Vatican Museums restorers save artworks in Italy’s earthquake zones

Firefighters inspect artwork rescued from a church in quake-struck Norcia, Italy - AP

Firefighters inspect artwork rescued from a church in quake-struck Norcia, Italy – AP

(Vatican Radio) Five restorers from the Vatican Museums are working to salvage works of art in churches and towns damaged in recent earthquakes in central Italy: that, according to Barbara Jatta, the Museums’ new director who takes up her post on January 1.  At a press conference Friday, Jatta said most are working in Umbria, between Norcia and Spoleto.

The Vatican Museums’ first woman director said some 20 of the institution’s  65 experts have offered to collaborate with local municipal arts departments to secure fresco cycles and important works buried under the rubble.  The Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, reports that many of the works will be brought to the Museums’ restoration labs to be cleaned and repaired.

Jatta added that the Museums are also supporting the quake zones’ economies by purchasing local food products for their catering services.

Though access to the damaged areas is challenging amid continuous tremors, the Vatican restorers have already inspected 25 churches and 6 fresco cycles.  25 important but injured works of art have been recovered.

Article posted on the Radio Vaticana website

http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/12/24/vatican_museums_restorers_save_artwork_in_italy%E2%80%99s_quake_zone/1281339

INAUGURATION OF THE BRACCIO NUOVO

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INAUGURATION OF THE BRACCIO NUOVO

Wednesday Dicember 21st, 2016 |  5:30PM
BRACCIO NUOVO, VATICAN MUSEUMS
Free Entrance from Viale Vaticano showing the invitation
Starting from 5:00PM until 6:00PM
 RSVP eventi.musei@scv.va

Located between the Chiaramonti Gallery and the Profane Museum, the Braccio Nuovo is one of the most frequented and admired Galleries inside the Vatican.  Built under the supervision of Raffaele Stern during the pontificate of Pope Pius VII and opened to the public in 1822, The Braccio Nuovo is one of the most beautiful examples of Neoclassical Art.  The architecture and colored marble (often taken from old Roman buildings) recall the ancient and glorious past where classic sculptures are displayed in ideal niches similar to their original ambience. The caisson ceiling has skylights that allow natural light to break through and illuminate the whole architectural space. The walls are decorated with stucco-friezes in bas reliefs done by Francesco Massimiliano Laboureur and inspired by famous Roman monuments (e.g. the Trajan Column and the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum). There are niches that showcase the statues perfectly. Several busts are located on small columns and shelves.

Veduta del Braccio Nuovo con la Statua del Nilo, Musei Vaticani

 

Sculpture Restoration in the Braccio Nuovo

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This amazing project began in 2009 thanks to the generosity of the Patrons of the Arts, and with the addition of this project, became the first Gallery entirely restored by Patrons! Some of the most important dinners for both the Cardinals and the Patrons of the Arts are held in this marvellous place. This project focussed on the restoration of the sculptures and friezes located on the left hand side of the wall up to the Nile Statue. The task was to complete the cleaning of 132 busts and statues. This project proved an invaluable opportunity for a comprehensive and thorough study of the sculptures and has produced results of importance for the history of restorations between the 16th through the 19th centuries. The Braccio Nuovo, born expressly as a museum display room, is unique from all other galleries in the museums and is one of our most scenic. For the first time in the history of the Museums, an entire selection of classical sculpture has been studied according to a well-planned program both in regards to the historical documentary research and the technical production. The entire project was intended to become a paradigmatic model of intervention to be extended to other areas of the museums of classical sculpture. The work provided a conservative intervention of surface cleaning, grouting and aesthetic treatment for all the sculptures and busts, as well as maintenance on the stucco friezes performed by the Marble Laboratory. All phases of work were duly documented with photographs and the creation of graphics. A database recording each conservation sculptural work and the model used by the laboratory accompanied the intervention.

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State of Preservation before the restoration:

The statues of the Braccio Nuovo were characterized by a large quantity of previous restorations and integrations with stucco and mortar that needed to be removed and redone. Several statues were restored by mixing elements together. Layers of dust and old varnish covered the surfaces and needed to be removed. Naturally, the cleaning enabled a better preservation for the future and increase the public’s appreciation of these pieces.

