Two women, with their backs to the viewer, use paintbrushes to touch up the corners of a large Roman fresco

Antiquities conservators Marie Svoboda and Susan Lansing Maish put the finishing touches on an ancient Roman wall painting in the reinstalled Villa galleries

From a conservator’s point of view, the reinstallation of the Getty Villa has offered a host of opportunities to look both backward and forward. Quite a number of the works of art in the reinstalled galleries have never been on view or are returning to display after years in storage.  We worked in our laboratories to examine and treat the artifacts and devise installation techniques, and find ways to safeguard the objects from the elements. Along the way, we unearthed surprising discoveries from the past and used innovative technologies to better plan for the future.

Discoveries from the Recent Past

Some objects are returning to view after long absences. For instance, after 21 years the group of Boscoreale frescoes are on display again. Excavated in 1906 from the Villa of Numerius Popidius Florus at Boscoreale near Naples, Italy, they had been in storage since 1996. To prepare for their return to the public eye, we cleaned and stabilized the Pompeiian-style frescoes and developed a new mounting system for their display in Gallery 217, known as the Villa at Boscoreale.

The conservation treatment also unearthed a discovery. While preparing one of the smaller frescoes, a tiny label was discovered on the reverse documenting its restoration in May 1971 by Théo-Antoine Hermanés, a Swiss restorer who also appears to have worked in Rome. We even found a letter by him in the Museum’s archives in which he describes, in great detail, the treatment of the Boscoreale frescos. The label is a rare find, as restorers do not commonly sign their work, and it sheds light on the more recent history of the frescos as they enter yet another phase of their lives.

Left, three large fresco panels hanging on a wall. Right, a small label reading Restauré Mai 1971 Théo-Antoine Hermanés

Frescoes from the Black Room of the Villa of Numerius Popidius Florus, A.D. 1–50, Roman. Fresco, 84 5/8 × 39 3/8 in., 97 1/4 × 51 3/16 in. and 86 5/8 × 70 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.AG.79.2, 70.AG.91 and 72.AG.79.1, and detail of reverse

Surprises from the Ancient Past

Our examinations of objects that were previously inaccessible in storage also led to surprising discoveries about their original materials and techniques of manufacture. A small, beautifully carved alabaster urn from Etruria (71.AA.294) sparked our interest in analyzing and examining traces of polychromy on the surface.

Close-up photo of a finely carved figures alabaster with sand and some small flakes of pigment.

Cinerary Urn with Aeneas and Turnus (detail), 200–100 B.C., Etruscan. Alabaster with polychromy, 13 3/8 × 18 1/8 × 7 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 71.AA.294. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Using various imaging techniques and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy for elemental analysis, we found Egyptian blue along the upper architectural pediment as a decorative detail, as well as on the raised sleeve of the seated male in the center. We learned that the black design elements within the pediment contain mercury, suggesting the use of the red pigment cinnabar that likely darkened over time.

Discoveries about the Distant Past

A black vessel with gold colored trim painted with heart and leaf patterns.

Attic Black-Figure Dinos, 520–510 B.C., Greek, made in Attica. Terracotta, 22 13/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 92.AE.88. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

In 1873, a large dinos—an Attic black-figure vessel used for mixing wine and water attributed to the Antimenes Painter (92.AE.88), who was active between 530 and 510 B.C.—was discovered without a foot. Some years later, the dinos was associated with a stand that was thought to be a modern addition. We set out to determine whether the lower ceramic portion is modern or ancient.

X-radiography initially suggested there are two parts to the stand: the lower part and the flared mouth at top. UV-visible inspection and photography also highlighted an unusual coating on the foot, which was absent from the dinos itself. Solvent testing indicated that a dyed or pigmented (black) resin was applied to its entire surface. Solvents also revealed that the upper portion of the stand was reconstructed with a plaster or clay-like material applied to the top section of a ceramic foot. The pigmented coating was applied overall to better match the tonality of the dinos.

To answer the question of age once and for all, we removed small samples of the dinos and foot for analysis by thermoluminescence (TL) dating. Surprisingly, we confirmed that the date of the foot is compatible with the dinos, making them possibly parts of an original assembly.

