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Conserving a Giant: Resurrecting Pietro da Cortona’s “Triumph of David”

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Welcome to our weekly blog detailing the conservation treatment of Pietro da Cortona’s “Triumph of David”, a large-scale oil on canvas that currently resides in “Old Falvey,” Falvey Memorial Library’s original wing. The painting first came to the University in 1956, donated by the late Princess Eugenia Ruspoli who inherited the artwork from her late Italian husband, Prince Enrico Ruspoli. For much of its life, the “Triumph of David” hung within the walls of Castle Nemi. The castle sustained significant damages during World War II which may partly explain the current condition of the painting. Pietro Berrettini da Cotrona was perhaps best known for his work as an architect, however the artist and his workshop executed several exquisite fresco cycles in addition to a number of canvas paintings. As only a hand-full of Pietro’s canvas paintings can be found in museum collections, the University is make a concerted effort to restore the artwork and promote collaborative research amongst art historians, conservators, and scientists. More information can be found in the recent press release.

Villanova now joins a hand-full of cultural institutions and conservation laboratories that have begun to embrace the concept of “visible conservation.” A permanent space in Old Falvey’s reading room has been allocated for the project, allowing students as well as the general public to observe the treatment process and even interact with the conservation team. A schedule will soon be posted, listing dates/times for formal tours and a live web-cam will add an interactive element to the project. This will help to raise awareness of contemporary conservation methods, the history of the painting, and the upcoming renovation of the Library’s reading room.

Collaboration on Campus

An exciting aspect of the project will involve the collaborative efforts of scholars, faculty, staff members, and students, interactions that will occur on a daily basis in the publically accessible conservation space. Dr. Anthony Lagalante, Dr. Amanda Norbutus, and graduate student Kristen Watts from the Chemistry Department will be working alongside the conservation team, performing pigment analysis in an effort to learn more about the materials used by Pietro and his workshop. Dr. Mark Sullivan, Dr. Timothy McCall, and senior undergraduate student Rachel Godat from Art History will be offering their expertise as well, helping the conservation team to gather more information relating to the artist, his workshop, and other aspects of the painting’s provenance. Finally, Darren Poley and the library staff will be integral in the promotion of the project and it’s connection to the upcoming renovation of the Library’s Old Wing. Future events will be announced as the treatment progress and will likely include lectures, symposia, web projects, and/or interactive workshops.

The Conservation Treatment

Detail Showing OverpaintThe treatment of the painting will be carried by painting conservator Kristin deGhetaldi over a period of two years with the help of conservation interns and graduate students (currently Maggie Bearden and Emily Wroczynski). The painting is presently covered with several layers of discolored and degraded over-paint and varnish, unoriginal materials that have aged poorly and now obscure the original colors of Pietro’s vibrant palette. Conservators are professionals who have specialized knowledge and skills in the arts, sciences, and other fields; responsibilities can include establishing appropriate environmental controls, stabilizing the structure of an object, compensating for surface disfigurement from deterioration and/or damage, and undertaking technical studies. A professional conservator conducts these activities according to the Code of Ethics of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

In years past, those interested in becoming a conservator would typically enlist as an apprentice in a restoration studio. Today, however, most students pursue a master’s degree in art conservation after obtaining a bachelors degree in art history, studio art, the sciences, or other related fields. In order to be accepted into a graduate degree program in the United States, students must satisfy extensive course requirements (e.g. organic chemistry, art history/anthropology courses, a studio art portfolio, etc.) and complete a certain number of hours serving as a volunteer/intern in a cultural institution or private studio. This pre-program experience often takes additional time beyond completion of an undergraduate degree. Students who are interested in learning more about graduate programs should also visit the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network blog.

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Last Modified: October 11, 2013