Restoration Process undertaken for each Statue included:

  • Diagnosis of state and conditions
  • Photographic documentation before restoration
  • Location for scaffolding
  • Laboratory analysis
  • Choice of a suitable cleaning system
  • 3D documentation
  • Cleaning and consolidation of the surface
  • Removal of previous restorations, integrations and consolidations
  • Cleaning of the dark stains resulted from water and pollution
  • Checking and possible removal of iron nails located in the marble structure replaced with fibreglass or steal
  • Recreation of a chromatic balance on the entire surface where needed
  • Overall lay out of protective layer
  • Photographic documentation: 8 photos for each statue; 4 for each bust
  • 3D documentation as integration to the previous one in order to obtain historical documentation of the piece when the ancient restoration is removed
  • Data processing for complete documentation for each single statue

 

 

Mosaics Restoration in the Braccio Nuovo

Artist: Unknown
Date: 2nd Century AD
Dimensions: 5,60 x 1.50 ; 5,60x 5,60
Material: Stone
Inventory Number: 45766-45767

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The restoration of these two mosaics completed the conservation work which has been carried on for some years now on the floor of the Braccio Nuovo Gallery. At the archaeological excavations conducted brac1between 1817 and 1821 in the area of Tor Marancia on the Via Ardeatina, just outside the Porta San Sebastiano, were found the remains of at least two large residential areas of senatorial families dating back to the second century AD. Some names of the owners, Munatia Procula, Numisia Procula and Fulvius Petronius Aemilianus, still appear on the Fistula aquarium. The archaeological research was carried out by the Marquis Luigi Biondi, butler and superintendent of the property of Princess Maria of Savoy Chablais, daughter of King Vittorio Amedeo III of Sardinia, who, in her will, left the Vatican Museums a part of his collection, now primarily displayed in the Gallery of the Candelabra. A few of the mosaic floors found during the excavations entered in the Vatican collections and were placed, highly integrated and reassembled, in the floor of the Braccio Nuovo, which opened to the public in 1822. These mosaics are made with white and black tiles. Their outline is decorated with geometric patterns or clusters with small birds pecking at grapes, while the central area contains  more complex figurative scenes: marine courting, some episodes of the legendary wanderings of Ulysses in the Mediterranean and, finally, a large representation of Dionysian scenes. At the corners of the Dionysian scene are located tufts of acanthus foliage. At the four corners there are pictures of young satyrs bearing the typical attributes of Tirso and goat skin garments. At the centre there is an older bearded satyr, and a Bacchante with a crown of vine leaves on his head; both are imbued with wine and dance.

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Across the Mosaic, several different restorations—completed during the past few centuries—are evident at surface level. Their visibility is due to the fact that these restoration treatments were, unfortunately, not carried out according to the now established ethics of conservation and bylaws of reversibility in restoration. One particularly compromising restoration, executed in the brac1960s, inserted cement tiles directly into the mosaic and affixed the entire piece to nine metal platforms. These metal platforms eventually became one of the major stresses of the mosaic, as they caused several breaks in the surface structure and, consequentially, the loss of many surface tiles. The mosaic had also been integrated in several areas with lime stone and pozzolana materials. The most harmful material used ended up being the cement, which literally broke parts of the mosaic and its tiles into pieces. Restorers also found that the mosaic’s original limestone, which had originally (and continuously) been keeping portions of the work together, was severely deteriorated and had become another culprit behind the daily loss of tiles and smaller pieces of the mosaic. The first stage of the restoration began with a thorough removal of the many types of deposits that had accumulated in the spaces between the tiles. Next, the surface wax that had been applied to the floor of the Braccio Nuovo, and thus the surface of the mosaic, was removed in order to allow for a better absorption of the consolidating substances applied by the restorers, where needed. The entire surface was then delicately treated: old mortar was carefully removed, and the process of reintegrating missing pieces began. All the missing tiles were reintegrated with new ones that were purposely painted “sottotono” (using a lower tone of color ) in order to showcase the current restoration, following the ethics of conservation and bylaws of restoration of the Vatican Museums: restorers aim to return a work to its necessary level of readability, but only in a way that does not mask the original. The team created a graphic documentation of the work, in order to track the positions of all tiles, original and non-original. Next, restorers applied a silica-based mixture in between and beneath the tiles to consolidate the entire mosaic. Then, gaps were reintegrated with ancient mosaic tiles that were best suited to homogenize the work. These tiles were grouted with mortar in three different tones: one for the dark figures, the black bars, and the perimeter of the frame, one clear mortar for the white areas, and a neutral tone for the central area and the bands of mosaics

State of Preservation before the restoration:

The mosaics were in overall good condition but some tiles were slowly detaching due to time, corrosion and in particular, the heavy travertine support system.

