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The digital fingerprint of Pieter Bruegel
Research

The digital fingerprint of Pieter Bruegel

New technology sharpens our eye, as it were, to see the graphic oeuvre of an old master.

7 minutes
27 July 2021

The works of Pieter Bruegel are exhibited in museums across the world, and they are definitely worth a visit. But as a researcher, you can go one step further and subject the works to a dose of ‘high-tech’. These new technologies only make the researchers even more enthusiastic about the old master. “The more you zoom in, the clearer Bruegel’s virtuoso hand becomes”, says conservator-restorer and art historian Lieve Watteeuw.

Professor Lieve Watteeuw is sometimes described as a book surgeon, and she doesn’t mind at all. “Holding an ancient work on parchment or paper for the first time always gives me a thrill. The science only comes afterwards. And along with knowledge, it enhances my admiration for the artwork. Slowly and meticulously restoring the work makes you feel intimately connected to the person who first created it.”

Watteeuw is specialized in medieval illuminated manuscripts, handwritten documents – ranging from prayer books to historical works – that contain miniatures and coloured initials. Originally, illuminated manuscripts were made by monks and nuns, who would sit in the scriptoria of their abbeys, hunched over bibles and other books that they patiently illustrated. Later, an internationally renowned generation of Flemish miniaturists emerged, who included one Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The original draft of Luxuria (Lust) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from the series of The Seven Deadly Sins, one of the highlights of his graphic oeuvre.
The original draft of Luxuria (Lust) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from the series of The Seven Deadly Sins, one of the highlights of his graphic oeuvre.
© Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

All-round

Bruegel was also a draftsman and miniaturist, Watteeuw says, though we primarily associate him with his paintings. The name Pieter Bruegel the Elder primarily conjures images of his paintings of landscapes and folk scenes, such as his classic Peasants’ Wedding. “My favourite Bruegel painting is The Tower of Babel, which is exhibited in Vienna. But Bruegel was a genuine all-round artist: he created miniatures, paintings, etchings and drawings. He was a master of all the artforms of his age.”

The fact that the Brabantine artist enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime was thanks to his drawings and etchings. During the 16th century, Antwerp was the centre for the production and trade in prints – the hip mass medium of that period. It was the Antwerp printer and copper engraver Hieronymus Cock who discovered the talent of the young Bruegel and commissioned him to make designs for engravings. Bruegel would ultimately make more than sixty drawings, which were transferred to copperplates by the best engravers of the age and then printed. The prints soon became collector’s items that affluent citizens would keep in albums or prints cabinets. It was only later in life that Bruegel devoted himself to painting.

Ira (Wrath) by Bruegel under the Leuven Microdome, a mobile imaging machine used to photograph documentary heritage in high resolution, from various angles and with various filters.
Ira (Wrath) by Bruegel under the Leuven Microdome, a mobile imaging machine used to photograph documentary heritage in high resolution, from various angles and with various filters.
© Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

Genuine Bruegel or copy?

The production history of these prints is surprisingly complex. Each original drawing is unique. But each one formed the basis for a whole series of printed images, for which different versions of the copperplate were used. Indeed, the copperplates were dispersed over the course of centuries, wore out and were sometimes adapted. There are thus many different versions from Bruegel’s time, in addition to those of followers and copyists. “Ultimately, we seek to answer the question: is this a genuine Bruegel or a copy? In the past, answering this question depended on the naked eye of connoisseur art historians. We seek to supplement this expertise with new, high-end scientific imaging. This also means that we have an interdisciplinary approach, involving art historians and art technicians, but also photographers and engineers.”

To this end, the Leuven researchers joined forces with KBR – the new name of the Royal Library in Brussels – which has three original drawings and about two hundred Bruegel prints in its prints collection. It is one of the biggest Bruegel collections in the world. The Fingerprint research project analysed Bruegel’s graphic oeuvre in various ways using new technology.

