Brittany Rubin is the Johnson Museum’s print room curatorial assistant.

As a university museum with a large and diverse collection, the Johnson Museum is undertaking new efforts to use innovative forms of research to gain deeper understanding of some of the mysteries posed by our collection. We have formed partnerships with scientific departments on campus, including the Landscape and Objects Laboratory, Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), and Cornell’s dendrochronology projects, to combine traditional STEM avenues of research with art historical expertise. These case studies have contributed to new information about provenance, maker information, and object dating in our collection. Dr. Louisa Smieska, staff scientist at CHESS, has spearheaded many of these collaborative efforts.

Working with Smieska and Leah Sweet, the Johnson’s Lynch Curatorial Coordinator for Academic Programs, I sought to learn more about a specific drawing in the Johnson’s collection. The seventeenth-century Roman artist Ottavio Leoni was highly sought after for his portrait drawings of the Italian elite. Leoni executed his oeuvre mainly using the trois crayon method, layering white, black, and ochre-red chalks to achieve a fully realized portrait with a limited palette. The Johnson’s portrait of Angela Gratiani, a Roman noblewoman and patroness, is executed in the trois crayon expected from Leoni’s hand. Recent research has revealed that this portrait was one of 435 drawings owned by famed cardinal and art collector Scipione Borghese and, later, his descendants.

During a visit to our print room, Professor Alessandra Baroni of the University of Rochester identified a fourth color, executed in another medium, present in the composition: a spot of green pastel is visible just below the sitter’s eyebrow. It is unclear whether orange chalk lining the sitter’s nose is simply a faded application of Leoni’s ochre crayon, or a fifth pigment, presumably added later by someone other than the artist.

This launched a full investigation of the pigments on the sheet by our Cornell team, benefitting from the resources at the Landscape and Objects Laboratory. If Baroni’s hypothesis was right, and there was indeed a later addition not executed by Leoni, there would be reason to believe that the Borghese drawings (now in multiple collections) also show later interventions.

Angela Gratiani bears a number (307), written in iron gall ink in the artist’s hand, which identifies it as one of 435 drawings in Leoni’s personal collection that was inventoried during the preparation of his will.1 Cardinal Scipione Borghese purchased between 325 and 400 of these drawings directly from his estate; his collection of Leoni drawings remained together, in album format, through generations of Borghese collectors, until the album was sold in 1747 by the Marquis d’Aubigny.2

If the Johnson’s drawing was kept in album format throughout the majority of its early “life,” it would be conceivable that easily moved pigments, such as chalk or pastel, have accidentally transferred to neighboring sheets due to abrasion. However, we concluded that if this study could detect the presence of later, or different, pigments enhancing Leoni’s original trois crayon, the study of the present drawing’s pigments would potentially have ramifications for the entirety of the so-called “Borghese album” drawings.

While the green spot was not large enough to be detected by xRF (a portable x-ray fluorescence system) point measurements, we were able to possibly discern traces of two different chemicals along the white passages, which could indicate a later restoration campaign. Based on these results, we believe that this project would benefit from multispectral imaging at CHESS, which would further clarify the identities and distributions of the pigments.

This begets a promising opportunity for interinstitutional collaboration. We hope to more precisely map and identify the pigments using the resources at CHESS and compare these results with more pages from the Borghese album, now held by museums across the world. Then we can confirm our hypothesis that the corpus of drawings bears later interventions and, thus, appear differently than Leoni originally intended.


1. C. Roxanne Robbin, “Scipione Borghese’s Acquisition of Paintings and Drawings by Ottavio Leoni.” The Burlington Magazine 138, no. 1120 (1996): 457.

2. John T. Spike, Baroque Portraiture in Italy: Works from North American Collections (Sarasota, FL: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art), 1984.