Through American sculptors establishing studios in Italy, Italian carvers producing American monuments, and the peopling of Gilded Age gardens with ancient statuary from Italian dealers and collections, American public sculptural traditions have been defined by liberal borrowings from Italy. The period from the mid-19th century through the First World War represented the zenith of this exchange, when sculptures of marble carved by Italian scarpellini were the primary decorative elements of Beaux Arts architecture and civic monuments, and ancient Classical-themed figures gathered from Rome, Florence and the Veneto filled the elegant gardens of estates like Biltmore, Vizcaya, and Kykuit. These works have aged and deteriorated over their century-long exposure to the generally harsher American climate. A large part of my professional career as a conservator has been to analyze and treat this deterioration.
A specific focus of my study at the American Academy has been understanding the causes and treatment of a unique form of network fracturing in Carrara marble carved around 1906-1908. These works show evidence of a peculiar deterioration pattern whereby the stones develop a series of cubic and linear fractures, literally breaking apart into blocks. This is an unusual condition that is not found on monuments of the same stone either earlier or later. The worst examples of it are found in the grand allegorical groups by George Grey Barnard at the entrance to the Pennsylvania State Capital[i] but it is also seen on the Boy with Goose fountain at Kykuit,[ii] installed on the Rockefeller estate near Tarrytown, NY in 1908, and elsewhere. Oddly, the conditions were not apparent when the works were first created but these cracks and fractures appeared shortly after installation and have increased through freeze/thaw action and thermal hysteresis. I have studied this phenomena since first encountering it on a small fountain in a private collection in New Jersey 1995 that also dates to the same period.
This phenomenon must have resulted from specific stresses that either existed in a single quarry bed, were introduced by new quarrying techniques in extracting the blocks, or resulted from misunderstanding new stone-working techniques just coming into use at that time.[iii] Research so far has pointed to the use of new explosives in quarrying,[iv] rapidly expanding in use in hard stone quarries and noted as used in Carrara at exactly that time,[v] and the rapid introduction of pneumatic carving hammers for carving and stone extraction,[vi] also exactly contemporaneous with these works. Certainly the blasting, if it was used during the quarrying of these blocks, could have been the source of the stresses and fracturing, although these issues have been overcome and the method is still used to extract dimensional hard stone such as granite[vii]. Aggressive use of the carving hammers could have introduced local micro-fracturing which, while not exactly consistent with all of the observed conditions, may have been a contributing factor. While the findings so far are circumstantial, further research may confirm that these conditions are the result of either of both of these events.
While this is a very small focus, I have used its microscopic lens to illuminate a larger picture of the of Italian sources of American sculptural traditions, as well as questions about appropriate means of conserving these works. Whatever the original causes of the deterioration, treatment entails addressing the physical results within the context of the artists’ original intent, following American Institute for Conservation guidelines.[viii] While this is typically interpreted as meaning what the artist wanted his or her work to look like when it left the studio, I believe it is made more complicated by the fact that many of those who left America in the early years of the nineteenth century for Rome or Florence often stated that the esthetics of aging and decay was one of the attractions of Italy. When talking about restorations in Rome they assumed Ruskin’s notion that “Restoration…means the most total destruction … out of which no remnants can be gathered”.[ix] How should one approach the treatment of works by those who disparaged and shunned that same effort when applied to others? Should works of the “white marmorean flock”[x] be left soiled and untouched or restored to idealized perfection?
George Grey Barnard, one of the generation of American sculptors who came of age after the Civil War, studied in Paris instead of Rome. Although he also went to Carrara for his material and carvers, he looked to France instead for his esthetics and restoration ethos. While his notions of treatment may have been closer to Violette-le-Duc’s, “Restoration… is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time,”[xi] as evident in the restorations of the Medieval art and architecture he collected which became the core of the Cloisters Museum in New York, he also acknowledged the primacy of Rodin as a modern sculptor. Rodin, of course, was the first to intentionally use the esthetics of fragments and unfinished work as more compelling that the complete and himself collected antique fragments. Questions of the appropriateness of fills in antique statues alternated between the urge to make whole through re-creation of lacunae and acceptance of fragmentary states throughout the nineteenth century and one assumes that these sculptors considered this question when thinking of their own art. The preservation of the authentic is always considered paramount but its definition is elusive.[xii] Alois Reigl cited the conflicts between Altewert, the almost religious reverence for the aged artifact, and Kunstwert, the inherent virtues of the work of art as being inherently at odds. Reigl wrote “The observation of the Art-Value...which is the most acrimonious enemy of the Age-Value, can lead to the elimination of signs of old age and necessitates under certain circumstances a restouratio in integrum.”[xiii] The issue is far from settled more than two centuries after Antonio Canova told Lord Elgin that the Parthenon marbles were complete even in their fragmentary state and should not be touched[xiv] thereby breaking with a tradition of repair, restoration and re-use dating back to the Greeks, at least.