A striking figure in the drawing is the little man with a mitre, seated with his arms tied on a fantastical monster. This figure is usually thought to be an adulterer who is going to be punished, with his sentence pinned to his headgear. In printed images, the mitre was replaced with a hat; criticizing ecclesiastical authorities can cause problems.
A striking figure in the drawing is the little man with a mitre, seated with his arms tied on a fantastical monster. This figure is usually thought to be an adulterer who is going to be punished, with his sentence pinned to his headgear. In printed images, the mitre was replaced with a hat; criticizing ecclesiastical authorities can cause problems.
© Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

In front of the lens and under the scanner

“We first digitalized the collection of drawings and prints. The front and back of each drawing and print was photographed several times in very high resolution – you can zoom in to the paper fibre – each time with lighting from a different angle”, Watteeuw tells us. The next step was to use the Leuven Microdome, a mobile, dome-shaped imaging machine that functions like a kind of scanner. You can rotate the scans as though you were holding the object in your hand and turning it towards the light. This enables us to detect even the slightest variations in relief. The scans can be made using various filters and in different frequency bands of light, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet.

All together, this results in an enormous database. “Thanks to these technologies, we have an extremely detailed and layered in-depth view of Bruegel’s work, which we never had before”, Watteeuw says. She refers to her favourite drawing: Luxuria (Lust), from the series The Seven Deadly Sins, one of the highlights of Bruegel’s graphic oeuvre. A striking figure in the drawing is the little man with a mitre, seated with his arms tied on a fantastical monster. This figure is usually thought to be an adulterer who is going to be punished. In the printed images, the engraver replaced the mitre with a hat, by way of precaution: criticizing ecclesiastical authorities could cause problems.

A detail from Luxuria: a raven in the original drawing versus a visualization of the same fragment by the Microdome, in which the texture was removed and the relief was calculated based on ultraviolet information. The profile calculations render the depth of the carving: the engraver used a metal stylus to trace the lines of the drawing so that they could be transferred to a copperplate. This example shows how the dome reveals details that the naked eye could never observe.
A detail from Luxuria: a raven in the original drawing versus a visualization of the same fragment by the Microdome, in which the texture was removed and the relief was calculated based on ultraviolet information. The profile calculations render the depth of the carving: the engraver used a metal stylus to trace the lines of the drawing so that they could be transferred to a copperplate. This example shows how the dome reveals details that the naked eye could never observe.
© Fingerprint, KU Leuven/KBR

The hand of the master

New technology only makes the researchers even more enthusiastic about the old master. “Now that we can see his complex drawings in such detail, we can see how few mistakes Bruegel made, how few construction lines he used, how quickly and deliberately he worked”, Watteeuw says. “He must not only have had a steady hand, but also an exceptionally sharp eye and an extensive range of techniques. In only one square centimetre, Bruegel might apply ten different drawing techniques: hatching, pointillism, using different inks and goose quills. The more you zoom in, the clearer Bruegel’s virtuoso hand becomes. And these are only works from his early years.”

The new technology not only offers new insights about Bruegel, it has the added advantage that it does not damage the artworks in any way. “These drawings and prints are extremely fragile. They are kept in prints cabinets, in dark drawers between acid-free cardboard, to limit any light damage to the paper. In the past, researchers would sometimes scratch or rub the images to analyse them. Nowadays, that is very much ‘not done’ and we touch the artworks as little as possible. This is perfectly possible thanks to our imaging technology.”

Ultimately, we seek to answer the question: is this a genuine Bruegel or a copy? In the past, answering this question depended on the naked eye of connoisseur art historians.

Accesible

The high-tech also helps to make Bruegel’s works more accessible. Because they are so fragile, the original drawings and prints are never exhibited for more than three months. As a result, they were not very accessible to the general public or to researchers. Digitalization changes all this. For example, Watteeuw’s research group provided a lot of material for the Bruegel exhibitions in Vienna and Brussels in 2018 and 2019.

Each of these projects is like a voyage of discovery, Watteeuw says. “A print like Luxuria is sixteenth-century, but it is universal too. It is a fantastic composition with references to politics, human failings like vanity or relationships and infidelity, with occasional humorous touches.” And the new technology sharpens our eye, as it were: “It helps us to tell the story of the artwork. You can spend minutes looking at the images of a drawing or an engraving and keep discovering new details. This method of looking at art ought to become a new standard in art history.”

VIEW, the new Core Facility for Heritage Research and Digitalization Technologies at KU Leuven, brings together expertise and infrastructure to conduct interdisciplinary research into documentary heritage, such as the work of Bruegel. “Of course we can use the cutting-edge technology that we applied to Bruegel to research other historical documents. We are currently pursuing a new research project, focused among other things on Ensor’s pastels and a 13th-century Gospel manuscript. In my job, you move from project to another almost automatically.”