45th Annual Meeting, Objects, “The Treatment of Two Terracotta Architectural Reliefs by Andrea della Robbia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” presented by Carolyn Riccardelli

This is a joint paper by two objects conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carolyn Riccardelli and Wendy Walker. Along with many others at this conference, the topic of this paper concerns treatment and installation considerations of Renaissance-period glazed terracotta from the della Robbia workshop. This paper discusses two masterpieces by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1523), both pretty dramatic in their scope of treatment.

The first, a lunette of Saint Michael the Archangel, starts with a tragedy. In 2008, it came crashing to the floor from over a doorway in the 15th Century galleries where it had hung on display at the Met since 1996. If you search online, you can find articles about that event, but I will not link to any of them here. What I will link to, however, is the press release from April of last year, announcing that the lunette is restored and back on view.

Riccardelli presents the treatment that took place over eight years, a massive undertaking mainly overseen by Walker. She describes how it offered the conservators a rare peak into the working methods of della Robbia. For example, they could see in a more intimate way exactly how the clay used to mold the lunette was wedged (not very well at all), which tells us that the makers must have understood their clay so well to know this step wasn’t necessary. They also found evidence of tool marks and fingermarks – yes, even fingerprints! – from pressing the clay into the molds. The paper outlines the treatment of this work, which includes the use of the “Tulio blend” (3:1 B-72/B-48N in acetone with 6% ethanol) as the main adhesive, and a mount that incorporates brass clips to hold the panels to an aluminum backing panel. We are all left with beautiful after-treatment images of the lunette and a happy ending to the story.

The second della Robbia piece presented, a massive tondo of Prudence, starts with an exhibition announcement at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Della Robbia:  Sculpting with Color in Renaissance FlorenceAlong with pieces from Italy never seen in the United States before, as well as loans from the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Met’s Prudence was featured.

Riccardelli presents the conservation efforts to get Prudence ready for loan and exhibition, having one year to do it. The piece consists of 16 molded and modeled sections – a central tondo surrounded by a colorful garland – and nearly every piece had old restorations that needed to be addressed. This included an unstable mount. Their paper outlines the treatment steps taken, including cleaning and restoration removal (steam, solvent, mechanical), and a well-engineered mounting system that employs carbon fiber clips and straps, and a honeycomb aluminum backing panel. (More details about the use of carbon fiber clips in this treatment are presented in Riccardelli’s other paper during this conference, “Carbon Fiber Fabric and its Potential for Use in Objects Conservation.”)

It was during the cleaning phases that the conservators again made an exciting discovery, uncovering original markings and finger impressions that clearly indicate the proper order of the garland border pieces. More than this, the pre-treatment arrangement of the garland was incorrect! Their paper shows the dramatic shift from the previous arrangement to the corrected one, totally altering the feel of the piece and giving one the satisfaction of being able to return something home to its rightful place.

45th Annual Meeting, Electronic Media, “The Ballad of Little Bill: Collaboration in Time-Based Media Conservation,” Ariel O’Connor and Daniel Finn

In the abstract for their paper, Ariel O’Connor, Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) objects conservator, and Dan Finn, SAAM media conservator, write that this presentation “aims to present a case study that is exemplary of the wide range of expertise that time-based media conservation can require, and the collaborative approach that it necessitates.” Their talk certainly demonstrates this, as it presents a myriad of challenges, from documentation tasks and working with living artists, to what to do when a massive cable failure occurs just minutes before the museum director is coming to see the work in action.

The paper discusses the kinetic sculpture titled “the willful marionette,” by Brooklyn-based artists Lilla LoCurto and Bill Outcault, and the piece incorporates sculpture (a 3-D printed, blue poly(lactic acid) biodegradable plastic marionette with strings made of fishing line), software (Puppet Master), and electronics. The custom software is designed to interact with its audience, responding in real time to recognizable human gestures with gestures of its own. Meet the artists and get a glimpse of the marionette, affectionately named Little Bill, in this short video.

O’Connor and Finn outline the documentation process they employ at SAAM, making us all realize how incredibly detail-oriented the documentation of time-based media works really needs to be. This includes a testing and acceptance report, an identity report, various iteration reports, documentation photographs, artist interviews, copious notes, and organization and storage of all files, such as the STL files that can be used to reprint the sculpture in the future, if need be.

The authors candidly recount stories about working with this exciting and challenging piece and getting it ready for the museum director to review. For instance, an issue with Little Bill not blinking properly was fixed by the good old “CTRL-ALT-DEL” method. But when the 80-lb. line that mainly held up the sculpture spontaneously snapped, they had to be resourceful and quick-on-their feet, looking to the facilities crew for the right tools needed to remedy the situation.

Future challenges for this work are similar to many time-based media works, including what will happen to the proprietary software that Little Bill is operated on, as well as storage considerations for the plastic sculpture itself.