Ancient World, Antiquities, Art, Art & Archives, Conservation

(Re)Discovering Tiberius

A newly conserved bronze statue of the troubled Roman emperor takes center stage in an exhibition at the Getty Villa

Statue of Tiberius

Statue of Tiberius, Roman, A.D. 37, Bronze, 96 7/8 in. (246 cm) high. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro

This over-life-size bronze portrait of the Roman emperor Tiberius—currently on loan to the Getty Villa from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) as part of a collaborative conservation project—was found at Herculaneum 272 years ago, on August 30, 1741. It’s timely to celebrate its discovery by noting some of the things we’ve discovered during the eleven months that we’ve been working on the statue.

As we mentioned in a previous post about the project, the portrait has been off view for some time, and our primary goal is to stabilize it for future display. You’ll be able see the statue standing upright in our forthcoming exhibition, Tiberius: Portrait of an Emperor (October 16, 2013–March 3, 2014), where we’ll tell you more about the internal structural support that’s been developed here at the Getty, as well as explore Tiberius’s character and reputation (Pliny the Elder referred to him as the “gloomiest of men.” Fair? Well, we’ll see…). For now, though, here are some observations regarding what happened in the Bay of Naples after the portrait was discovered on that August day in 1741.

Because a key aspect of our conservation project has been cleaning the figure, it has ­been necessary to understand what has happened to the statue’s surface over the centuries. This makes sure that we treat it correctly and guarantees that our own intervention does not pose any risks.,(the cleaning is, after all, the only aspect of our work that won’t be reversible.)

Through careful study, we learned that through the  years the statue had been subjected to several applications of wax, and that dust and grime had accumulated in each layer, dulling the appearance of the surface—and most probably necessitating the application of yet additional wax layers. We have removed these gradually using mixtures of solvents applied by a cotton swab, brush or poultice, depending on the amount of wax build-up.  You can see the results very clearly in this work-in-progress photo:

Statue of Tiberius

Erik points to a cleaned portion of Tiberius’s drapery surrounded by yet-uncleaned bronze.

One point to stress, though, is that the dark and more saturated surface you see being revealed in this photo is not representative of what the statue looked like when it was erected in ancient Herculaneum in the first century A.D. Rather, this is the artificial patina applied by the 18th-century restorers, which served to make the figure look as good as new (or, perhaps, “as good as old”) following its recovery. One of the areas for our further research is to explore exactly what this artificial patina is—what techniques and chemicals might have been used to create the greenish-black surface. We do, at least, have evidence of when it was applied. An archival note of June, 14, 1760, records that the repairs and the reassembly of the Tiberius had been completed (19 years after its discovery) and that it was ready to be patinated.  Camillo Paderni, who was in charge of the restorations in the Royal Foundry at Portici, near the site of ancient Herculaneum, took great efforts to ensure that the Neapolitan chief minister saw restored bronze statues prior to the application of a new patina, so the amount of work required was understood. For the other function (and benefit) of applying a new patina to the surface was that it could hide all traces of the restorers’ interventions.

Two hundred and seventy-two years later, the chance to study the Tiberius in detail has allowed us to identify some of methods used by these restorers. First of all, close looking brought to light substantial evidence for filing and rasping of the statue’s surface.

Statue of Tiberius / Conservation shot

Chisel marks on Tiberius left by 18th-century restorers’ tools

Statue of Tiberius / Conservation shot

A series of parallel lines show where a rasp or file tool was used to clean the compacted rock from Herculaneum from Tiberius’s bronze surface.

Bear in mind that when it was discovered, the portrait would have been encrusted with hard, compacted rock and ash (the pyroclastic flow from the eruption of Vesuvius). All of this would have needed to be removed, and aggressive methods—probably involving acids, too—were the order of the day.

Once the figure had been cleaned, the next step would have been to replace or reconstruct any missing areas. Through a variety of techniques, including X-radiography, endoscopy, combined X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction, as well as careful direct observation, we’ve been able to determine that although the statue looks complete today, there were substantial areas that were lacking, such as on the chest and along the figure’s left leg. These were recreated using a technique that has been recorded for many of the other bronze statues that were discovered at Herculaneum during the 18th century. Large quantities of molten bronze (in many cases, obtained from ancient fragments that were then deemed to be scrap) were poured to fill the gaps, and were secured in place with a series of bolts. You can understand why giving the statue a new patina was necessary to hide this kind of work.

Statue of Tiberius / Conservation work

On Tiberius’s wrist, an 18th century bolt helps secure the ancient hand in place

Statue of Tiberius / Conservation work

Caption: Tiberius in the Getty Villa conservation studios, August 26, 2013.

One last feature, which is still puzzling us. On first view, the right arm seems perfectly appropriate to the figure. Given the fact that Tiberius’s head is draped, it’s clear that he is shown in his role as chief priest (pontifex maximus), and one would expect to see him with his right hand extended in this manner, pouring a libation.

Statue of Tiberius / Conservation work

Caption: Right hand extended, the queen of Egypt pours libations from a shallow vessel on this Greek vase. Queen’s Vase with Berenike II, about 243–221 B.C., Greek, made in Egypt. Faience, 8 3/4 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum,

However, even if this is how the statue appeared in antiquity, we believe that the right arm he has now is a restoration. Look closely, and you’ll see it’s not quite proportional to the figure, and there’s evidence of joining: the area just above the crook of the (ancient) elbow has been cut and regularized to receive the arm.

