Ritualized, public violence had been a favorite entertainment of the Romans for centuries. The Damnatio ad bestia, “condemnation to beasts”, was a form of Roman death penalty mainly applied to the worst criminals, slaves, and early Christians, in which the condemned person was mauled to death by ferocious beasts in the amphitheatre. Such a form of execution first came to ancient Rome around the 2nd century BC and, part of the wider class of blood sports called Bestiarii, was considered entertainment for the people of Rome between the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.
This painting representing the “Fighting with the Beasts in the Colosseum”, which has been kept in the storage of the Vatican Painting Museum, testifies to the spread of the figurative classical culture in the artistic language of Northern Europe in the 16th century. The painting is signed and dated on the base of the column where the monogram ‘HF 1563’ can be seen. The initials could identify the Flemish painter, Frans Floris (1519-1570). Frans Floris, a native of Antwerp, studied classical sculpture and works of contemporary artists in Italy, more specifically Rome, from 1541 and 1545, which is evidenced in his many drawings. Floris was particularly impressed by Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel as the Last Judgment was completed in the years when he was in Rome, as well as Raphael’s works in the Vatican Loggia. He returned to his artistic production to Antwerp, enriched by all the historical and mythological themes he had just seen. It is from this state of mind that he created this painting.
The scene shown is a battle between men and beasts within an amphitheatre that can be identified as the Colosseum. The composition is divided into two panels: in the foreground a half naked man fights with a leopard and there is special attention paid to the anatomies of the man and beast in the effort of the struggle. In the background panel, the auditorium floor of the Colosseum serves as the backdrop to a series of small sketches, made with a rapid, but equally effective painting technique in terms of pictorial representation. The painting became part of the Vatican Museums in 1748 from the Sacchetti Collection: on the frame there are wax stamps that confirm this provenance.
To better understand the original structure, the restorers had to clarify the previous restoration that was detected on the panel. The first phase of this restoration consisted of a careful visual analysis of the work that has enabled us to gather valuable information on the techniques that were used to create the work, and its condition. These visual analysis’ were followed by research using data gathered by the technical lab. As a third part to the restoration undertaking, scientists launched a series of investigations consisting of noninvasive imaging that identified the constituent materials, and the materials used in previous restorations.
The frame and support of this work is composed of five axes of radial cut oak, horizontally mounted. The width of the first and the third axis is 21 cm, 28 cm for the second and fourth, and 29.5 for the last axis at the bottom. The axis’ are further supported by glued joints and wooden pins. The painting came to the Laboratory with a structure of support attached that was intended to reduce the movement of the painting. This support system was not the original. Over the entire surface, there is a coating of a thin transparent layer of color similar to a varnish.
The main figures in this work were realized in accordance with the preparatory drawing that can be found when looking at scientific images of the painting, or more transparent areas of the painting. The figures were outlined in shimmery black pigment. All parts of the composition found in the background are rendered with transparent color, allowing the the tone of the preparatory layer to come through. In these areas one can really understand how defined and concise the preparatory drawings are. The scientific image also shows interesting modifications that were made to the original preparatory drawing. For example, the figure struggling in the foreground originally donned a loincloth (as can be seen in scientific images revealing the preparatory drawing). The elimination of the loincloth must have occurred as the artist was painting on top of the preparatory drawing
State of Conservation
The paint layers were strongly adhered to each other, though there was a thin crack in the medium of the brown color of the lion in the left of the scene. Numerous scratches are found in the center, above the figure of the man in the fight with the lion, and on the leg of the sculpture on the right corner of the scene. These scratches could be the damage that resulted from an attempt to remove the old painting. The biggest problem of this painting is the strong yellow discoloration of the present thick layer of paint. The paints inhomogeneous application has created substantial accumulations of resin that have also caused considerable trouble for the entire painting. There is also evidence of a previous restoration to the frame.
The restoration was divided into two distinct phases:
- Restoration of the support and realization of a support structure to control the movements of the wood.
- Cleaning the surface of the original painting and the aesthetic presentation.
For the restoration of the support, the team for the restoration chose a course of action that would not depart from the original specifications. The bonding of the axis was done without the insertion of wooden wedges as the practice suggested in the past. A reversible restoration process also needs to be used in order to facilitate any future revisions of the bonds. Even for the support structure a ‘floating’ perimeter frame has been realized, or a structure that is not bound to the whole plank, reducing the coupling between the two structures to only a few points. The control of the expansion of the wood is entrusted to the springs, specially tuned, included in the attachment points between the chassis and axles of the painting. The cleaning of the painted surface was addressed with an extremely cautious approach since the painting technique was characterized by extremely transparent layers of color that remained completely hidden by the yellow brown discoloration. The very compact oil that is present in the seams between the planks was first mechanically thinned to scalpel off, and to then remove with a slightly basic mixture. The touches of abrasions on the paint film, which are also resistant to solvents, were first thinned with slight abrasive action of the glass fibers and finished with the solvent mixture TACO. Before the restoration of the painting was began with brushes, the restorers removed all the soft coatings. The slots of the lesions of the support have been compensated at a base level with stucco plaster and glue. The pictorial reintegration was made with watercolors over patched areas and with glazed colors for the rebalancing of the surface. The painted surface was finally protected, with alternating passages, by spraying glossy and matte paint on top.
All of the phases of the work of this restoration have been accompanied by an imaging campaign conducted by the Scientific Research Laboratory. The frame of this painting was restored by reinforcing the angular joints, cleaning the gilding and restoration, and finishing the integration of gaps and gold abrasions. The operation was conducted by the restorer, Marco De Pillis for the wooden portions and Stefano Tombesi for the gilding. The restoration began in May of 2013 and was completely in February of 2015 thanks to the generosity of Rick and Lisa Altig, Chapter Leaders of the Northwest Chapter. This unique painting is now on display at De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam for the exhibition “Rome. Emperor Constantine’s Dream. Art Treasures from the Eternal City” that will present precious artifacts never previously displayed in the Netherlands.