NCMA’s Half-Century Wait for the Right Technology to Restore a Mangled Ancient Statue Comes to an End | Visual Art | Indy Week

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NCMA’s Half-Century Wait for the Right Technology to Restore a Mangled Ancient Statue Comes to an End


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It's nine in the morning on a Tuesday, an hour before the North Carolina Museum of Art opens, but one room is already abuzz with activity. In it stands a classical-looking statue, flanked by a projector, two cameras, and a computer. A small group of museum staff, media, and representatives of the Bank of America Art Conservation Project has gathered to witness the latest step in what Caroline Rocheleau, the museum's curator of ancient art, calls NCMA's "most daring and complicated project yet." An operation is underway.

The statue of Bacchus is only partially classical and only kind of Bacchus. It's actually three or four statues combined: the sculptural equivalent of a patchwork quilt, if the patches were created centuries apart. When it came to NCMA, it consisted of a second-century Roman marble torso, attached to a first-to-third-century Roman marble head of Bacchus and a pair of marble legs made in the late Renaissance.

These disparate components might sound like the ingredients for a postmodern art-history novel or a mystery thriller à la The Da Vinci Code, wherein a scholarly sleuth must track down each fragment's place of origin. Indeed, determining exactly how the statue came together has required considerable sleuthing on the part of Rocheleau and her colleagues.

The statue was donated by longtime NCMA patron Robert Humber in 1958. Humber obtained it from J.P. Morgan, who acquired it from the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, where it resided from at least 1620 until the early twentieth century. Not long after the donation, NCMA staff noticed something amiss. As Rocheleau points out, it doesn't take fancy twenty-first-century technology to discern that Bacchus is not a cohesive whole.

"The proportions are a smidge off. You can tell the head doesn't quite belong to the torso," she says, also noting the inconsistency between the position of the statue's right shoulder and its legs. While the naked (albeit trained) eye can identify these disproportions, what does require fancy twenty-first-century technology is disassembling it "to free the important ancient torso," as Rocheleau writes on NCMA's blog.

NCMA staff quickly recognized the statue's hodgepodge nature and proposed a de-restoration. But Justus Bier, director of NCMA in the 1960s, decided to entrust the project to future generations. The era's technology was not up to the task of identifying exactly where and how the various pieces were combined. In the nineties, the head of the statue and its attached adornments were removed, but the torso remained fused to its post-antique legs and left arm—the ancient marble "imprisoned" in the late Renaissance.

Technology is now up to the task of finishing what was started long ago. In 2015, an ultraviolet exam gave conservators a clearer picture of where the ancient torso was joined to the later fragments. Last year, gamma rays gave a glimpse into the statue's interior. But, before the torso is freed, conservators want to create an exact replica of the statue as it would have looked in the Palazzo Altemps. In this way, museumgoers can see the replica and learn about the odd, fascinating Renaissance practice of fusing ancient fragments with contemporary ones.

This would have been unthinkable ten to fifteen years ago, before the invention of the structured light scanner, which measures the shape of an object by projecting bands of patterned light onto it and capturing 3-D coordinates. This information can then be used to generate digital images, which can be 3-D printed. NCMA plans to subject the statute and its now-detached head to a series of structured light scans to create images a contemporary sculptor might use to re-create the statue as it looked in the Palazzo.

"Kill the lights," Rocheleau says. The scanner shines a sequence of light patterns onto the center of the statue. Moments later, the computer screen has rendered a digital replica of the region, a torso capable of being rotated 360 degrees and combined with other scanned regions. Once the statue is comprehensively scanned and enough digital data exists to re-create it with certainty, museum curators may then work toward detaching the torso from its limbs. Four hundred years and four owners later, Bacchus's Roman torso is about to be free once more.


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