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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.