Restoration Process Included:

  • Cleaning of the mosaic surface
  • Replacing of the travertine support with a flexible aluminium honeycomb (areolam)
  • Restoration of the bedding of the tiles.

Thanks to donations from Mr. & Mrs. Petrosky and Robert LoCascio of the New York Chapter, The Statues and the Mosaics in the Braccio Nuovo have been fully restored. Found during excavations of second century dwellings, these marvelously intricate floors were beginning to crack and develop discoloration. Broken tiles were reintroduced and the floor was sealed according to modern restoration techniques so as not to undermine the integrity of the original. Restorers Robert Cassio, Paolo Monaldi and Danielle Belladonna worked laboriously to insure that we can still see the work of the original craftsmen. The finished product is as gloriously represented as when the floors were first completed almost 2,000 years ago.

 

PROJECT REPORT: BERNINI ANGELS

PREPARATORY MODELS FOR THE BRONZE FIGURES OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER

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Long and arduous is the history of the Chair of St. Peter. In 1658, Pope Alexander VII, always turning his attention to Divine Worship and the greater glory of the saints, decided to give the Chair of St. Peter a more worthy residence. The original Chair, according to medieval tradition, was where Saint Peter sat as the first Bishop of Rome and first Pope to instruct the early Christians. It is a venerated wood and ivory relic, and a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald to Pope John VII in 875. Years later, Pope Alexander VII communicated his intentions of homage and
devotion to his most favorite sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo _ Bernini. The artist at once set out on paper to draft ideas for a project that indubitably would, for its supreme beauty and importance, be undeniably worthy of the “sublime intentions” of the Holy Pontiff.

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This was indeed the case. In the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, Bernini’s monumental magnum opus was born, masterfully executed in marble, gilded stucco and bronze, and would be known through the ages as the Chair of St. Peter. Bernini actually invented a type of grandiose reliquary for the chair a veritable theatrical machine in which the four Doctors of the Church, larger than life, support a bronze chair (encapsulating the original wooden relic) that miraculously rises towards angelic hosts and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The preparatory models of the angels and the heads of Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom are already restored, thanks the generous contributions of the New York Chapter and Mrs. Romanelli of the Patrons of the Arts. The angel models actually vary in size (there are two larger and two smaller), as they correspond to two various stages of design elaboration. These clay and straw models used for the fusion of the bronze figures of the Chair are precious witnesses of the evolution of the overall work. They testify to how the immense undertaking was transformed over the course of a decade during which Bernini continuously labored with his grand project. The work, in fact, unfolded with great difficulty. At first, Bernini had designed the Altar of the Chair much smaller with respect to the current design. The Altar visible today in St. Peter’s is about 30 meters high – over twice the size of the original project. The first stage is reflected in the models of the two smaller angels, which were eventually rejected since they no longer aligned within the new grandiose structure. The source of this change stems from when, in 1658-1660, Bernini made a life-sized model of the altar in wood and plaster to fit into the apse of St. Peter’s in order to verify the project’s proportions.

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The angels set against this model were altogether too small. Years later, Lyon Pascoli in his book “Lives”, recalls the episode when Bernini met with a fellow painter friend, Andrea Sacchi. Pascoli writes, “…they entered the church, and little by little came closer to the cross. Noticing that Andrea had still not yet discovered the Chair, Bernini continued to walk so as to lead his friend closer to see it. Andrea, however, remained in his place and said, ‘Here, Mr. Bernini, is the place from where I would like to see, and where one should be able to see the work, and where I long for it to come into view.’ Since this was the point of the visit, Bernini considered and reconsidered Andrea’s words while the latter, still without a quiver of movement or one step forward, added that the three statues from that vantage point should be at least a good hand’s width larger. Leaving the church without anything more to say, Andrea entered his carriage to depart….Meanwhile, the great Bernini who already had known all this himself, angrily set off to recreate his figures”. (L. Pascoli, “Lives”, 1730).