The techniques of conservation treatment naturally tend toward the extreme of restoration in cleaning and fills unless carefully controlled. The acceptance of patina, staining, and fragmentation or loss are the product of curatorial wishes and skillful restraint. As Reigl noted, balancing the age-value and art-value, which he interestingly equated with the tawdry virtues of newness, is the challenge in treating works for which there is no clear preference. Are we at the point where sculptures from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have accumulated adequate age-value to balance their art-value? Balancing the effects of weathering, inherent vice, the esthetics of the sculptors AND our own wishes and prejudices is both the challenge and interest of the conservator.
[i] The sculptures were installed in 1911. This condition was discussed in letters to the Governor of the State from Barnard in the collection of the Capital Preservation Commission dated June 21, and 24, 1928.
[ii]Purchased 1908. This work and the PA Capital groups were assessed and treated by the author between 2002-2010.
[iii]Stone extraction from Carrara quarries had been achieved with drilling and wire saws using sand as an abrasive from at least 1866, a laborious and slow process. Technical improvements to speed up productivity and lower costs were always being testing and, it appears, rejected as the method was still in use when I visited these quarries in the mid 1980’s. The method was replaced with diamond saws in the 1990’s as artificial industrial diamonds became less costly.
[iv] Rassegna Mineraria e delle industrei mineralurgiche e mettallurgiche d’arti scienze, economia e finanzat affini. 1902 Vol. XVI N. 10 and later
[v] Lo Scultore in Marmo, Milano, N. 66, November30 -December 1, 1908 p. 2
[vi] Although pneumatic hammers were patented in the US in the 1890's, an article on the rapid expansion of the use of pneumatic hammers only appeared in a journal for carvers Lo Scultore in Marmo, Milan, November 30– December 1, Anno VII N. 97,1909. Numerous advertisements selling the equipment also began appearing then.
[vii] Primavori, Piero, I materiali Lapidei Ornamentail Marmi, Graniti E Pietre, Edizioni ETS Pisa, 1997. pps. 160-161
[viii] Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice,http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=858&nodeID=1 retrieved 3/26/2011.
[ix] Ruskin, John, Selections from the Writings of John Ruskin, Smith, Elder & co. London 1861, p. 273
[x]James, Henry, Life of W. W. Story
[xi] Violette-le-Duc, Eugene-Emanuel, On Restoration 1865, English translation May 1875, p.9
[xii] Muñoz Viñas, Salvador, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2005, discusses this extensively in the chapter “The decline of truth and objectivity”
[xiii] Lehne, Andreas discusses Reigl’s value system in Georg Dehio, Alois Reigl, Max Dvorak - a threshold in theory development published in Proceedings of the International Conference of the ICOMOS international Scientific Committee for the theory and the Philosophy of Conservation and Restoration, 23-27 April 2008, (Vienna, Austria) Edizioni Polistampa, Firenze 2010
[xiv]Pinelli, Orietta Rossi, From the Need for Completion to the Cult of the Fragment published in History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2003. After seeing the carvings, Canova, as General Inspector of Antiquities for the Vatican, issued a regulation to promote the purchase of “those monuments that are still conserved without restoration in their ancient originality.”
One of the Carrara marble sculpture groups by George Grey Barnard shortly after installation at the Pennsylvania State Capital in 1911
Detail showing the endemic network fracturing found on the Barnard groups
Detail of cracking showing injection treatment
Wire saw in operation in a stone quarry circa 1880
Boy and Goose Fountain at Kykuit, Tarrytown New York after treatment
Detail of similar cracking on fountain tripod
Trained as a sculptor and conservator, he specializes in the analysis and treatment of monuments, sculpture, fountains, architectural and industrial artifacts and historic structures. Currently holds the position of Vice President and Senior Conservator with Conservation Solutions, Inc., a conservation specialty firm whose practice ranges from dinosaur tracks to Saturn V rockets, and a lot in-between. He worked in the public sector as Chief Consulting Conservator for the New York City Department of Parks and as Director of Historic Preservation for the Central Park Conservancy. He has authored an extensive number of papers and presentations, most recently on the removal of biological fouling on marble for the upcoming ICOMOS “Pierre de Jardins” conference in Paris. His projects have received numerous awards, including NYC Art Commission (3 times), New York Landmarks Conservancy (3 times), NY Preservation League, Smithsonian Institute/Heritage Preservation: Save Outdoor Sculpture (2 times), Dade County Preservation Trust and others. He was named “Maestro della Vecchie Arte di Pietro” in Verona, Italy in 1984, Allied Professional of the National Sculpture Society in 1993, and Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation in 2004. In addition to the research on stone deterioration he has been painting while in Rome at the Academy.