Open daily. Always free.

Elvehjem renovation prompts Vasari move

One of the Chazen Museum of Art’s oldest, largest, and most important Renaissance paintings now has a gleaming new gold leaf frame and a new home at the museum, in a gallery ideally suited to its style and scale.

Giorgio Vasari’s Adoration of the Shepherds had been housed in the museum’s Elvehjem building since the museum opened as the Elvehjem Art Center in 1970. But it had to be moved to prepare for a two-year exterior renovation project that’s now underway.

“Since we were moving it, we decided it would be a good time to replace the frame,” said Chazen Chief Curator Katherine Alcauskas. “We didn’t think the old frame presented the work in its best light. It was not entirely period-appropriate, and we wanted the artwork to really shine.”

Shine it does: the custom-designed frame was executed in a minimalist Renaissance style by Rhonda Feinman Custom Frames of New York, one of the few shops in the United States specializing in period-correct gold-leaf frames for large works. Generous support for the frame was provided by the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation with special thanks to Catherine and Robert Brawer.

The work

Vasari painted Adoration of the Shepherds 452 years ago on an arch-topped, two-inch-thick wood panel of several joined planks, altogether measuring nearly six by 12 feet. Originally commissioned by the nuns of Santo Stefano in Pane, Italy, the painting was displayed in the parish church for centuries before passing through a number of owners, including Napoleon’s half-uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. Heirs of art dealer Henry Reinhardt and 32 UW–Madison alumni donated the work to the university in 1923. The work is among only a few by Vasari in the United States and is even more rare because it’s an altarpiece.

The work’s age and construction means it must be handled with extreme care. Renaissance artisans built the painting panel by joining wooden planks at the edges with dowels, butterfly joints, and glue. Because of its construction and age, the work lost paint over the centuries at the joints, as the planks swelled and contracted due to temperature and humidity fluctuations. These had been repaired in prior conservation campaigns but remained fragile.

For most of its time on campus, Adoration of the Shepherds hung in a stair landing of the State Historical Library, a building with poor climate control. In 1969, a library renovation project forced the work to be placed in temporary storage in Bascom Hall. In the summer of 1970, museum officials brought two conservators from Boston to campus to restore the painting, one of at least a half-dozen documented restoration efforts over the years. When UW–Madison finally opened the Elvehjem Art Center as a home for its art collection in 1970, the altarpiece was one of the center’s first exhibitions.

The move

Alcauskas said she was hired at the Chazen in part to help drive a museum-wide rethinking and reinstallation of its permanent collection. She had already been thinking about a better place for “Adoration” in that context. “I thought it would make sense to move that painting to the Chazen building because the ceiling is a little higher. In the Elvehjem, it just seemed so squished in,” she said.

Plans to move the several-hundred-pound artwork started in February 2022, when Chazen leaders first realized the Elvehjem building would need to be emptied for the extensive renovation project. Adoration of the Shepherds was among nearly 900 works to be relocated.

Kate Wanberg, the Chazen’s exhibition and collection project manager, said the Vasari was one of the few artworks she hadn’t moved in her long tenure at the museum. “We didn’t really have good documentation on how the frame was originally attached to the wall. It just felt intimidating. I thought ‘oh no, what are we going to do? Is the glue going to hold up? How stable is everything?’”

The Chazen contracted with the Midwest Art Conservation Center of Minneapolis to analyze the work’s mounting and stability, to confirm that it would need to be moved, and inform plans for the move itself. It then contracted with Materials & Methods, an art handling and rigging company, to further assess and execute the move.

Moving the Vasari was a carefully orchestrated two-day process in October. Chazen prep team staff worked with staff from Methods & Materials to strategize, remove the existing frame, prepare the painting, and customize a dolly and carrying cradle used for transport.

Once the painting was detached from the wall, the movers and Chazen staff lifted it off its base in a series of short moves before setting it into the cradle, which was pitched at an angle on a four-wheel dolly. With Chazen staff members following, three movers handled the dolly, wheeling it steadily through the museum from Gallery 2 to Gallery 16, while a fourth served as spotter, scanning for low ceilings and floor imperfections.

Everyone got very quiet at a tight spot on the bridge between the Elvehjem and Chazen buildings. “There was an inch and a half clearance,” one of the movers quipped with bravado as it cleared the space, to laughter from observers.

Wanberg said the clearance was less of a worry because they’d already done measurements. “I was worried the rolling would open up gaps between the panels and crack the paint surface. I was like, ‘please don’t crack the paint. Please don’t crack the paint,” she said. Once in Gallery 16, movers hoisted the Vasari from the cradle and inched it on to its new pedestal.

Midwest Art Conservation Center staff returned to assess the work after the move and found that the painting’s surface was completely intact. “It is considerably more stable than we anticipated,” Wanberg said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not fragile, but it is stable.”

The frame

Realizing the Vasari’s new home in the Chazen building meant it would be closer to contemporary works, curatorial staff researched Renaissance-period frame styles that were less ornate. Working with the framing installer, The Conservation Center of Chicago, they reviewed several cross-section samples of the frames, complete with gold leaf finish, where a challenge presented itself.

Frames finished in gold leaf typically have a tinted clay underlayer known as the bole. Often the bole is a hue of red, but Chazen staff thought the samples with a red bole clashed with the painting’s warm color palette. The solution: the frame’s inner molding was finished with a neutral black bole, providing enough separation from the red bole of the rest of the frame. The frame was designed with a step element at its base to hint at the artwork’s origin as an altarpiece.

The fragility and size of the work meant it was impractical to ship it to the frame builder, as is common with smaller works. So the frame was designed and built “blind”–that is, completely from detailed measurements, without having access to the artwork.

On March 20, staff from The Conservation Center brought the brilliant frame to the Chazen and installed it, with support from Chazen preparation staff. It was a painstaking, hours-long process of raising the 150-pound frame, inching it closer and closer to the painting until it touched, noticing gaps, marking and taking measurements, lowering it back to the floor, and shaving the frame’s back and inset with cold chisels and hammers.

Scott Dietrich, senior conservation framer, and Suz Evans, conservation picture framer, carved and shaved the inside of the frame where it touched the painting and checked the fit repeatedly. The painting’s uneven, slightly warped plane made the process challenging. Power tools might have been more efficient, but maybe too efficient, Dietrich said. “You could maybe use a router, but one slip with that and you’re done.” Artisans using hand tools and generating piles of curly shavings seemed fitting for the framing of a late Renaissance work.

With the frame’s back sculpted to perfectly match the painting’s contours, Chazen staff raised the frame, inched it to its final resting place against the panel, and secured it. Adoration of the Shepherds now resides in the Chazen’s Gallery 16, which presents other gold-framed Renaissance-era works against walls of deep blue-green.