Statue of Tiberius / Conservation work

Close-up of the join between Tiberius’s draped torso and his reconstructed right arm

What’s interesting, though, is that, from our initial scientific analysis, the metal alloy of this arm appears to be consistent with the alloy used for the portions of the body that we know to be ancient. Could this be an arm that was found during the excavations of Herculaneum, lying spare, and easily mated to the figure? Or could it have been cast specially for Tiberius by the restorers, using scraps of ancient bronze?

We still have many questions to answer about the history of this two-meter high statue, and we’ve not even touched on how it was created in antiquity. For now, we’re concentrating on the final phases of cleaning–but we’ll be preparing more posts during the course of the exhibition.

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  1. peter wolf
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    That is incredible!! I can hardly wait until that goes on display at the Villa. The Romans never cease to amaze. What amazing craftsmen and engineers.

  2. Nancy DeLucia Real
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I just saw this splendid sculpture yesterday at The Getty Villa. David Saunders (curator) and Erik Risser (conservator) did an amazing job on both the display as well as the restoration work. I love the dialogue between the the sculpture, the 18th-century book that talks about Tiberius’ portrait (in old Italian, btw) and other objects. The wall text and object labels give a good summary of the emperor’s political travails and character. Congratulations, David and Erik!

  3. luigia melillo
    Posted October 17, 2013 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    caro devid, caro erik,
    complimenti per il bel lavoro da voi realizzato. spero che avremo ancora l’opportunità di lavorare insieme per un nuovo, entusiasmante progetto.

    dear devid, dear erik,
    congratulations for the great work you have done. I hope that we will still have the opportunity to work together for a new, exciting project.

    Luigia Melillo
    Archeologo direttore coordinatore
    Responsabile del Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro
    del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

  4. Don Larson
    Posted February 7, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    What is the Getty’s final goal with the statue? Is it to remove all the 18th century restoration? While it may be more authentic that way, I can emphathize with the early restorers who wished to see the monumental bronze whole and complete with a pleasing patina. No doubt anthema to some ears, but having seen fragments of great ancient works for so long it is quite amazing to behold a complete work. So, if the arm is proved to be a restoration, or otherwise not original to this statue, will it be removed? My congratulations to all who have worked so hard on this restoration. It is incredible!

    • David Saunders
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Dear Don – many thanks for your message. Our goal with the Tiberius is exactly what you see today: to get him upright, so that he can be displayed – both here at the Villa (and after the exhibition closes in March, we’ll move him to our Men’s Gallery until September) and then when he returns to Naples. In order to do so, we had to examine the full ‘biography’ of the statue – all that it had undergone since its creation. In the case of the eighteenth-century restorations, these were identified as being secure and stable, so there was no pressing need for intervention (bearing in mind that these pieces are as much a part of the statue’s story as the ancient fragments). For the arm specifically – whether it’s a restoration or not – it’s iconographically sound: Tiberius is shown as pontifex maximus, and thus making a libation (he probably would originally have held a shallow bowl in his right hand). So there’s even less reason for us to intervene.

      If you’re interested in this topic, and how we deal with issues raised by restorations to ancient statues, compare the drapery of the Apollo from Pompeii. Here, after discussion with our colleagues in Naples, we did choose to remove (and replace) the restorations. For the reasons why, see
      And (if you’ll forgive a quick plug) there’ll be much more in this vein in an exhibition later this year devoted to a group of large South Italian vases.

  5. carl ehrlich
    Posted February 9, 2014 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Although, the restoration took place at the Villa, it doesn’t state which Getty will display the piece. I lost out on the Cyrus cylinder because of the same confusion. I think you might try to make the 2 museums have a more dramatic distinction regarding the exhibits.Thank you for the 2 most wonderful museums in my world.

    • Annelisa Stephan
      Posted February 10, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Hi Carl, Thanks for your comment. That’s an excellent point, thank you for raising it! We’ll try to make it easier to find which Getty location we’re referring to, we know it can sometimes be confusing. —Annelisa / Iris editor

  6. Joe Geranio
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Once again our Julio Claudian Iconogrpahic Assocaition has something to make us proud to be in California!! Thanks for sharing this wonderful work of art with the second princeps after Augustus! Great Tiberian Iconography and I hope the relief with Tiberius and Concord are still there? See attached of me and the relief. Thanks to the Getty Villa once again for having such great early empire art for us Californians to look at and I got the word out through the JCIA.

    Here was the suprise the Getty Villa had on wall in the hall of heads, when I was there. Wonderful Tiberian relief.

    And the Getty Villa ought to get a kick out of this. Before and After photo of me between Caligula and Augustus. Someone did a blog on the repeat museum visitor.

    Joe Geranio
    Julio Claudian Iconographic Association

  7. Brandon Roy
    Posted July 27, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Out of curiosity, what is the alloy content of the ancient part of the sculpture and the arm? I’m assuming you used a spectrometer to determine the alloy and I’m very interested to know the percentages of both the main and trace elements. And congratulations on your beautiful restoration work, the sculpture looks amazing. I am especially impressed with the internal armature and support base you devised.

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