The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Bibliothèque nationale de France are collaborating on the research and conservation treatment of the Berthouville Treasure, the extraordinary Roman silver hoard from the Bibliotheque’s Cabinet des Médailles.
Almost one hundred objects arrived at the Getty Villa in December 2010, and technical examination, analysis, and photography of the individual artifacts continued throughout 2011.
One of the most intriguing objects is a small silver statuette, about 14 inches high, of Mercury, the Roman god of travel and commerce. The statuette was found in fragments, which were entrusted in the 19th century for restoration to Alexi Joseph Depaulis, a well known artist who worked in metal.
Knowing what has been done to the sculpture over the years, and what is inside it, is the first step in understanding how to properly conserve it. Close visual analysis along with X-radiographs have revealed much about this history.
X-rays revealed that Depaulis employed an armature of small metal rods with twisted wire. Wax was used to construct a stable support structure to hold the individual silver fragments. Analysis by our colleagues at the Getty Conservation Institute has established that the wax is natural beeswax.
We have also discovered that when Depaulis first restored the figure in the 1830s, the wax was lighter in color and more in harmony with the adjoining silver fragments. The results of recent wax analysis indicates that lead white was added to the wax mixture, which lightened the overall appearance of the wax restoration. Over the past 180 years the wax has darkened and become discolored.
Our study also suggests that the silver used to create the Mercury statuette was manufactured by hammering silver to a thin gauge sheet, but the left hand is solid and seems to have been made separately and to have been attached to the wrist of the right arm by sliding its wrist portion into the hollow arm. Traces of gilding on the wings of the god’s helmet are also preserved. The support rods appear to be solid and stable, so we have no plans to remove them.
Our work on this statue was one of what we hope to be many more interesting findings with this project.