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Members' Research Report Archive

"Manoeuvering the Marble": The Modern Restoration of Ancient Sculpture

Elizabeth Bartman, New York City
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, January 4–February 29, 2016


Studio of the Roman sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, from his Raccolta d’antiche statue, busti, bassirillievi ed altre sculture: Restaurate da Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, scultore romano, n.d. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Ancient sculpture has long posed challenges to the art historian. Often it survives only as a fragment, missing much of its form and iconography. Or a lack of archaeological context stokes uncertainty about its function, display, and date. A third factor further complicates our understanding: modern restoration. Comprising not only the addition of missing elements but also less obvious surface treatments and reworking, restoration alters ancient works in a profound way. The handmaiden of collecting, restoration is invaluable as a prism for exploring the reception of the antique as well as the wider cultural milieu—particularly art making—in which it occurred. Yet few contemporary observers are trained to recognize and interpret it.

At CASVA I explored how best to address this gap and make marble sculptural restoration understandable to a wide audience. Initially I had proposed to write a history-based critique of sculptural restoration from its beginnings in the Renaissance up to the present day, but I came to realize that the corpus of works for such a study was unmanageable and the approach too diffused. Instead, the book I plan to write will combine case studies of specific sculptures with chapters devoted to the broader themes of restoration practice: making (training and workshop practice, written treatises, individual practitioners and their styles and techniques); thinking (sources for restorations in ancient myth and literature, learned advisors); selling (pricing and marketing, illustrated publications); and interpreting (contemporary reactions to and criteria for judging restorations). My focus will be Rome in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when restoration reached its aesthetic and technical zenith.

One such case study will be the celebrated Barberini Faun (Glyptothek, Munich). The complex restoration history of the statue, reflecting shifting attitudes toward antiquity, can be documented through visual examination, contemporary illustrations, and archival evidence. The statue underwent three major restorations. The first, undertaken in 1627 by Arcangelo Gonelli, reimagined the ancient marble fragment as a sleeping satyr, like other Renaissance works depicting a supine figure in a natural setting. In the second intervention, of 1679, Giuseppe Giorgetti and Lorenzo Ottone radically transformed the statue into a vertical figure posed provocatively on a massive rocky base (also now aligned to the vertical). A third reworking by Vincenzo Pacetti in 1799, still visible today, subtly adjusted the pose to heighten its frontality and eroticism. Giorgetti and Ottone’s detailed invoice of 1679 in the Barberini family archives in Rome provides a step-by-step account of the complicated restoration they performed, from the shaping and carving of the rocky support to the fashioning of limbs in stucco to the final polish. Not only does the document enumerate the various elements of the restoration in sequence, but it also sets out the price of each so that we learn their relative value, in which labor, skill, and material were all factors. (We learn, too, that the final price was discounted by about one-third, underscoring the power relationship between the sculptors and the aristocratic patrons from whom they no doubt hoped to win future commissions.)

Taking advantage of the extensive literature and expertise available at CASVA and the National Gallery of Art, my initial work focused on major technical issues involved in restoration. To understand the practice one must first understand how statues are engineered and, more precisely, why they break. I was able to investigate how marble reacts to physical forces and how both ancient sculptors and modern restorers adapted their designs to compensate. Marble sculpture is particularly vulnerable to shock and vibrations, but transit was an unavoidable risk in the journey of the ancient statue from “ditch to niche,” as art historian Jeffrey Collins so pithily describes it. The earl of Egremont’s statues acquired for Petworth, for example, are known to have been heavily damaged in transit from Rome to England—the early eighteenth-century collection was dubbed a “home for the wounded”—but damaged marbles elsewhere no doubt also required repairs at their final destination. Future studies will need to pay closer attention to documenting this phase of an antiquity’s afterlife.

Surface, or what was called pelle in seventeenth-century restoration theory, also figures importantly in recent literature on restoration. Using various high-tech methods, we are learning how restorers erased the damage wrought over the centuries—and disguised their own handiwork—with freshly patinated surfaces. Indeed, forgery always played a role in the restorer’s studio, although I believe that the notion of the innocent buyer duped by unscrupulous restorers and dealers has been overstated: many contemporary illustrations indicate lines of join, while correspondence makes it clear that many buyers were both aware of, and active participants in, the “re-creation” of antiquity that lies at the heart of restoration.

The arrival of the Elgin marbles in Britain in the early nineteenth century triggered debate about the long-canonical practice of sculptural restoration and its role in the preservation of the past. At the time, the sculptor Richard Westmacott defended restoration as technically more difficult than sculpting a new work, but even he could not dispel the fundamental questions about authenticity, originality, and beauty that restoration poses for art.