There’s always something new to learn about art in the collection. As technology evolves, new discoveries become possible.
We’ve recently been closely examining French bronzes in the Getty Museum’s collection to prepare an upcoming online catalogue of Northern European sculpture, a collaborative project by the Museum’s curators and conservators of sculpture and decorative arts. For example, we’ve been examining this 17th-century mythological scene to learn more about how it was made.
Only 22 inches high, Boreas Abducting Orithyia is a small bronze copy of a marble that was carved in 1687 for the gardens of Versailles. The sculpture depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 6, verses 687–721) in which Boreas, god of the north wind, seizes Orithyia, the beautiful daughter of the king of Athens, to carry her away to Thrace. Below the two struggling figures, Boreas is aided by Zephyr, the god of the west wind. The marble was very popular, and many smaller versions have been cast in bronze over the centuries.
A couple of tools have proven particularly useful in studying this sculpture: digital radiography (X-rays) and videoscopy, in which we look into the sculpture with a video camera on a long, flexible arm.
One interesting thing we’ve learned is that the sculpture was cast in fourteen separate parts that were then joined together to make the final composition. These joins are expertly made and are very hard to see on the surface of the bronze. We needed to explore further to understand how these many parts were assembled.
Conservators at the Getty have been using X-rays to examine our collections since the 1980s. Just as in the medical profession, we used to rely on film, but now we capture images digitally. One advantage of digital radiography is that powerful imaging software can be used to clarify details that were harder to interpret in traditional film radiography.
The image below shows a radiograph as captured (left) and digitally manipulated (right) to highlight features that were previously difficult to discern.
Another enhanced radiograph (seen below on both the left and the right) clarifies that the wings were cast separately from the body, and suggests that they are both held in place with tenons (one highlighted in yellow) as well as solder (indicated with arrows).
Our videoscope has a long, flexible probe, only six millimeters in diameter, that can be inserted into the hollow interior of the bronze. This allows high-definition imaging of details normally hidden within the interior.
Seen through the videoscope, the tenons that hold the wings in place are clearly visible within the figure of Boreas.
The scope also allowed a clear image of the circular sleeve that secures Zephyr’s proper left arm to the body. The sleeve is held in place with an iron pin (red arrow).
Zephyr’s left leg is also held in place with a sleeve. The sleeve was cast with the leg and is held in place with pins. Toward the bottom of the hollow sleeve shown below, we can see the iron rod (blue arrow) with smaller wires wrapped around it that supported the core while the bronze was being poured into the mold. On the right side of this image, the videoscope also allowed a close-up view of the side of the bronze wall that was filed down to allow the sleeve to fit properly in place (red arrows).
The scope can further be used to take videos of the interior, such as this one that shows the variety of joins that secure the separately cast parts.
Our work on the sculpture suggests that the bronze was cast in France, as this distinctive approach for assembling multiple separately cast parts has been used there for centuries.
This new finding—one of many—will be included in our upcoming online catalogue.