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It was like this, then, and with the help of sculptors Ercole Ferrata and Antonio Raggi, that Bernini decided to enlarge the monument, for which he made a second version of the angels and the heads of Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom, now restored. The second version of the angels, much larger and proportional to the whole of the altar, was used for the bronze casting. Once the size was clarified, undertaking the Chair’s execution was an event filled with suffering. Bernini persevered despite King Louis XIV ‘s mandate for him to remain in France. The artist, so far away from Rome, would sometimes have tears welling up in his eyes when thinking about the work. The work was finally finished in 1666. In a solemn procession, the work was carried in to be placed in the Bernini masterpiece. The hailed artist wrote to his friend in Chantelou, France, “It is by the grace of God that I finished the Chair.”

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Model for an Altar Angel of the Blessed sacrament in saint Peter’s Basilica

Already in 1629 Pope Urban VIII had commissioned Bernini to design an altar in St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the most Blessed Sacrament. The Holy Pontiff never had, however, the joy of seeing the work completed. The long design phase that included several revisions ended only in 1673 under the papacy of Pope Clement X, culminating in an altar design in which the tabernacle is flanked on either side by two angels, adoring, and on bended knee. The kneeling angel, now restored, is the model for the bronze casting, and is located on the right of the tabernacle. The angel was made from clay and straw by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini with the help of Giovanni Rinaldi in 1673

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Restoration


The restoration work began with a preliminary dust removal, which clearly showed that in numerous places parts of the plaster were missing, and had been subject to past efforts to fill and reconstruct them. In turn, they were cleverly disguised with coloured paints stretching over the original surfaces. A notable type of dust particulate present on the work made it evident that the constitutive elements of the work (i.e wood and straw) were at one point compromised by insect infestation, clearly necessitating the need for anoxic disinfestation treatment. The deposits of dust and layer of dirt that greyed the surfaces were removed by special gum erasers varying in their texture and composition. Varnishes and other invasive substances were eliminated with solvent packs in order to not leave any marks or stains on the clay. This substance was also applied in the areas where the iron structural elements were corroded in order to slow down further degradation.

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At the end of revitalizing most of the surfaces from the time when the angels were originally executed, it was necessary to then remove the most recent “refurbishing” interventions that were made. These attempts to consolidate the piece with plaster actually contributed in part to the piece’s overall degradation. The works were also pieced back together. The consolidation efforts, mainly adhesions and structural reconstructions, were executed using an impasto with a cellulite base specifically formulated for this project. Its characteristic ease in application and workability, lightness, maximum reversibility, and, most importantly, its lack of aqueous or greasy solvents rendered this impasto perfect for the job. The visible surfaces of these reconstructions were successfully camouflaged by using watercolor paints applied with a stippling technique. The result: a perceptibly homogenous and intact piece.

Model of Piazza Pius XII by Pierino Di Carlo

Pierino Di Carlo lavora al modello di Roma antica_1935_courtesy P. Di Carlo

The plaster model of Piazza Pius XII was made by the artist Pierino di Carlo from Abruzzo (1906-1992) in the 1930’s. Pierino di Carlo was already thModello 2e creator of the famous scale model of Rome in the Constantine age known as Grande Plastico dell’Urbe (scale1:250) that is kept in the Museum of the Roman Civilization. The artist was known as one of the most talented artisans and scholars of this typology of architectural replica. The quintessence of the Vatican collections is divided in two sections and faithfully reconstructs the wide entry that connects Via della Conciliazione to St. Peters, and the buildings that delimit it. The prodigious technical competence with which this piece was made stands as witness to the vast experience that the artist had with material. At the same time, it is proof of the remarkable need the commissioner had. As an elevated quality was asked of Pierino Di Carlo, he responded by offering excellence with regards to the technical aspect: Di Carlo meticulously represents each and every architectural element, each ratio, molding, and profile, while faithfully respecting the dimension of the project in scale. The two sections present a wooden framework and a “double level” in plaster in those parts which are not visible. Both are fixed with vegetable fibers. Thus, respecting the traditional techniques for the creation of plaster models.

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Modello 4

Copies of the catacomb paintings

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The collections of the Pius Christian Museum encompass 34 copies of ancient paintings that are principally dedicated to the decoration of the Roman suburban catacombs. The painting copies are made with tempera or oil on canvas applied on a canvas sustainment that is mounted on wooden frames.

