A brief survey of historical varnishes

Authored by: Alan Phenix , Joyce Townsend

Conservation of Easel Paintings

Print publication date:  November  2020
Online publication date:  November  2020

Print ISBN: 9780367023799
eBook ISBN: 9780429399916
Adobe ISBN:


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‘Varnish is a powerful liquid,’ wrote Cennino Cennini in a fourteenth-century handbook on painting and other arts, Il Libro dell’Arte (Thompson, 1954: 99), recognising the capacity for a clear surface coating to change the appearance and provide protection for easel paintings. The materials for varnish making mentioned by Cennini were extremely limited (see also Chapter 1, on historical sources). Since the fourteenth century, there have been many new materials introduced for varnishes, and styles, attitudes, and intentions in painting have changed enormously. This chapter will provide an overview of some of the important developments in the use of varnishes as final coatings on paintings; however, retouching varnishes and the addition of varnishes to paint vehicles are separate subjects and will be discussed only in passing.

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