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