A Puzzling Project at Villa La Pietra, NYU Florence

by Adrienne Gendron

I am a graduate student at the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and I’m spending the majority of my summer here at the Penn Museum as part of my training to become a professional conservator. In late June, I took a break from the Artifact Lab and traveled to Villa La Pietra in Florence along with fellow classmate Andy Wolf to work on a conservation project.

Villa La Pietra houses an expansive and diverse collection that came into the ownership of New York University from the Acton family in 1994. The Actons were art collectors from England and the US who lived in Florence from the early 1900s onward. Every year, NYU students from a variety of programs travel to Florence to work on educational projects at the estate.

The main building at Villa La Pietra, where the collections and the conservation studio are housed.

For the span of a week, Andy and I worked under the supervision of Pamela Hatchfield (Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) to perform a complex treatment on a 17th century majolica pharmacy jar. The jar had fallen off a high bookshelf during an earthquake in 2013 and broken into 40 major pieces and innumerable tiny flakes and chips. Conservators often need to differentiate between different types of physical changes that may occur during an object’s lifetime and may choose not to intervene if an object is stable. In this case, because the damage caused by the earthquake was very recent and extensive, we decided to proceed with reconstructing the jar and minimizing the damage as much as possible.

The main fragments of the pharmacy jar.
The many fragments and chips associated with the jar.

After documenting the damage and finding the locations of each major fragment, it was time to assemble. Andy and I realized that because of the geometries of the fragments, we would have to build most of the jar in one session so the adhesive would remain tacky enough to make necessary adjustments. So, after some deep breathing exercises and words of encouragement from our supervisor, we began the assembly process.

The first pieces assembled (left) with the remaining fragments ready to go (right).

Typically, conservators like to reassemble broken ceramics from the bottom up. That was not possible in this case because half of the jar’s foot had been completely shattered in the earthquake damage. Instead, Andy and I decided to assemble the piece upside down starting from the rim.

The assembly of the main body of the vessel took about 3.5 hours from start to finish. Andy and I worked closely together during the entire process, using pieces of black electrical tape to secure the pieces in place while they dried. We were fortunate that the outer surface was stable enough that the tape could be used safely.

The pot nearly assembled. The stretchy black electrical tape assures that the joins stay tight while the adhesive dries and can be safely removed after drying is complete.

After the main part of the assembly, it was time to work on the shattered foot. This was the most challenging part of the entire treatment. After many hours of searching through a sea of tiny fragments, I was able to reconstruct the profile of the missing outer edge of the foot from sixteen individual pieces. 

About one half of the outer edge of the foot was shattered during the earthquake (in this image, the jar is oriented upside down).
The reconstructed outer profile of the missing part of the foot, which was previously in sixteen tiny pieces.

Andy and I worked together to take a mold of the intact side of the foot to use as a guide for matching the curve of the shattered side. Then, we put the missing outer profile in place, using a stable fill material to bridge the gap between the outer edge and the interior of the break line.

The reconstructed profile of the foot in place. The white material is a reversible facing we applied to protect the delicate fragments during assembly.

There’s only so much that can be accomplished in a week, and by the end of our trip Andy and I had just begun filling the remaining losses. The pharmacy jar will be waiting for another team of students next summer, who will take it to completion by disguising the cracks and losses associated with the earthquake damage.

The reassembled pharmacy jar at the end of our trip.

Somehow, on top of our work with the pharmacy jar, we managed to visit six museums and churches! And, of course, we ate plenty of delicious pizza, pasta, and gelato. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work at the Villa this summer, and I’m excited to return in future years.

From left to right: Pamela Hatchfield, Adrienne Gendron, and Andy Wolf with the reassembled pharmacy jar.

Treatment of a parchment scroll from Ethiopia: an objects conservator changes dimensions

by Teresa Jimenez-Millas

During the past month I have had the great opportunity of working on a parchment treatment under the supervision of Sarah Reidell, the Margy E. Meyerson Head of Conservation, Tessa Gadomski, Conservation Librarian, and the rest of the fantastic team in the Steven Miller Conservation Lab at the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

The parchment is an Ethiopian prayer scroll (29-94-123) in our Museum’s collection that we are treating for the opening of the Africa Galleries this November 2019.

In The Walters Art Museum online catalogue, there are similar scrolls to this one. The Walters describes them as, “Ethiopian prayer scrolls were made to be the length of the person who commissioned them, thereby protecting the owner from head to toe.”

This scroll is made of three sections of parchment sewn together using parchment strips/thongs (0.5 cm) from the same kind of animal. Parchment is a sheet material that is made from the skin of domesticated animals such as calves, sheep, and goats, cleaned of their hair and flesh and then dried under tension on a frame. It is a mechanical process and the skin is not chemically tanned. Further analytical methods such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) or Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF) would give us more information as to the kind of protein and other features that would help us to identify the type of skin.

The first step on this new and exciting project was a close examination of the object under a stereo binocular microscopic (Leica IC80HD). In my examinations, I noticed some interesting features that I would not have been able to understand without Sarah’s expertise, and I’d like to share some of these cool details here.

At first glance, the third section of the scroll has a 9 cm stitched repair that one might think was made after the parchment was manufactured. But as I learned, the process of manufacturing parchment involves drying the material under tension, which leads to marked changes in fiber orientation, and inevitably involves some degree of breakage of certain fibers in the dermal network.

The stitched repair is circled in red

Observation under magnification with Microscope LEICA IC80D we can see that the sewing holes are very round but are not punched. The holes appear to have been pierced when the skin was wet, and the parchment dried around the stitching creating ridged folds that are now keeping the split closed.

The thread is still present in about 25% of the repair. The edges of the thread are not cut but are frayed. At some areas we can still see some remains of black ink that also indicate that the scribe probably wrote over the repair. All these observations indicate that this repair was made during the manufacturing process of the parchment, while still wet.

I will write more about the treatment of this object in a future post!