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The Lansdowne Relief

How are we treating the Relief now? The story of the Relief’s conservation in the Fitzwilliam Museum

Over this past academic year (20012-2013), the Department of Antiquities of the Fitzwilliam Museum has benefited greatly from the presence of Margreta Sonnenwald, a conservation student from the Technical University of Munich, who undertook a seven month internship with us. Margreta’s particular interest and expertise is in stone conservation. She is also an experienced stone mason. The Lansdowne Relief was Margreta’s major project in the Museum.

When the Relief first arrived at the Museum in 2004, it was covered with dirt and debris, but it was clear that it had been repaired from many pieces. All the fragments had been attached with cement to a large slab of slate as part of the repair work. Although the stone surface was generally in a sound condition, the friezes and mythological panels had suffered minor losses and appeared to have been recut in some places.

First, Margreta reviewed the Relief’s condition report. She then began to research the history of the Relief before it was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum, examined in detail the fragments from which it is made up, documented the different carving styles used in its production and studied the variation in damage and wear across the entire surface. In addition to observation through a binocular microscope, she used a strong raking light to help show up surface detail. Illuminating the relief with ultraviolet light and photographing the effect was also very helpful as the variety of repair materials used on the piece since it was first repaired in the 18th century fluoresce different colours under this light.

Left: Photo of the Argonaut's panel
Right: photo of the same panel Argonaut's panel in long-wave ultraviolet light.

From her observations, Margreta gradually developed a possible history of the conservation and restoration treatment since the relief was dredged up from the bogat Tivoli (the Pantanello).

The most important feature which gives the clues to the Relief’s repair history is the variation in surface condition of the different fragments from which it is made up. There are 3 categories:
1) a weathered surface.
2) a weathered surface which has toolmarks over it
3) a non-weathered surface covered in sharp, crisp toolmarks

On the weathered surface, the carving is completely preserved in form but details like facial features are eroded and the surface covered with tiny pits. All deteriorated fragments are eroded in the same way and to the same extent and must have been exposed to the same environment (such as the bog), for a long period. Furthermore the decorative parts of all deteriorated fragments are of the same vivid and delicate carving style. These fragments form one group and are most certainly of Roman workmanship. Toolmarks over the top of this surface show where the weathered decoration was recut as part of the restoration process. The fragments with the crisply cut surface are newer additions.

Margreta created two maps which help set out the evidence.

The ‘red surface map’ tracks all the break lines and the adhesives and fillers that have been used in the various repair campaigns.

  The red map illustrating areas of fillers and adhesives on the Lansdowne Relief.

The map shows that there are numerous repairs of structural fragments and decorative elements. Fine examples of Roman carving and undercutting remain, such as the left hand helmsman in the Argonaut panel, but along the left hand half of the hunting frieze almost every beast, hound or hunter seems to have been damaged and repaired. The sea monster frieze is carved in a slightly flatter style, so has been less susceptible to physical damage. Where break edges are visible on the pieces, they exhibit the degree of deterioration as the weathered surface. It is not known where in Villa Adriana the Relief was situated, outdoors or indoors, and it is not known how long it was submerged in the Pantanello. However, it was clearly in pieces when it went into the bog. In the 18th century, it was rebuilt from the rescued fragments. The damaged decoration was tidied up in places by recutting and by adding small pieces of new stone to restore losses on the original decoration. Larger pieces of new stone were carved to make up the structural losses and replace the lost decorative elements of the upper right corner (above the red line), following the examples of the Roman original. All these pieces have the crisp surface and well-defined toolmarks. Although carved with great care the figures and beasts are slightly plump and stiff in contrast to the antique figures. They are placed more spaciously along the friezes and are less interwined with each other.

Photo of the dancer (left) in the left hand foliage of the Relief, with deteriorated surface and the dancer in the right hand foliage with distinct tool marks from chisels and rifflers or files.

Photo of the lion in the left hand side of the relief‘s hunting frieze, with deteriorated surface and below, photo of the lion in the right hand side of the relief’s hunting frieze with distinct tool marks.

New scientific analysis of a number of sections of the Relief seems to confirm that it is indeed now composed of more than one type of limestone, although they are visually similar. In the photographs of the Relief that were taken in the 1920s when it was part of a fireplace at Lansdowne House, the stone appears to be covered with a black coating. This was later removed, probably when the Relief was put up for auction. Since there are no traces of the coating left on the restored Relief, it must have been vigorously scrubbed. It is possible that ancient sections were painted originally, but such a harsh treatment would have removed remains of this. There are a few tiny traces of red, black and white substances in crevices, but we have not been able to confirm categorically that these are original pigments. When the Relief came to the Museum it was accompanied by a box containing eight fragments. Margreta identified that some of these mystery pieces fit into the spaces that now contain a filler material (see patches of red on the map). These fragments are still coated black. It seems likely that when the Relief was removed from the fireplace it was damaged again and in the subsequent repair these pieces of the earlier restoration were accidentally left out. Using the red map and following the break lines, a second map (blue map) was produced. This shows all single fragments of stone (including the pieces that are now detached). The Lansdowne Relief consists of almost 32 larger substantial fragments, excluding tiny fragments used for the friezes. We would not consider trying to take out the gap-fills and reintegrate the detached pieces as this would require a major and potentially very damaging interference with the object.

  The blue map illustrating each single substantial fragment on the Lansdowne Relief.

Margreta examining the Relief with the ‘red surface map’

In addition to her study of the restoration history, Margreta gave us very useful insights into the principles applied by a mason when preparing a block of stone, principles that also apply to the making of the Lansdowne Relief. In general, masonry and carving are processes that work by removing surplus stone. Masonry usually refers to the creation of geometric shapes, which are always checked with a template and/or straight edge. Every step needs to be checked for its trueness. Carving, on the other hand, is the sculptural element of stone working. Although measurements are taken and clay or plaster models are used as reference, the majority of the work is done by eye. To create the desired form, whether tracery on a Gothic cathedral or a hunting scene on Roman sculpture, excess stone (sometimes a lot!) has to be taken away.

Usually, with architectural carving, a great deal of masonry has to be undertaken to get to the level in the block of stone where the carving actually sits. The whole process of stone cutting is a series of steps using heavier tools at the beginning to finer tools at the end. Masonry and carving, like any other technology, are processes that need to be economical. The mason and the carver look at what they want to cut by reducing a complicated and intricate shape to a simpler one. Although carvers employ templates less often than masons do, they are useful for repetitive ornaments, such as the egg and dart pattern on the upper edge of the Lansdowne Relief.