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KU Leuven researchers reveal deepest layers of Bruegel drawings

On the occasion of the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death, the city of Brussels is organising an exhibition on a few of the master’s original drawings as well as a unique series of prints based on these drawings. Thanks to the KU Leuven research project Fingerprint we can now have a phenomenally detailed look at the documents.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is famous for his paintings of landscapes and peasant scenes, such as his classic piece The Peasant Wedding. It’s a lesser-known fact that the artist from Brabant also enjoyed some fame during his lifetime thanks to his drawings and etchings. Sixteenth-century Antwerp was the centre for the production and trade in prints – the cool mass medium at the time.

Print books

The story begins when Antwerp publisher and copper engraver Hieronymus Cock discovers a talented young man named Bruegel and lets him design engravings. Bruegel would eventually make over sixty drawings that were engraved in copper by the best craftsmen of his time and then printed. The prints soon became collectors’ items for the wealthy, who kept them in books or print rooms. It wasn’t until later that Bruegel started to focus on painting.

But it’s not surprising that we associate Bruegel with his paintings rather than with his graphical oeuvre, explains art historian and book surgeon Lieve Watteeuw of KU Leuven. “These drawings and prints are extremely rare and very fragile. They’re kept in print rooms in dark drawers between acid-free cardboard to limit any damage caused by the light. This is also the reason why they’re never exhibited for longer than three months. As a result, they’re not that accessible for the public or for researchers. With our new research methods, we can now for the first time get a detailed view of how Bruegel worked on his pieces.”

Each and every print has an entire history behind it. Watteeuw: “How did Bruegel compose a drawing? How did the engraver transfer it to a copper plate? The drawings were printed for a few centuries: where did the copper plates end up over the years and how were they affected by wear and tear? The original drawing is one of a kind, but then you get prints of various drawings based on different versions of the copper plate. Until recently, this process was usually examined with the naked eye by connoisseurs-art historians. We now want to fill in the knowledge gaps with high-end scientific imaging.”

The KU Leuven researchers worked with KBR – the new name of the Royal Library in Brussels – which has a print room with three original drawings and around 200 prints by Bruegel – one of the largest collections in the world. “We started by digitising the collection. The front and back of each drawing and print was photographed multiple times in very high resolution – you can zoom in on the fibres of the paper – each time with lighting from a different corner,” says Watteeuw.

Hightech suitcase

The next step was the Leuven Microdome, a piece of mobile imaging equipment the size of a suitcase. Leuven engineers from the Department of Electrical Engineering (ESAT) originally developed the hightech gadget for assyriologists who wanted a better 3D view of cuneiform script on clay tablets. In the meantime, the dome has been reduced in size and adjusted to capture documentary heritage, such as a piece of parchment, papyrus or a medieval manuscript.

The Microdome is a dome of 30 centimetres. The inside features 228 evenly distributed LED lights and one downward facing 28 megapixel camera in the middle. Even if the scanned object appears to be flat, the Microdome produces a dynamic image of the object that can be rotated, just as if you’re holding it and turning it towards the light yourself. This allows you to detect even the smallest variations in relief. The scans can be made with various filters and in different light frequency bands, from infrared to ultraviolet.

A remarkable figure on the drawing is the man with the mitre, his arms tied behind his back, and seated on a fantasy monster. This figure is usually seen as an adulterer facing his punishment, with his sentence spelt out on his headgear. The mitre was replaced by a hat in the prints; criticising the church authorities was a dangerous thing.| © Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

As if pictures and dynamic scans weren’t enough, the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage also made an analysis of all the drawings’ chemical composition. “This gives us an idea of the type of ink and paper Bruegel used. Taken together, we’re left with an extensive database of information. It gives us a very detailed and layered stereoscopic view of Bruegel’s work, something we’ve never had before,” says Watteeuw.

“Our technology also doesn’t damage the artwork in any way. In the past, people would sometimes scratch or rub over the work when researching it. That’s definitely not done these days. A work of art is handled as little as possible.”

A detail from Luxuria: a raven on the original drawing versus a visualisation of that same fragment by the Microdome. The texture was stripped and the relief calculated on the basis of ultraviolet information. The pattern calculations show the depth of the scratches: the engraver traced the lines of the drawing with a metal pen to transfer them to a copper plate. This example shows how the dome uncovers details that the naked eye would never be able to make out. | © Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

The master’s hand

The new technology has only made researchers more enthusiastic about the old master. “Now that we can look at his complex drawings in such detail, we can see how few errors Bruegel made and how few extra drawing lines he used,” says Watteeuw. “It’s clear he didn’t only have a steady hand, but also a very sharp eye and a wide range of techniques. Bruegel uses nearly ten techniques in one square centimetre: shading, the pointillist style, different types of ink and goose feathers. The more you zoom in, the clearer you see the master’s hand. And these are only the works from his younger years.”

Scientific imaging doesn’t only show Bruegel’s hand. “You can also see the work of the paper manufacturer: the watermark, for instance, or the grooves in the paper due to its production with a sieve. The scratching along the lines of the drawing is the work of the engraver. In order to produce a print, the drawing first had to be transferred to a copper plate. This plate was covered in wax. The back of the drawing was also covered in a layer of chalk or powder and then placed on the copper plate. Next, the engraver traced the lines of the drawing with a metal pen, leaving an impression of the powder in the wax. The drawing was then cut into the copper and they could start printing.”

Artificial intelligence

The next step of the project is to use artificial intelligence on the standardised photographic images. “We can assess the quality of the prints with machine learning: the original print quality, the current state of the print and the materials that were used. In this respect, an algorithm can do what the human eye could never do: objectively mark and rank every print according to a large number of criteria. We will also survey Bruegel connoisseurs to check whether their analyses match those produced by artificial intelligence.”

This method of looking at art should become the new standard in art studies. “You don’t just walk past a piece by Bruegel: you can easily spend minutes looking at a drawing and engraving and continue to discover new details. This technology sharpens our eye, if it were, and provides us with so much more knowledge. It helps tell the story of the artwork.”

Click here to learn more about the Fingerprint Project

Click here to learn more about ‘The World of Bruegel in Black and White’ exhibition

Our thanks to the KU Leuven Newsroom for their permission to republish this article.

Top Image: The original design sketch for Luxuria by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from the Seven Deadly Sins series, one of the highlights of his graphical oeuvre. | © Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

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