Stone doesn’t last forever. This week on Getty Voices, Benjamin Marcus of the Getty Conservation Institute reveals what’s involved in conserving stone monuments for the future and takes us behind the scenes with the conservation-training course he’s managing in Rome in partnership with ICCROM.

Daily reports from Rome all this week:
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Detail of a stone fountain in Rome, Italy, showing damage caused by weathering

Rome is defined by its beautiful stone buildings, bridges, and sculptures. But stone isn’t eternal, even in the Eternal City. Photo: Scott S. Warren

You’ve probably heard the expression “solid as a rock,” and generally, it’s pretty true—rock is solid, over the course of a single human lifetime. But as a stone conservator and sculptor, I’m concerned about the state of stone over multiple lifetimes. How solid does the stone used to construct our buildings and artworks remain through the centuries?

When you look around, you’ll see any number of buildings and monuments built of stone, from large public edifices to small markers more private and personal, such as gravestones. No matter their size, all these structures are subject to damage from man-made and natural factors such as moisture, air pollution, poor construction techniques and materials, previous restorations, and weathering. Weathering is complex: it includes both physical wearing away of the stone as well as chemical alterations caused by stone’s interaction with water, salts, and atmospheric elements that change its chemical composition. And of course there’s also damage and deterioration from vandalism, from graffiti to theft of decorative elements or even entire monuments.

As a member of the Field Projects team within the Getty Conservation Institute, I’m co-managing a program that is helping to teach the next generation of conservators how to protect and preserve stone throughout the world. The 2013 International Course on Stone Conservation (SC13), which started on April 10 and continues through June 28, is taking place in Rome at ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), our partner in offering the Stone Course. Through this partnership, course participants have use of ICCROM’s laboratories and library; they also enjoy the added advantage of an extraordinary field lab: the architectural heritage of Rome and its legacy of stone-conservation practice.

This is the third time the Conservation Institute has partnered with ICCROM on the Stone Course, which was first held in 1976. In addition to serving a vital educational role for stone conservation practitioners from across the world, the course provides an important opportunity for these professionals to meet and exchange ideas about conservation practices and challenges in their home countries. This year we have participants from 19 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Croatia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iran, Kenya, Maldives, Malta, Mexico, Philippines, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, and the US. We’ll share some of their perspectives and experiences during the week on the Getty Voices Facebook and Twitter.

The images below show some of the things we have been doing since the course started—from instructor lectures, to clinics on identifying types of stone, to site visits to explore stone monuments and buildings in Rome and other sites.

One of the highlights of this year’s course so far has been a study tour to Florence, Carrara, Parma, and Venice. In Florence we visited the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a museum and laboratory devoted to conservation of cultural heritage and to preserving the historic techniques of working colored marbles to produce decorative patterns. Particularly memorable was a demonstration of the labor-intensive process of cutting tiny marble pieces by hand.

At Carrara, we visited an active marble quarry—the only quarry located completely inside a mountain—as well as the Niccoli Studio, where we saw how sculptors transform stone blocks into works of sculpture and architectural elements. We spent two days in Parma at the workshop of conservator Stefano Volta, learning hands-on techniques to repair broken stone with pins, lime mortars, and grouts. And in Venice, we saw conservation projects at the Doges Palace, Piazza San Marco, and the church of the Friars. The participants also got to experience the tidal flooding of Piazza San Marco, known as “aqua alta,” or high water, firsthand!

For our practical fieldwork, course participants are working on selected monuments in Rome’s renowned Non-Catholic Cemetery, the resting place of many important artists and poets including Shelley and Keats, as well as scholars, diplomats, and Goethe’s only son. They’ve been surveying and documenting tombs, identifying bio-growth (such as moss) and other causes of deterioration, and testing treatment options. Later they’ll be doing conservation treatments in the cemetery. Most of this work will take place later in June.

As you can see, there’s more than meets the eye to stone, and stone conservation. As this week continues, I’ll explore more facets of stone conservation, post course happenings from Rome, and share the perspectives and experiences of several course participants. Find us throughout the week on the Getty Voices Facebook and Twitter.

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