Truth versus beauty: Maintaining visual unity in the treatment of Florentine polychrome terracotta sculpture

Anthony Sigel


Loss compensation in sculpture can pose treatment questions that can be resolved in many different ways. Different genres, materials, and surfaces call for different treatment responses, and different pressures may come to bear when the project involves privately owned works. This article describes the visual compensation issues affecting two sculptures from the Italian Renaissance, a life-size glazed terracotta of S. Giovanni da Capistrano and a smaller Plaque with Winged Putto, both by Santi Buglioni. Both were privately owned when originally treated. The S. Giovanni, now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is one of a group of three near life-size figures of saints by the Florentine sculptor, a relation of the della Robbia family.

I will discuss my approach to compensation for the Buglioni Plaque with Winged Putto and the S. Giovanni da Capistrano figure, which were severely damaged and suffered a variety of condition issues. My approach to treatment was guided by a set of principles and practices that include visual coherence, selectivity, minimization, and—yes—subterfuge and deception. I also discuss avoiding overtreatment and the concealment of important signs of age, composition, and inherent vice, which contribute to critical patina and signal originality. Approaches are presented for balancing the preservation of evidence of the state of technology of the time with preserving the visual unity and coherence of the work. By taking the work in stages, making careful selections, and maintaining close communication with the owner/curator, these tensions may be successfully negotiated. I present the practical treatment methods to illustrate my work and whether I would do things differently now.

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2017 | Chicago | Volume 24