THIS ARTICLE TRACES THE HISTORY of a byword for the look of age since the early seventeenth century in art writing, the museum, the restorer's studio, and the art market. The seemingly material fact of patina has a career in the history of taste in Old Master painting through its old regime in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it was much prized as an effect of time and as an artifice; in its modern age beginning with the formation of national museums, patina becomes an object of contention in the ''cleaning controversies'' that revolve around the obligations of the present toward the cultural legacy of the past. Postmodern patina has come to register the complex and precarious effects of age on old pictures in ways that should enable us to appreciate and to care for them more knowingly than we have been able to do before.

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