March’s News from the Conservation Lab: Reconstructing Color on a Roman Marble Head

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month I’ve been getting to know Bacchus (Dionysos to the Greeks), a Kelsey Museum favorite normally on display outside the Villa of the Mysteries room. Bacchus’s head dates from the early to mid-second century AD. It is made of carved white marble and was once part of a larger standing figure which would have been pretty impressive given how great its noggin is! I’m examining the head because, believe it or not, there are traces of color on it. There is an abundance of red in the hair that is visible to the naked eye, but there are also traces of red in less noticeable areas. Using a Dinolite digital microscope I’ve spotted tiny deposits of red pigment in the tear ducts of Bacchus’s eyes and at the corner of his mouth. Using an imaging technique called visible induced infrared luminescence (or VIL), I’ve also found traces of Egyptian blue on the leaves of the god’s ivy wreath. This could mean that the wreath was painted blue, or perhaps green if the blue was mixed with yellow.

Bacchus will return to display in the Roman galleries this summer and will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, 2019. Visitors to the exhibition will get a chance to see Bacchus’s colorful hair through digital color reconstructions that will illustrate how he might have appeared in antiquity, based on material evidence.

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Marble head of Bacchus, early to mid-2nd c. AD. Height: 32.5 cm. Joint purchase of the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1974. KM 1974.4.1.
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Left: visible light image, proper left side; right, VIL image showing Egyptian blue under a leaf on Bacchus’s ivy wreath (the whitish spots in the middle of the image).

Analyzing Roman wall paintings

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

When I think about color in antiquity, I like to imagine how colors have weathered, or changed chemically over time, and the ways these changes impact how we see ancient paint surfaces. Ancient paint can be found on terracotta figurines, marble sculpture, and — most visibly — on wall paintings. The Kelsey Museum preserves a number of Roman wall painting fragments, and curator and professor Elaine Gazda has incorporated these artifacts into her history of art classes. One of Professor Gazda’s students, U-M senior D’Arcy Cook, has taken on the challenge of identifying the pigments from a group of these wall painting fragments.

D’Arcy is a chemical engineering major who is interested in archaeological chemistry and conservation science. Her primary research question was whether pigments on the Kelsey wall painting fragments matched what she had learned to expect based on published literature. To answer this question, D’Arcy used analytical techniques available in the Kelsey Conservation Laboratory and across campus. I felt this would be a great opportunity to learn more about artifacts in the Kelsey collection and to provide D’Arcy with experience analyzing ancient materials.

Using a scalpel, I removed milligram-sized samples of paint from the fragments. D’Arcy analyzed the samples using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), an analytical technique that identifies materials by detecting signals produced by their molecular bonds. Among other results, her analysis confirmed that Egyptian blue is present on one of the fragments — a pigment I also detected with a modified camera, and which we both observed using a polarized light microscope. Egyptian blue pigment was commonly used by the Romans on wall paintings and sculpture.

This project illustrates how technical research works best by incorporating multiple, cross-checking analytical techniques, and depends on scientists, art historians, and conservators to happen. Many thanks D’Arcy, to Elaine and the Kelsey curators, and to the U-M Chemistry department and EMAL laboratory for their help with this research!

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Sampling photograph showing plaster and paint layers on a piece of wall plaster.

 

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Visible (VIS), infrared reflected (IRR), infrared reflected false color (IRR-FC), and visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) images. The white luminescence in the VIL image shows the presence of Egyptian blue.

Keeping our heads on straight: custom mount design for Oplontis garden sculpture

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Over two hundred artifacts and sculptures are traveling from Italy to Ann Arbor for the upcoming exhibition Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero, opening in February. Among them are three marble heads that once stood in the north garden of Villa A at Oplontis. The heads will be displayed in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibition space as they once were in the garden: atop tall, narrow plinths. Sculpture like this might normally be held in place with a metal pin inserted into a hole in the base of the neck. These heads, however, lack such an accommodation, which meant that exhibition coordinator Scott Meier and I needed to come up with another way to secure the heads to their exhibit mounts.

Scott’s idea is to create a two-part mount custom fit to each head’s neck base. The mount will essentially serve as a clamp, immobilizing the head and preventing it from tipping off the plinth if it is accidentally bumped. In order to create such a mount we needed a cast of each sculpture’s neck. Scott and I were able to do this in person in June 2015, when we traveled to Oplontis with curator Elaine Gazda. First, I covered the ancient marble surface with a temporary layer of Parafilm® M, a stretchable plastic film, in order to protect the stone from any staining that might be caused by the mold-taking material.

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Carrie applies protective Parafilm® M to the base of each neck.

For the mold-taking material we used silicone rubber putty, which Scott applied in a thick layer to the surface.

