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Conserving Mosaics: A Nod To The Chemistry Nobel Prize

When blogger David Bradley posted this lovely image of a Moorish mosaic, I knew I had to learn more about how tile art is conserved.

In honor of today’s Nobel Prize in chemistry to Dan Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals, I thought I’d write a little post on the world of mosaic art conservation.

Bear with me–there is a connection.

(This is precisely what I said when Paula Artal-Isbrand, a mosaics conservator at the Worcester Art Museum, answered the phone. Luckily, she didn’t deem me a random freak and then hang up.)

OK. So back to the Nobel Prize. Quasicrystals are regular patterns of atoms that never repeat themselves, much “like the fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world,” noted the prize’s press release.

This got me thinking–and blogger David Bradley too—because moments later he tweeted the perfect Moorish mosaic example you see here. And I knew I had to learn a bit more about mosaic art conservation and restoration.
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A Visit To The Opificio, Italy’s Primary Restoration Lab

An Opificio restorer working on a Vasari panel painting. © Sarah Everts.

Italy has no shortage of art, and when that art needs a face-lift, it takes a trip to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro, the country’s national restoration laboratory.

Located in an elegant old stable in Florence, the Opificio is like a spa for cultural heritage artifacts, where paintings, frescoes and sculptures go for age-extending treatments.

When I visited, Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian and the Opificio’s director of mural paintings, was kind enough to give me a tour.

As we wandered through the extensive labs, dozens of restorers were working on a wide variety of pieces including Renaissance paintings sent from Budapest for anti-aging therapy, ceramic sculptures, water-damaged frescoes and a wooden statue of Christ that had been painted to look like bronze during an era when bronze was popular but too expensive for some budgets.

Looks like bronze but it's actually wood. © Sarah Everts

The Opificio has also been recently involved in everything from using ultraviolet light to bring out cool, hidden details in Giotto paintings to the restoration of Santa Croce Basilica’s famous frescoes.

Like many great things in Florence, the Opificio has its root with the city’s famous Medici family. The first half the Opificio’s Italian name translates to “workshop of semi precious stones.” And as the name suggests, the Medicis founded the Opificio in 1580s to produce furniture decorated with semi precious stones, Frosinini told me.

Time passed and the workshop began restoring their own pieces. By the 19th century, art made from other materials such ceramic, marble and jewelry, was also being restored, she added.
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Visiting The Metropolitan Museum’s Science Lab

The Met's science labs. © Sarah Everts

I recently passed through New York City and had the excellent opportunity to tour the laboratories beneath the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Marco Leona, who’s been the museum’s head of scientific research since 2004. “We deal with everything under the sun, that’s been under the sun for the last 5000 years or so,” he told me.

The Met’s 20-person scientific team has a professional familiarity with New York’s real-estate squeeze. Their equipment is split among four labs in the Met’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Each lab corresponds to one of the museum’s four main artifact conservation departments: paintings, textiles, works-on-paper and “objects,” which is literally everything else–from metal sculptures to ceramic mosaics.

Islamic blue mosaics. © SE

Leona picked me up at the Fifth Avenue security desk on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the volumes of people who normally pack its halls. We walked unusually effortlessly through the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts exhibit to a special elevator that brought us down to the basement “objects” research space. Wandering around lab benches full of beautiful artifacts, Leona gave me an overview of the science team’s many projects.

They’ve worked on everything from how acetic acid wafting off degrading ancient Egyptian wood can accelerate the corrosion of nearby metals to how researchers might use biomedical tools, such as antibodies, to study cultural heritage objects.

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