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At times, they could reach monumental sizes. Moreover, they were made during the 19th century by specialized copyists, who were accustomed to entering the uncomfortable underground spaces to copy from the legitimate antique paintings, with torches as their only source of light. This was the only way to enable the general public and scholars to be part of this artistic heritage that would daily emerge from the archeological exploring from the underground cemeteries. Without them, these paintings would have been inaccessible to the public.

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The one-of-a-kind copies of the catacomb paintings are connected to the first developments of Christian archeology seen as a scientific discipline thanks to the work of the Jesuit Father Giuseppe Marchi and of his brilliant pupil, Giovanni Battista de Rossi. When Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) requested the creation of a «Christian Museum» in the Lateran Palace to Fr. Marchi, Marchi decided to commission copies of the catacomb paintings from the famous painter Carlo Ruspi and other specialists, as Silvestro Bossi. The Pius Christian Museum, named after its creator, was launched in 1854, with a section purposefully dedicated to the grand “fac-simile” of the catacomb frescoes. Unfortunately, when the archeological collections of the Lateran Museum were moved to the Vatican in 1963, the painted copies did not find space within the new set-up and ended up in storage. Here, they were essentially forgotten until the rediscovery and the appreciation occurred with the restoration project. Of the latter, some phases have already been concluded.

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Indeed, in the past years, the renewed awareness regarding these precious documents led to the recovery of the large paintings, currently exhibited in the Pius Christian Museum. A fourth painting, of large dimensions, is located in the Painting Restoration Laboratory of the Vatican Museums. The success of these first initiatives encouraged the beginning of a collective restoration project of the copies from the 1800’s, in order to give back to the Museums and to its visitors a patrimony of great aesthetic and documentary value.

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In particular, thank to the contribution of the California Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums it was possible to complete the restoration in 2014 and 2015: disinfestations, clearing and securing of the 34 painting reproductions. Moreover, the support of the Patrons allowed the restoration of a group of five paintings that had drawn attention to certain urgent conservation needs. Along with these, there were also missing parts, tears and detachments of the paint layer, seen as a cause of its preservative status, as well as the deteriorated phenomenon connected to the deformation of the wooden frameworks.

Four Decorated Coptic Tunics Fragments

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These four fragments constitute an important testimony to the art of Coptic textile, according to the documentations of the 4th to 5th centuries in Akhmim, the ancient city of Panopolis, one of the major centers in the Nile Valley. The city was the Episcopal Chair of the Bishop since the 4th century. Akhmim (Panopolis) was celebrated in the late ancient world for its textile industry, its factories capable of producing fabrics of grand refinement and artistic technicality. Surrounded by an extensive necropolis that was excavated from the end of the 19th century by French and German archeologists, Panopolis has provided us with precious textile artifacts, the major part of which are attributable to those well-endowed, as indicative of the refined executive techniques in its workmanship along with the incorporation of precious materials such as silk and gold in their design.

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Aula delle Benedizioni (Benediction Hall)

Foto digitale

Foto digitale

The Aula delle Benedizioni (Benediction Hall) is a large monumental space located above the narthex (lobby area in the nave) of the Vatican Basilica, which takes up the dimensions of the architectural plan (30 x 30) and is divided by fluted Corinthian pilasters supporting the barrel coffered vaulting. Its longer sides are marked by large windows that look out to the east toward St. Peter’s Square and on the opposite side to the inside of the Basilica.
For centuries, the front area facing the the Square is the main view overlooking the Vatican to the city of Rome and traditionally it is from here that the pontiffs face and are acclaimed by the crowds of visitors and pilgrims during the most important Church occasions. In the 15th century, a loggia was constructed in the front area to be used for papal blessings and t his function was featured in many of the projects for the Church over the century that witnessed the current building reconstruction. In 1607 Paul V (1605-21) commissioned the architect Carlo Maderno (1556-29) to complete St. Peter’s Basilica and the plan called for the demolition of what remained of the Constantine-era aisle and the front portico, on which was superimposed a new loggia – the Aula delle Benedizioni (Benediction Hall) that we see today. Closed on the two shorter sides between two buildings that were first designated to hold two lateral bell towers designed by Bernini and interrupted in 1645, the hall is both in direct communication with the Basilica and the Apostolic Palace by way of the Pauline Chapel, the Sala Regia (Regal Room), the Ducal Hall and the Sistine Chapel. The walls, which grandly display the six hills and star of the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67), support a great coffered vault decorated with rosettes, conserved over the centuries through interventions that have partly changed the original appearance of the room. In the last century, the coloring of the surfaces was greatly modified. Recently, the stucco decorations have been compromised; this was caused by aging materials and the infiltration of rainwater from the roof terrace overlooking the Basilica. The consequent safety of the hall’s ceiling has drastically limited the practicability of the environment. Restoration of the floors and the elimination of the problematic water infiltration allowed the possibility of repairing the lost stucco elements, thus returning the room as the ceremonial setting and use for which it was designed. The restoration of this large hall as representation for papal ceremonies will re-consign to the Vatican one of its most important monumental spaces, a privileged place for encounters between the Holy Father and the faithful.

