A-level: The conservator’s eye—Marble statue of a wounded warrior

Marble statue of a wounded warrior, c. 138-181 C.E.,  Roman copy of a Greek bronze sculpture of c. 460–450 B.C.E., 220.98 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Corey D’Augustine and Dr. Beth Harris


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This sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:08] We’re here in the ancient Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at an ancient Roman sculpture of a wounded warrior.

Corey D’Augustine: [0:12] This is a dramatic decision made by the museum here, to show only a fragment of this work. He actually is missing some very important parts. Part of his head, his nose, both of his hands, presumably a weapon, a shield.

Dr. Harris: [0:22] Some parts have been restored.

Corey: [0:24] A huge portion of the figure’s proper right torso is lost, and it’s been resupplied here. What would it look like without a big chunk of his abdomen? Maybe that’s more distracting, in a way, than lacking a nose.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] More distracting and harder to understand what the ancient Roman sculptor was after. For the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks, the human body was so important, and that delineation of the muscles in the torso, that would be hard to see if that big part of the torso was missing, whereas the hands and the nose, maybe we can live without those.

Corey: [0:55] Maybe, but definitely if we were looking at this same exact sculpture a hundred years ago, an artist would’ve been hired to resupply that nose, those hands, add a weapon, and they may have been completely different from the original. That artist would’ve been trying to embellish this work, make it look more beautiful.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] We know artists like Bernini and Michelangelo were involved in helping to reconstruct ancient Greek and Roman works, but I can always tell a Bernini foot or hand from the ancient sculpture.

Corey: [1:21] Bernini wanted you to know what he did because he wanted his additions to be better than the original. As a conservator, we never try to improve on the original. What we try to do is to respect the original artist’s intentions as much as possible.

[1:34] The way I like to think about it is that we help the work age gracefully. We study the work. We try to understand the original artist’s intentions, but we don’t falsify the historical record. We acknowledge the fact that the work is quite old.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] On the other hand, we’re not acknowledging the fact that this has been restored. When I look at it, I can’t see the seams.

Corey: [1:51] Unless you’re looking at this map supplied by the Metropolitan, or unless you’re a conservator with highly trained eyes, you don’t know that that abdomen has been restored. This is called invisible restoration. If we look at another work of art in marble, the Parthenon, we realize that it’s crystal clear which parts of the building are original and which parts are resupplied.

Dr. Harris: [2:10] These are decisions that curators and museums and conservators are making with individual objects every day.

Corey: [2:17] Often, when we think about restorers or conservators, we think about them putting together fragments of sculptures or making sure that paintings don’t have peeling or flaking paint. That’s half of what we do, but certainly, the aesthetics of art conservation are really important.

[2:33] Looking at this work, I see that the patina is darkened. I see the age of this work more than certain other works in the gallery here, the patina of a work of art is the surface of it. It’s extremely thin.

[2:45] What’s important about it is, first of all, it’s the part that you see, but equally importantly, that’s the part that meets the oxygen in the air. It’s the part that meets the ultraviolet light that can discolor many materials.

[2:54] It’s the part that meets the grime, the soiling from being underground for such a long time. It’s also the part that meets your greasy fingertips if — please don’t do this — but if you start touching works of art in museums.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] You’re using this technical term of the patina, but in some cases I feel I’m seeing just dirt on the surface, is that what you mean by patina?

Corey: [3:11] Well, here’s why this term can be really debatable. Marble, like many materials, is porous. Grime can go into the surface of marble, and certainly, it can discolor as it oxidizes over time. So, is that a desirable patina or not?

Dr. Harris: [3:26] In this case, the conservators and the museum made a decision to retain this patina.

Corey: [3:31] Depending on when a work is restored, say in the 19th century, when a more aggressive cleaning was favored, perhaps it’s now looking rather bleached today, rather white.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] In fact, in many cases, these ancient sculptures were really brightly painted.

Corey: [3:45] With, by today’s taste anyway, very garish colors.

Dr. Harris: [3:48] With ancient works, we’re used to seeing pieces missing, we’re used to seeing age on the surface. But if this was a modern work and it was missing a piece, we might not be as comfortable with it. The restorer might take a more proactive approach and fill something in.

Corey: [4:04] The distance in time now, between us and the making of these objects, has a lot to do with how much aging is acceptable. If something is this old, perhaps it’s okay to have some grime and some chipping and some cracking.

[4:20] Imagine if this is a 21st century sculpture, those same cracks, those same chips, might be really distracting and might prevent us from appreciating the original artist’s intentions. Here, my eyes understand that this work is very old. Part of the reason I’m here to look at this sculpture is that it is very old. I want to know that.

[4:32] What I’m most interested in this work is having both, if I can. I want to have this balance between understanding the artist’s intentions, but I also want to understand the historical record.

[4:40] On the one hand, conservators today are striving for objectivity. We’re trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, let’s acknowledge that our tastes are deeply conditioned by history.

Dr. Harris: [4:50] Even though we’re trying to be scientific and objective, we still carry our historical moment with us.

Corey: [4:56] We want to make sure that however we favor interpreting these works today, it’s not the end of the story, because clearly, future generations will have different ideas, and different restoration techniques as well.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Corey D'Augustine and Dr. Beth Harris, "A-level: The conservator’s eye—Marble statue of a wounded warrior," in Smarthistory, June 14, 2017, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-conservators-eye-marble-statue-of-a-wounded-warrior-2/.