Conservation at the Getty

Nice little feature from the Palisades Post on the work of conservationists working on a statue of Eros and the Apollo Saettante:

Lying peacefully on cotton rollers, the little Roman bronze figure of Eros is undergoing an exploratory operation with Getty conservators, as skilled as surgeons, examining its internal and external constitution.

The little fellow has survived centuries of service, and while the statue remains amazingly intact with all its limbs and head, the surface shows the passage of time. Associate Conservator Jeff Maish is analyzing the patina, color and texture, and even unusual corrosion’all things that reveal its history.

The statue, probably from the first century, is a piece from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleishman collection which had been on display at the Getty Center until the Villa reopened in 2006 and all the antiquities were relocated. That transfer offered an opportunity for this in-depth technical study.

Initially the piece had been identified as Dionysus, based on its wreath, Maish says, but the wreath turned out to be a sycamore wreath, not grape leaves, so the conservators began to reattribute it as an Eros figure. Their conclusion was further confirmed when they found bits of lead on its back which may have secured little wings.

‘This was probably used as garden sculpture,’ Maish says, adding ‘they often held little trays to serve guests when the villa’s hosts were entertaining. There is a wall painting in Naples that depicts a figure such as this in a garden setting, which has the same dark patina.’

These days, conservation techniques are technically advanced, and conservators are highly skilled in the science and history of materials and methods, but the philosophy about restoring objects is pronouncedly conservative. Museumgoers may wish to see the bronze as it might have looked at manufacture, but conservators keep a hands-off approach. At one time, restorers, in order to make object more realistic and credible to public viewers, would have supplied missing pieces’a missing arm or head’or steam-cleaned a sculpture in order to remove algae, lichens or accumulated surface dirt.

‘You have to be careful to figure out to what degree you want to intervene,’ says Jerry Podany, conservator of antiquities at the Getty Museum. ‘Our philosophy is a much less invasive treatment than before, and with more careful study. And most important, all treatment must be undoable.’

The Villa conservation unit has nine experts dedicated to antiquities, while the Getty Center conservators concentrate on the decorative arts, paintings and photography. ‘The department can work on parallel paths,’ Podany says. ‘We can work on a small piece of Etruscan gold jewelry or a large, life-size monumental sculpture. There is communication, so problems are discussed, as well as the creative solutions that come out of studying these works of art. It helps keep the balance between looking at these things as archeological artifacts and works of art.

The bronze Eros will remain in the laboratory for several months. So, right now the best example of a complete, seamless conservation effort that clearly demonstrates the Getty’s approach to restoration is the Apollo Saettante, now on display at the Villa. This project is collaboration with Italian colleagues at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples as part of the cultural exchange agreement made in 2007 between the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Getty Museum.

The Apollo arrived in Los Angeles on loan for study and conservation in 2009, along with the Statue of an Ephebe as a Lampbearer, which is also on view at the Villa.

Using archival research, X-ray, ultraviolet photography and endoscopic examination, investigators discovered not only how Apollo was made in antiquity, but also the methods used to restore it in the 19th century.

The statue, originally located in the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The bulk of the figure was unearthed in 1817 and a year later veteran soldiers hunting a fox near the ancient city walls stumbled across the foot and part of the groin that had been missing.

‘There was a rich tradition of bronzes in Naples that were unearthed in the excavations in 1817,’ explains David Saunders, assistant curator of antiquities, who is working with Erik Risser, assistant conservator on the project. ‘King Ferdinand I of Naples had returned from exile and wanted to display this piece along with other great bronzes. The Apollo was one of the first major bronzes discovered at Pompeii and reassembled for display at the Real Museo Borbonico in Naples.’

Again, Getty conservators were sensitive to the integrity of the original lost wax method of manufacture as well as to the methods used to restore Apollo in the 19th century. ‘Anything we do has repercussions with the intent to identify the issues that will be damaging to the object,’ Risser explains. The investigators try to preserve what they call the cycle of the piece: the ancient world, the burial and then the historical (re-discovery and restoration) period. ‘The end product informed us to what had been done,’ he says.

Risser and his colleagues decided to honor the later restoration by preserving the Apollo’s matte black surface patina, which is not how the ancient surface would have looked. Using X-ray, they were able to analyze the statue’s interior structural supports without cutting into the figure.

When the Apollo arrived in Los Angeles, conservators also requested Apollo’s twin sister Diana’the pair that had originally faced one another in the Temple of Apollo. She proved to be a useful companion piece because, while intact from head and torso, she was missing an arm, which allowed conservators to view inside the hollow arm and analyze the thickness of the bronze. Her eyes, too, were original, manufactured of glass and bone.

The conservation work at the Getty encompasses important academic scholarship as well as hands-on restoration. As the piece is examined, questions arise, such as casting techniques, the content of bronze and what restoration techniques had been used in the past.

The current exhibition gives viewers a visual context for the statue by displaying a map of Pompeii that shows where the statue was discovered, as well a large-scale photograph of the Temple of Apollo that indicates where the sister/brother statues were standing. Engravings on display in the gallery also show the restored statue of Apollo from 1825 and 1879.

The Getty’s conservation work focuses primarily on the museum’s own collections, which are in fairly good condition. ‘Our major goal for our collection is maintaining a proper preservation environment’humidity, temperature, light, earthquake mitigation and crowd control,’ Podany says. But the Getty also collaborates with other institutions and countries, particularly those with a rich archeological history.

‘Source countries have such a wealth of this material, but often times they lack the resources to protect them,’ Podany continues. ‘Expertise and time play a role in what the Getty can provide. We can provide the treatment of those objects that allows them to be brought out of the storeroom. We can show options, methodological approaches and perhaps convince them that there is a better way. But we don’t come in as experts and tell them what they should be doing. These are their objects, they dominate what happens. But [for a time] we get to display these wonderful objects in return.’

Folks might want to check out the press release from the Getty for the Apollo Saettante which we posted a few months ago: Apollo Saettante at the Getty.

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