The Lansdowne Relief
How are we treating the Relief now? The story of the Relief’s conservation in the Fitzwilliam Museum
The appearance of the relief today is almost certainly not the way it looked in antiquity, but disentangling the various phases in its history is a complicated process on which conservators have only just made a start. Even to the naked eye it is clear that the Relief has undergone more than one campaign of restoration and repair. Close-up examination of its surface under both ultraviolet (UV) light and strong raking light is helping to reveal more.
Photography under UV light together with close visual inspection has helped us to create a 'map' of the surface of the Relief that shows all the separate fragments and filling materials from which it has been previously restored.
Shining a strong raking light across the Relief made it possible to identify three different types of surface: a weathered surface, a surface covered with sharp and crisp tool marks, and areas that clearly show tool marks on top of a decayed surface.
There are several ways in which this evidence may be interpreted, and doing so will require close stylistic analysis of the carving, as well as consideration of the historical circumstances surrounding the original production of the Relief, its material, what happened or is likely to have happened to it in the years between the destruction of Hadrian's Villa and the discovery of the Relief in the mid-eighteenth century, and its history over the last 250 years.
It is apparent that the restoration history of the Relief is complex and the research into its narrative is ongoing. There are still questions concerning its appearance in Antiquity. For example, the uppermost frieze resembles an egg-and-dart ornament without the ‘eggs’. The stone carver has left hollows where the ‘eggs’ should sit, with roughened surfaces to facilitate their attachment. It is almost certain that the original intention was to fill them with stone ‘eggs’, possibly in another colour, but it is strange (as well as disappointing!) that not even one survives. There is also the more general question of added colour: were parts of the Relief once plastered or painted? The investigation continues ...