Room 32 – the largest and one of the most visited rooms of the National Gallery displaying 17th-century Italian paintings by artists including Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Guido Reni and Guercino – will reopen with an enriched re-hang in July 2020 after a 21-month refurbishment project as ‘The Julia and Hans Rausing Room’.
The purpose of this major renovation programme, made possible through the generous support of Julia and Hans Rausing, was to reinstate the original decorative scheme of its architect, Edward M Barry (1830–1880), as seen in Giuseppe Gabrielli's painting of 1886 (on loan from the Government Art Collection). The dark red wall cloth, ornate painted frieze and lunettes, whose designs alternate winged lions with dolphins, have all been reinstated according to the original colour scheme.
In 2017–18, a specialist conservator took approximately two hundred paint samples from the upper architectural elements, revealing the complex palette of Barry’s original decorative scheme beneath the white overpaint. At the centre of each of the 20 lunettes, the name of an artist was revealed: these are mostly Italian, though van Eyck, Holbein, Rubens and Rembrandt are also included. The decision was taken to faithfully reconstruct these lunettes: their designs were traced, cut out and painted with colours matching the original pigments. One exception is the lunette dedicated to Titian, above the south doorway, which was uncovered completely and restored. As well as reinstating the dark red cloth to the walls, the ornate painted frieze has been put back and the plaster decoration tip-gilded with 23.5 carat gold leaf.
Their dynamic compositions, dramatic lighting, vivid use of colour and intense expression of emotion are all characteristics of the Baroque.
The paintings that form part of the Italian Baroque collection have been reinstated to great effect. Their dynamic compositions, dramatic lighting, vivid use of colour and intense expression of emotion are all characteristics of the Baroque. Many of the paintings in the room were commissioned to adorn the palaces of wealthy patrons in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Naples and Genoa. One notable exception is Guido Reni’s vast altarpiece, The Adoration of the Shepherds (about 1640), which hangs as the room’s focal point in the centre. Powerfully naturalistic paintings by the revolutionary artist Caravaggio – Boy bitten by a Lizard (about 1594–5), The Supper at Emmaus (1601) and Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609–10) – hang alongside more classicising works by Guido Reni and Guercino, amongst others.
The breadth and quality of the Italian Baroque collection were greatly enhanced in 2013 by the bequest of 25 paintings from the collection of the distinguished art historian Sir Denis Mahon (1910–2011), which were presented to the National Gallery through Art Fund. In recent times significant additions have been made to the collection, namely Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615–17) in 2018 and, in January 2020, the imposing canvas of The Finding of Moses (early 1630s) by her father Orazio Gentileschi. Among the exciting new things to see are the recently conserved Lot and his Daughters (about 1615–16) by Guido Reni and Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s Portrait of Cardinal Marco Gallo, (1681–3) which has been reframed in an Italian 17th-century frame.
Letizia Treves, The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings says ‘As curator of this area, it has been thrilling to follow the refurbishment of the room and plan the redisplay of the Italian Baroque paintings. One of the most satisfying moments was hanging our recent acquisitions by Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi in their new definitive home, alongside other masterpieces from this part of the collection.’
Julia and Hans Rausing echoed Treves sentiments by saying ‘We are pleased to have been able to support the restoration of Room 32 back to its original colour schemes and thank all those involved over the past 21 months at the National Gallery. The refurbished room provides a wonderful backdrop to paintings by the foremost Italian painters of the 17th-century with improved lighting and facilities. ‘As the National Gallery opens for the first time in over three months, we are delighted that Room 32 is ready to welcome visitors and hope people enjoy the restoration.’
Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, London commented that ‘As we reopen to the public we are very proud to present the completely refurbished Julia and Hans Rausing Room, the largest gallery in the building. Splendidly hung with Italian Baroque paintings, it creates a sumptuous impression. I am immensely grateful to Julia and Hans Rausing for supporting the complete restoration of this gallery, now open for all to enjoy.’
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