Statue of Aura


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This feminine figure majestically walks with her left leg in front and the right one flexed and back. A light Chiton falls to the woman’s ankles and_MG_8830 adheres to her breasts and legs, contouring her curves. Meanwhile, a mantel is wrapped around the central part of her body. Originally, it was supposed to appear lifted above her head, blown by the wind. As a matter of fact, the statue represents the embodiment of sea breeze -a subject that was frequently used in ancient Greece to decorate temples. Especially on the acroterion statues, which usually adorned the top of the pediments. It is assumed that it is precisely an acroterion figure which was held as a role model for our statue, along with other Roman replicas -of which the majority were made in Pentelic marble and can  be dated back to the 1st century AD. However, the original prototype can be found in Greece and is most likely done by the hands of an Attic sculptor who, influenced by Fidia, operated in the final decades of the 5th century BC. With regards to the sculptures which adorned the pediments of the Parthenon, the famous sculptor from Athens experimented innovative plastic solutions in order to render the movements of the draperies and the lightness of the clothing into the marble. The fabric wraps around the female curves and enhances them, almost as if it were wet. For the first time in the history of ancient art, the female curves are shown with their realistic nature. The statue of Aura, even though it is a Roman replica of later centuries, witnesses the grand artistic and cultural period that occurred in Athens in the 5th century BC; right after the victory against the Persians, and especially during the governing of Pericles.

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Drawings from the Archives of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls

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Thanks to the contribution given by many Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museums from different Chapters such as Canada and Minnesota, the restoration project of the first group of works on papers has reached its conclusion. This pertains to a very rich ensemble of documents, drawings and projects all drafted in 1823 and 1824, and that are now housed in the archives. These artifacts tell the story of the reconstruction of Saint Paul Outside The Walls. following the devastating fire of 1823. They are, therefore, quintessential to the preservation of the historical identity of this papal basilica. In order to complete the restoration of this collection, it is necessary to work on 300 more drawings which are very fragile. These artifacts are distinguishable from the previous lot as their sizes are much larger, their preservation status is more complex, and they need a more careful and thorough restoration in order to regain their decorative beauty.

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This is a collection of graphic works composed of heliographic prints embellished with graphite, colored pencils and inks on a 1:1 scale. The works depict architectural elements such as grooves and bases of columns, moldings and trabeations, and even decorative patterns used for designing pilasters on mural paintings. Included are architectural renderings made on tracing paper – waxed or cotton-based-which picture the transept, naves, altars and bell tower.

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Therefore, any kind of decorative patterns which is used on pilasters. There are architectural drawings made on tracing paper -wax or canvas -which describe the transept, the naves, the altars and the bell tower. Lastly, there are the general schemes of the exquisite decorative apparatuses, the representation of the details (mosaics, floor marbles, friezes and ceilings) all made on paper with colored pencils or tempera.