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Scott creates a mold of the neck using silicone rubber.

The putty cured overnight, leaving us with three hollow, rubber neck molds — which we dubbed the “blue brains” because, well … that’s what they look like.

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Carrie and Scott pour plaster of Paris into the molds.

These “brains” eventually served as receptacles for plaster, which we used to create duplicates of the neck bases.

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Plaster duplicate of one of the three neck bases.

The duplicates are being used to cast the two-part mounts in epoxy resin. Once it’s cured, the epoxy will fit perfectly around the bases of the necks and hold the heads in place with the help of metal brackets. You won’t be able to see the custom-fit mounts when the heads are on display, but you will be able to appreciate the many steps that took place in order to recreate the sculptures’ original plinth presentation. See the marble heads and more in Leisure and Luxury next month at the Kelsey!

Curator Favorites

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When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the third in a series of seven.

BY ELAINE GAZDA, Curator of Roman and Hellenistic Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact. “The Room of the Mysteries”, A Watercolor Representation 1925-27 by Maria Barosso

Why. “As a historian of Roman art, I have long been interested in sculptures and paintings of the Roman era that have been labeled in museums and textbooks as Roman copies after lost Greek originals. The watercolors painted by Maria Barosso fascinate me as beautiful illustrations of how copies of works of art become works of art in their own right and take on lives of their own. Barosso’s paintings are aesthetically appealing evocations of the Roman paintings that still remain on the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, but they are also powerful visual statements of the ways in which this 20th century artist’s own aesthetic sensibility transformed the “original” she copied. In her correspondence with Professor Kelsey, Barosso expressed her desire to capture the original beauty of the Roman paintings. This required her to look beyond the damage that the Roman paintings had suffered from the volcanic eruption of AD 79 and centuries of burial and creatively re-imagine them in an undamaged state. In the process, Barosso’s own style inflected the Roman imagery with an early 20th-century Italian “accent.” Such subtle stylistic inflections can also be detected in ancient Roman works that emulate earlier Greek models.”

Background. The Villa of the Mysteries was situated in fertile farmland outside the walls of Pompeii, a short distance northwest of the city. It was discovered and partially excavated in 1909 by the owner of the land whose workmen first uncovered a lavishly adorned room containing murals that rapidly became famous. Later excavations in 1929-1930 by the archaeological authorities of Pompeii showed that approximately half of the villa had been devoted to agricultural and other utilitarian activities. The other half had been the proprietor’s residence, with splendidly decorated rooms, some with large windows, and terraces that provided vistas out to the countryside, the mountains, and the Bay of Naples.

Before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 forever altered the landscape, some of the best views from the Villa of the Mysteries were to be enjoyed from a large reception and dining room known to archaeologists as Room 5. This room preserves monumental murals that relate to the Greek god Dionysos. The Romans knew this god of acriculture, wine, and the bacchanal as Bacchus or Liber. The roughly life-size, mostly female figures appear to enact rituals related to the mystery cult of this god, whose sacred rites were known only to initiates. The Villa of the Mysteries takes its modern name from the imagery in this room. The identity of the Roman owner of the villa is not known.

The murals in the Villa of the Mysteries have few counterparts in Roman art. Coincidentally, the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor near Boscoreale, from which the Kelsey Museum’s farming equipment, mill, and hardware come, had wall paintings of comparable scale and quality. Most of them are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The murals of the Villa of the Mysteries remain in their original context in Pompeii.

About the Watercolors. The paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries became famous with a few years of their discovery in 1909. Although the murals were made known to the world through published black and white photographs, color reproductions were not available at that time. In 1924, before the villa was fully uncovered, Professor Francis W. Kelsey commissioned a large-scale color replica for the University of Michigan so that scholars, students, and the public would be able to study and enjoy the murals in all their glory. He contracted with an Italian artist, Maria Barosso, who was the head archaeological artist for the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill excavations in Rome, to paint the replica.

Although Kelsey wanted a full-scale replica, Maiuri agreed to allow Barosso to paint only a five-sixths scale version. The end result, nonetheless, evokes the monumentality of the Roman paintings. Professor Kelsey intended also to reproduce the floor in an installation that he planned for a new gallery at the University of Michigan. Kelsey unfortunately died in May 1927, before the paintings arrived in Ann Arbor. In partial fulfillment of his plan to suggest the original effect of the ancient room, the Kelsey Museum created a reduced-scale version of the outer border of the Roman floor.

Find It. Climb the center stairs to the second floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. Make a slight turn left, then right directly toward the end of the building. Then turn right again into the recreated room that showcases the murals, just as Professor Kelsey envisioned so long ago. Lights will come on as you enter.