Greek and Roman Gallery Project in September 2009
At the beginning of this month I went on a short courier trip to the United States to bring back some gems that the Fitzwilliam Museum had lent for a temporary exhibition held at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Carvers and Collectors: the Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems. While I was away, the Landsdowne relief ( Loan Ant.117) was hung in its final position on a false wall newly constructed underneath the Caryatid. Sophie's news below, tells you the about the discovery in the eighteenth century of this huge piece of black marble, as well as the details of the current process of cleaning and mounting it. By mid September we had three pieces of sculpture installed in the gallery, but still no display cases or plinths!
Immediately after this, Reier began to deliver and install their display cases. Since they are based in Germany, they had to deliver everything together, and store it all on site in our gallery. The gallery space very quickly filled up with metal work and huge panes of glass. At the same time, MER were due to deliver and begin installing the plinths. The plan had been for the two companies to share the gallery, working in different areas at the same time, so that they would both be finished within two months, but it became clear that this was impossible. MER left site for a few weeks, while Reier got on with building the display cases. The cases and all their internal fittings, including the shelves have been custom-made for our project, so any new pieces that were needed had to be made in the factory in Germany and powder-coated in the correct colour, before being sent to England. As you can imagine this caused further delays, and some of the final display case fittings won't be in place until after the gallery opens.
While the gallery was in a state of controlled chaos, we in the department were busy with a 'Rebuilding Greece and Rome'. This was a behind-the-scenes study day held on the 17th September, designed as an opportunity for the public to see the progress of the project. In the morning Robin Osborne and Carrie Vout talked about current issues in studying the ancient world, while Lucilla and I talked about how we were reflecting these issues in the new display, and how work was going. In the afternoon groups moved from talks on mount-making, given by Bob and Louise, to talks about conservation and restoration, given by Christina, Julie and Spike. There was only room for a small number of people to attend, but the feedback comments showed that everyone very much enjoyed the day.
My last diary entry described the history of our Clazomenian sarcophagus, and the process of documenting and identifying the materials and techniques that had been used in previous restoration attempts. Thoughout August and September, I have been removing some of these materials. Not all of the materials had been applied deliberately: the picture on the left shows streaks of green and black paint on the base of the coffin that had accidentally made their way onto the coffin when the galleries were repainted in the 1960s!
I started by cleaning off all the old paint, which allowed me to see what lay underneath. To my surprise, many of the broad stripes of pink paint that covered the sarcophagus did not cover plaster fills but original surface. As I started to remove some of the old restoration plaster I discovered much of that was also unnecessary. You can see from the pictures of the panther here just how small some of the cracks were underneath all that paint and plaster.
I had decided from the start that I didn't want to take the coffin to bits - the old repairs seemed to be holding up fairly well, although they were quite unsightly and did cover much of the original material. It would also be a huge structural challenge to take apart a coffin of this size and then reassemble it securely. As a compromise, I decided to remove all of the old overpaint, and to take out as much plaster as possible from the outside of the coffin, while leaving it in place on the inside. I was worried that the coffin might drop to bits if I removed too much plaster - and this seemed to be a happy medium between structural integrity and aesthetics.
As the sarcophagus is such a large object, all of the treatment so far has been carried out in our basement storage area, where it was supported by a sturdy packing crate on wheels. However, the artificial light there is not ideal for the final gap-filling and retouching on the sarcophagus, so we have put it back into storage for the time being. Until December, when the gallery will (hopefully!) be clear enough for me to work on it there, the sarcophagus will go back onto its racking in the store, and other objects will take its place on top of the packing crate!
This month Pia and I have finished treating the Lansdowne relief ( Loan Ant.117), preparing it for display. This marble frieze is on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum from the Earl of Shelburne and is being displayed for the first time. It is a very striking bas-relief in dark grey marble, which originally formed part of the decorative scheme at Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.
The story of its discovery is fascinating. William, second Earl of Shelburne and first Marquess of Lansdowne (1737-1805), decided after visiting Italy to decorate his house in Berkeley Square with ancient sculpture. He engaged Gavin Hamilton, an enterprising explorer and artist, to collect suitable pieces for him over a four year period at a cost of around £1500 a year. Hamilton carried out a very successful excavation at Hadrian's villa in 1769, and it is from this campaign that the relief comes. Hamilton described the excavation to Charles Townley in a letter of 1779. His attention had been drawn to the Pantanello, where an underground channel carried water away from the villa to the river, and many finely worked marble fragments were to be found. The area belonged to a Signor Lolli, whose grandfather had partially excavated the site and found some valuable pieces, which he had sold. After striking a deal with Lolli, Hamilton started to excavate:
"...and after some weeks work underground by lamplight and up to the knees in muddy water, we found an exit to the water of Pantanello ... Still my men were obliged to work past the knees in stinking mud, full of toads and serpents and all kinds of vermin. A beginning of the Cava was made at the mouth of the drain ... which we found choked up with trunks of trees and marble of all sorts..."
At this point the finds dried up, and Hamilton feared that the area had been stripped in the previous excavation. But by chance, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the famous artist and architect and contemporary of Hamilton's, met the last surviving workman from the earlier dig, who was able to point out the areas which were still untapped:
"This story gave new light and new spirits to the depressed workmen, and a butt of the Canonico's best wine was taken by assault, 40 Aquilani set to work with two corporals and a superintendant, two machines called Ciurni were got to throw out the water that continued to gather in the ... bottom."
The excavation site was full of tree trunks and many Greek and Egyptian sculptures. Hamilton conjectured that a sacred grove and pagan sculptures had been deliberately destroyed by "primitive Christians and barbarians", as so many of the items were in tiny pieces or disfigured on purpose. As well as these, Hamilton found "a vast quantity of white marble sufficient to build a lofty palace ... to which I may add broken vases, basso-relievos, ornaments of all sorts, in a word a confused mixture of great part of the finest things in Hadrian's Villa."
The relief was bought from Hamilton in 1771 by the Earl of Shelburne, and eventually became part of the mantelpiece in the great library at Lansdowne House in London. The mantelpiece was considered "sublime" by Georgian contemporaries, and featured the relief above the fireplace, with Egyptian black marble statues of Isis and Osiris on either side, and a gigantic bust of Minerva crowning the whole confection. The relief was greatly restored with similar stone in the eighteenth century to make it suitable for display, and these restorations have become interesting and valuable in their own right.
Our work for the Greek Gallery display has simply involved cleaning the accumulated grime from storage (Lansdowne House was demolished in the 1930s and the relief has been stored at Bowood House in recent years.) We have also been retouching areas where old restoration paint has been scratched off, and toning the cement used to mount the relief to make it less obtrusive. As always, we have also examined the stone to see if any traces of original paint remain. In this case we were not hopeful, given that the relief spent centuries in a soggy drain, and may also have been scrubbed regularly by servants at Lansdowne House. But to our astonishment, we found many traces of red paint in the crevices of the carving, and these have been sampled for identification.
The Lansdowne relief was the third object to be installed in the new gallery, after our two large, Roman coffins had been mounted (see Kate's diary last month for more about this). It took a bit of modification before the mount fitted perfectly, but the relief is now safely mounted on the wall underneath the Eleusinian caryatid ( GR.1.1865).