January 11, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

The Feast of the Gods

Current Status
In Season
27 minutes
We gave it a B+

Art restoration as detective yarn? Ivory-towered 20th-century academics snooping around 16th- century Italian palaces like Sam Spade in some Frisco alley? Welcome to the case of the abused Bellini in The Feast of the Gods

The story so far: Giovanni Bellini, one of the great artists and teachers of the Italian Renaissance, was asked to contribute to a series of bacchanal canvases commissioned in 1514 by Venetian duke Alfonso d’Este for display in his palace chambers. Bellini’s contribution — a sort of Olympian slumber-party scene, featuring lecherous Priapus ogling nubile Lotus — was largely completed by the time of the artist’s death in 1516.

Flash forward to the mid-20th century, as restoration experts at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, which acquired The Feast of the Gods in 1942, begin cleaning up their Renaissance masterpiece. They discover their ”Bellini” is not what it appears to be — that significant portions were altered and repainted sometime shortly after the master’s death. Who would have dared tamper with the great man’s work? And why?

These are the questions that National Gallery experts wanted answered, as they set about solving the Bellini whodunit through use of X-rays, paint analysis, computer simulations, and other forms of latter-day techno-snoopery. The process is vividly captured in this arresting 27-minute video produced by the National Gallery, which provides a satisfying peek into a stuffy world that sometimes gets down and dirty. B+

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