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Why does it look like this?

Figure of a priest (GR.7.1912). Copper alloy. Roman, AD 1-200.

Figure of a priest (GR.7.1912).
Copper alloy, Roman, AD 1-200.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.

When objects made of copper and its alloys are buried, the metal reacts with chemicals in the ground. Gradually layers of coloured (mainly green) salts build up on the surface. If the crust contains a lot of chloride salts these may continue to attack the metal long after the object has been excavated. The damper the environment around the objects the worse this corrosion problem may become. It is often known as ‘bronze disease’.

At the start of World War II in 1939, the Fitzwilliam Museum closed to the public and the collections were put away for safety. Unfortunately, damp wood shavings, straight from a builder’s yard were used to fill the packing crates in which the Greek and Roman objects were stored. When the bronzes were unpacked in 1947, staff were very alarmed to find them covered in green, powdery corrosion spots of ‘bronze disease’.

At that time, most methods for stabilising and conserving ancient bronzes involved the use of chemicals to strip off the layers of salts that had built up in the ground. But this type of harsh treatment left raw-looking metal surfaces of poorly defined features and exaggerated the pits and holes caused by the corrosion process. With help from scientists in the University’s Department of Metallurgy a way of stabilising the spots, without stripping away all the layers of patina, was found. This local treatment was applied successfully to many hundreds of pieces, but some kept breaking out again and again with livid green spots, a clear sign that the metal was gradually being eaten away. One of these objects was the Roman priest shown above.

Detail of the same figure, showing the very pitted surface that was left after chemical stripping.

Detail of the same figure, showing
the very pitted surface that was left
after chemical stripping.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

This episode in the Fitzwilliam’s history is vividly recorded in letters between the Director, the curator of antiquities and the corrosion scientists. They were all deeply troubled by the continued instability of the figure and agonised over applying a more drastic treatment that would seriously alter the appearance of the piece. Eventually, in 1951, the statuette was chemically stripped. The Director wrote ‘The result is a surface which looks perfectly hideous, but I do not see what else we could have done to save the bronze ...’. Unfortunately, no photograph survives of the object before it was stripped.


Restoration ... and re-restoration

Like many Greek red-figured and black-figured pots displayed in Gallery 21, this hydria has undergone some radical restorations during its history.

Red-figured water jar (hydria), showing Priam and other Trojan heroes. Made in Athens about 460 BC. GR.5.1961

Red-figured water jar (hydria), showing Priam and other Trojan heroes. Made in Athens about 460 BC. GR.5.1961.
(Left): Courtesy of the Beazley Archive, University of Oxford; (right): © The Fitzwilliam Museum.

An old photograph (on the left) shows the vessel on a chair in an art dealer’s shop in Italy. The lost areas of the body have been made up in plaster and the top has been completed with pieces from a different type of Greek pot (a neck-amphora). Hidden inside the pot behind a plaster coating is a metal supporting structure that looks remarkably like an old lamp-shade. This shows up very clearly on the X-ray image (on the right).

The hydria as it is today. The matte black neck and handle are modern restorations

The hydria as it is today. The
matte black neck and handle are
modern restorations..
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

By the time the hydria was bought by the Fitzwilliam, the top had been sawn off and the ancient but alien neck and rim pieces had vanished. Soon after the pot arrived here in 1961, the top was reconstructed again, this time completely in plaster. The X-ray image shows that the new handle also was constructed around a wire support.

Although the restoration is based on other vessels of this date and shape, the precise size and profile are guesswork and perhaps this massive addition, painted in a dense matte black, dominates the object too much, drawing the viewer’s eye away from the original areas?