Deconstructing Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Bernini’s Terracotta Modello for the Fountain of the Moor. Really.

Tony Sigel, Conservator of objects and sculpture at the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard Art Museums, presented an in-depth treatment and technical study of a terracotta sculpture made in 1653 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Tony began with a brief historical background which included amusing insights such as Bernini’s first proposal for this fountain which was a rendering of a snail. Strangely the snail concept was rejected by the pope and a figurative sculpture of man wrestling a fish while standing on a shell was accepted. This sculpture is one of Bernini’s largest terracotta pieces and had several campaigns of prior restoration including re-tooling of original material, additions of plaster and nails on the interior and concretions of painted plaster on the exterior. In addition the object had a complex surface due to aged and weathered coatings of paint, and soluble nylon. Tony described the detailed treatment steps he used to stabilize the sculpture, which included disassembly, reassembly, restorations of older restorations, compensation for structural losses, analysis, and removal of surface coatings.
The talk was peppered with insightful tips, such as using a can of dust-off held upside down to freeze fills modeled with plasticine clay so that distortions do not occur when removing them. Other useful tips included a complex process to reproduce a set of Bernini’s original tools based on tool marks on the object. The newly made tools were used to mimic surface features in areas of loss. I look forward to the post-print version of this talk in particular, as the tool replication process has potential for numerous other applications. The techniques of surface cleaning described ranged from low tech- using pressure sensitive tape to lift off paint, to high tech- using a Lynton ND: Yag laser to essentially steam clean the surface. Tony did not shy away from delving into ethical considerations that arose during this project, particularly where certain areas of loss were chosen over others to be restored. As an object conservator I found this talk particularly relevant in terms of the ethical issues and techniques presented. Really!