with staff decision-making, but that factors such as the unappreciated extent of fragility of the work, a design issue with the easel and an unusually high volume of picture movement led to the incident.” She says that “demonstrable lessons were learned regarding protocols, training and use of equipment”.

Another altarpiece accident Nearly 20 years after the Jacopo incident, another early Italian altarpiece fell to the floor at the National Gallery and broke in two. As we revealed in 2008, Domenico Beccafumi’s Maria (around 1519) had been on display in the 2007-08 exhibition Renaissance Siena, but fell out of its temporary frame while it was being taken down. This painting, too, was composed of three planks of wood, and again, the left one broke off. The accident was partly due to the fact that the handlers had not been properly informed that the case in which the panel was displayed was essentially a visual device, and that the unframed panel was not securely affixed to it. The painting was conserved and put back on display. M.B.