GREAT RELIEF

A Renaissance sculpture that fell off the New York Met museum’s wall looks perfect again

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After eight years in the repair shop, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced yesterday (April 5) that a treasured Renaissance sculpture that had fallen off its wall has been fully restored and is back on view.

In July of 2008, Saint Michael the Archangel, a late 15th-century blue and white glazed terracotta relief by Andrea della Robbia came loose from its spot above the doorway of the Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries, fell, and broke to pieces. No one was hurt in the freak accident, which happened while the museum was closed, but it caused the 145-year-old New York institution to inspect the stability of its wall mounts and pedestals.

“A review of wall-mounted sculpture at The Met following the accident led to new safeguards and regular inspections ensure that the Museums installation standards are upheld and artworks are protected,” the Met explained in its press release.

After sustaining damage from a fall in 2008, the glazed terracotta sculpture of Saint Michael the Archangel by Andrea della Robbia (1435‒1525) is back on view. Conservator Wendy Walker meticulously reassembled the pieces and, together with Janis Mandrus, filled and in-painted the losses, with results that are only visible at close range. The @metobjectsconservation lab’s investigation of the sculpture during treatment revealed the artist’s finger and tool marks, shedding light on della Robbia’s working techniques and informing curator Peter Bell’s ongoing studies of della Robbia and Italian sculpture. Conservation preparator Fred Sager designed a custom mounting system to secure each of the sculpture’s original 12 interlocking sections independently to an aluminum backing plate while allowing the relief to be seen clearly as a whole. Pictured in the last stages of mounting, Fred, Matthew Cumbie, and Warren Bennett make final adjustments and paint the clips so they blend in with the glazed surface. The Museum’s team of riggers expertly maneuvered the heavy sculpture into its new location in Gallery 500 at The Met Fifth Avenue. A review of wall-mounted sculpture at The Met following the accident led to new safeguards and regular inspections ensure that the Museums installation standards are upheld and artworks are protected. Image: David Sastre (@davidasastre), regram via @metobjectsconservation #TheMet #AndreadellaRobbia

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While reassembling della Robbia’s large lunette-shaped sculpture, the Met’s conservators observed “finger and tool marks” that they say shed new light on the Italian sculptor’s techniques.

Born in Florence, della Robbia learned from his uncle Luca, who pioneered a special glazing method that made their sculptures very durable, easy to clean and weatherproof. Their fine terracotta sculptures depicting religious themes were cheaper than marble or bronze and became the “hottest items across northern Italy,” explained Met researcher Peter Jonathan Bell to the New York Times (paywall).

The Met’s conservation team discovered time and cost-saving measures implemented by della Robbia such as composing the relief’s structure in several pieces and smoothing out minor damages on the sculpture’s surface. “The della Robbias were exacting artists, but they also ran a high-production factory, racing to satisfy commissions and striving to balance quality with cost,” explained Bell. He explained the the fine cracks would not be apparent since the 62-by-32-inch piece was originally meant to be installed above a door at the now demolished San Michele Arcangelo church in the town of Faenza, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. The conservators also pointed out how strong and revolutionary della Robbia’s protective glaze was, citing as evidence the angel’s finely modeled head, which survived the violent crash unharmed.

The Met has temporarily installed Saint Michael at eye level at its European sculpture gallery so visitors can admire della Robbia’s “luminous glazing and the expressive force of its modeling,” as well as its conservators’ fine restoration. The museum purchased the sculpture for $40,000 ($322,000 today) at a 1960 auction of the American industrialist Myron C. Taylor’s art collection. Taylor was the former CEO of U.S. Steel Corporation and served as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman’s emissary to the Vatican.

Saint Michael is not the only sculpture to fall from its perch at the Met. In 2002, a 6’3″ marble statue called Adam by Tullio Lombardo fell off its pedestal and shattered to hundreds of pieces while the museum was closed. During the painstaking restoration process, the Met’s conservators used new techniques—3D imaging, laser-mapped virtual imaging, a “very ugly marble sculpture of David” test dummy, fiberglass support pins—and of course, lots of glue to resurrect the 520-year old, 770-lb. sculpture. The Met unveiled a perfectly-formed and structurally reinforced Adam in 2014.

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