Ancient Art, New Supports

All artworks displayed at the J. Paul Getty Museum are secured with custom-designed mounts to safeguard them from damage during a seismic event. Indeed, staff have researched and developed the discipline of seismic isolation over decades at the Villa. The reinstallation offered an opportunity to review older mounts and incorporate recent insights and new techniques into the mount design and fabrication.

Left, diagram showing plans and measurements for a museum mount system. Right, the mount during installation over a doorway.

Left: plans for mount system for Three Cornice Blocks with Ornamentation, 25–1 B.C., Roman. Italian marble, 12 1/2 × 66 × 28 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 73.AA.96. Right: the mount during installation in a Getty Villa gallery

Three sections of an ancient Roman marble cornice weighing close to 5,000 pounds required a new metal support structure in Gallery 208. The support system was designed to take advantage of existing holes in the bottoms of each section, allowing for a safe, discrete method of anchorage. The architectural elements are held aloft above the bronze doors that lead to the balcony overlooking the outdoor theater. Visitors walking through the door see the cornice from below, installed at the height and orientation of their original display.

A carved marble cornice in three pieces mounted above a doorway

Three Cornice Blocks with Ornamentation, 25–1 B.C., Roman. Italian marble, 12 1/2 × 66 × 28 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 73.AA.96

Protecting Against the Elements

Bronze statue of a nude young man raising his right hand to his head. The lower legs are missing.

Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300–100 B.C., Greek. Bronze with inlaid copper, 59 5/8 × 27 9/16 × 11 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AB.30. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

One of the most captivating aspects of the Getty Villa is also what makes it vulnerable: the outdoors. Passageways under the colonnades are open to gardens and small courtyards, the sky, and exhibition galleries. All displays on the first level, with the exception of a special exhibition space, are directly accessible to the natural environment. The Villa is near the Pacific Ocean, so the locale experiences extreme weather, ranging from dense fog to bone-dry Santa Ana winds—sometimes in a short window of time.

Artworks are protected inside exhibition cases using special chemical buffering materials. A newly installed climate monitoring system by Hanwell operates with wireless dataloggers in all monitored display cases. The information is transmitted to computers via radio frequency and can be checked remotely by the conservation and engineering departments.

On a larger scale, Gallery 111, which features the famous bronze statue of a victorious youth (77.AB.30), has a specially engineered climate handling system that desiccates the room. It allows us to showcase the sculpture without a vitrine, as it prevents rare but possible outbreaks of active and damaging chloride corrosion, also known as bronze disease.

Caring for Our Modern Replicas

The Villa grounds also received maintenance and upgrades during the renovation, including the Outer Peristyle fountain. A major retrofitting that involved sand blasting of the old paint and application of new layers of sealers prompted the removal of the bronze of the Drunken Satyr to prevent possible damage to it during the construction work.  The artifact is a modern replica of one of the ancient Roman sculpture excavated in the Villa dei Papiri, which served as the original model for the Getty Villa.

Reproductions of dozen of bronzes from this ancient villa are located throughout the Getty Villa, including almost life-size sculptures, busts, and animal figures. Contract conservators maintain these artworks on a regular schedule. They wash them to remove abrasive and corrosive debris, which accumulates due to outdoor exposure, and cover them with protective wax coatings.  Like caring for a garden, conservation of art work is an ongoing process that requires regular inspection and attentiveness.

Left, a fountain covered in scaffolding in the middle of a well manicured garden. Right, a bronze sculpture covered in protective blankets on top of a pallet jack truck.

Left: View of the Getty Villa’s Outer Peristyle covered in scaffolding during renovation. Right: Replica of a bronze of a drunken satyr awaits reinstallation

Preparing artworks for the reinstallation of the Getty Villa required the consideration of multiple factors: their materials, conservation history, display supports, and vulnerability to earthquakes and outdoor elements. Drawing on diverse specializations within our team enabled us discover more about the past, safeguard the art for the future, and bring it alive for you today.