Infant Coptic Tunic

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The expression “Coptic Art” practically defines artistic production in Egypt from the first centuries of our time until the end of the Ottoman Empire. This time period can be recognized in three distinct phases: the first extends from the Emperor Augustus to that of Constantine, who in 313 liberated the Christian religion; the second corresponds to when Christianity was most widespread in Egypt and lasts until the country’s Islamic conquest in 640 A.D.; the third takes place during this Islamic rule until its termination in 1798, marking the conclusion of the Ottoman domination.
Even if during the first phase, Coptic Art found expression within artistic sectors not directly connected to the field of Christian religion (i.e. wood relief, ivory, bronze works, painted ceramics), at the onset of the Islamic age it became practically synonymous with Christian Egyptian Art. In this age the Copts – a term now identifying solely the country’s Christian inhabitants – give life to a unique form of artistic production. This type of creative work, primarily cultivated in monastic communities, primarily found expression in the world of icons and textile art.
The textile is, in fact, among the best known artistic expressions relating to this cultural context. The pieces that have made their way to us are fragments of used clothing, commonly used liturgical garments, and, for example, tunics typical in men’s and women’s clothing. Other elements in this genre of art are found among the walls of religious buildings or sepulchral monuments, tablecloths, carpets, or curtains. The massive fabric production was favorable thanks to environmental conditions perfect for fostering the cultivation of flaxseed for linen, as well as by the high demand for such imports from centers of trade such as Rome or other imperial zones. Often textiles were used as money, as a method of exchange to bring other merchant goods into Egypt. It should not be forgotten that from the fourth century, the Christianization of the region was increasingly generated proportional to textile production: mummification practices had disappeared, and bodies were wrapped in simple bandages which essentially gave way to the custom of using ordinary clothing for burial.
A certain number of Coptic garments were conserved thanks to this practice of burying the dead in their own clothes. The dry Egyptian climate contributed to their well-preserved state. The clothes were generally in linen or wool, and the colors that were used included red, blue, yellow, green, purple, black and brown. Dyes were obtained from plants and natural elements such as rubia, indigo, Jerusalem woad, saffron, Tyrian dye from the murex shell, and from an insect known as carmine. Since the 17th century, Coptic cloths were transported to Europe because of grand curiosity expressive of an exotic and mysterious world, arousing the interest of collectors that throughout even the 19th century sought to claim by unconventional excavations, often cutting pieces to “fit” their various commissions.
The Vatican tunic was a discovery from the necropolis of Akhmim in Upper Egypt, the Greek Panopolis, towards the end of the 19th century. It was on display in 1898 in the Exposition of Sacred Art in Turin by the Missionary Fathers of Upper Egypt who subsequently donated it, along with other wearable art hailing from the same place, to the Sacred Museum.
Along with other works in the Vatican Museums, it is also reconstructed from various pieces. It presents an amply large area to be patched, approximately rectangular in form in the upper area found by the neck between the shoulder areas, along with several other intermediate attempts that were performed in an effort to fix the garment. The sleeves appear separate from the rest of the tunic and then re-sewn.
The decorative motif consists of the following elements: two red and green clavi, or elongated embellishments, which descend down the shoulders and back, terminating at a small green leaf; two yellow circles with a red dot on top and below (front and back of garment); two green heart-shaped leaves on the shoulders and at knee-height (front and back); wide stripes on the sleeves in green, red, and white. The tunic played a leading role in Egypt Coptic clothing design for both men, women, and children alike, generally woven in linen (even if the tunics during the later period were also in wool). Men’s tunics generally arrived to the length of the knee, while women’s went all the way to the foot. This fabric garment was normally woven in one piece, wherein the weaving pattern began on the frame at the end of one sleeve, expanded at the body – with the foresight to leave an opening for the neck – and then narrowed again at the second sleeve. The tunics for children were characterized by very narrow sleeves, and were typically long-sleeved as opposed to short. They added significantly to the figurative design repertoire also because they were generally brightly colored or included animal figures. Decorations were incorporated into the design for the purposes of compliance with Roman style in antiquity. The shorter Coptic tunics were richly bedecked by adding flair along the neck and edges. They actually appear as inserts, or additions to the tunic, called orbiculi (circular or oval form) or tabulae (square), which were woven or applied at shoulder to knee height. Decorating the Coptic tunics, unique in its time of fabric production of the age, created a type of language, which expressed the social position of the outfitted person.
Along with geometric motifs (i.e. stars, interlocking hexagons, circles) and natural vegetation (i.e. flowers, lotus buds, leaves and intertwining branches, often symbolizing abundant fertility), there were also more traditional and ancient motifs. These included animal decorations (especially birds, leopards, lions, fish, and the human figure), often classically inspired. With the liberation of the Catholic religion, Coptic tunics began to be decorated also with Christian symbols including crosses, images of saints, and scenes from the Bible.