When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester abroad in Florence, Italy, studying art history. While there, my colleagues and I traveled to Milan to visit a convent that was built in 1463 and is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” We stood in the dark, quiet church and observed a conservator toiling away on scaffolding in front of the masterpiece and learned that over the past 500 years the painting’s condition has been compromised by its location, the materials and techniques da Vinci used, humidity, dust, and poor restoration efforts. Instead of attempting to restore the image, that particular conservation effort sought to prevent further deterioration and uncover da Vinci’s original painting. My colleagues and I held our collective breaths and tried to imagine what it was like to follow the strokes of a master and keep his work alive. Experts will tell you that this work is time-consuming and precise — it’s the work of mad scientists.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston has been under renovation since fall 2014, and in that time, much of the permanent collection has been stored in Atlanta at the High Museum of Art’s fine-art storage facility. Several pieces from the collection were in need of conservation, including the large marble sculpture “The Wreck of the Rose in Bloom” 1809, by John Devaere, and the gilded frame from the painting “Charles Izard Manigault and his Family in Rome” from 1831.
The marble relief was commissioned as a memorial to Gen. John McPherson, who died in the shipwreck of the Rose in Bloom. McPherson, a member of the South Carolina militia during the Revolution, is shown drowning while his daughter is rescued by a sailor. The relief was carved in London by a Flemish artist for the Scots Presbyterian Church who ultimately rejected it because the figures were “immodest,” and it was given to the Gibbes Museum in 1937.
The painting of Manigault and his wife, Elizabeth, by Italian painter Ferdinando Cavalleri is set in a heavy gilt frame that was damaged by time and wear. For conservation of these works, the Gibbes hired Michelle Savant and Larry Schutts of the Atlanta Art Conservation Center. Using before and after photos, the couple will talk on their work at the upcoming Insider Art Series event. The series was launched to engage the community with art while the museum was under renovation.
“The Wreck,” as it is fondly referred to by museum staff, is an 800-pound sculpture that hung on an exterior wall of the museum until the 1970s addition, when it was moved inside and displayed in the promenade for the past 30 years. “I don’t think people really know what it takes to clean and conserve a work of art,” says Zinnia Willits, Gibbes director of collections and administration. It took six guys and a hydraulic lift to get “The Wreck” off the wall and shipped to Atlanta. Willits has traveled to Atlanta to work with the conservators, and recently, to manage the loan of the Manigault painting to the Society of the Four Arts in Miami for an exhibition, “An Eye for Opulence: Charleston Through the Lens of the Rivers Collection,” curated by Brandy Culp, curator at the Historic Charleston Foundation. Both fully restored pieces will be displayed in the Main Gallery when the museum reopens in May.
I am grateful that I was able to observe a conservator toiling on “The Last Supper,” but if I went back to that church in Milan today, I doubt I’d know she was ever there. That’s why conservation matters. The point is not to know these mad scientists were ever there. The point is to maintain the art so it can be seen as it was intended for hundreds of years.