Museum Home Research and Conservation An In-Depth Look at Conservation Partnerships Marcus Aurelius: Conserving an Ancient Sculpture

Project Overview

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This collaborative project between the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and the J. Paul Getty Museum explored the complexities and challenges of conserving ancient sculpture. The goal was to stabilize and preserve a marble statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

In 1998, the J. Paul Getty Museum began a collaborative project with the Pergamon Museum in Berlin to conserve an important, life-size, ancient sculpture in their collection. The statue, a partially preserved first-century body with a second-century head of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, originally came from the 17th-century collection of the Villa Montalto Negroni in Rome, Italy. It was then acquired by the Royal Cabinet collection of Berlin in 1791, and eventually displayed in the Pergamon Museum at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1997, the department of antiquities conservation at the Getty Museum had just finished the conservation treatment of the Lansdowne Herakles in the Getty collection. During the treatment of the Herakles, conservators returned a number of important 18th-century restorations to the sculpture, which had been removed during a cleaning and de-restoration campaign in the 1970s. The reinstatement of earlier restorations to the Lansdowne Herakles testified to the importance of historic interventions and played a significant role in shaping the collaborative effort with the Pergamon Museum. The conservation of the Marcus Aurelius statue required two years to complete. Prior to its return to the Pergamon, it went on view at the Getty Center in the exhibition Statue of an Emperor: A Conservation Partnership.

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The Pergamon Museum holds one of the world's most important collections of Greek and Roman sculpture. Much of the sculpture underwent extensive restoration in the 17th through 19th centuries. Until recently, the Pergamon collection languished due to the lack of resources necessary to address major conservation concerns. While the drawbacks were considerable during this period, the collection was never exposed to the changing styles of 20th-century restoration practices (some of which were rather short-lived) and the effects of changing conservation and preservation philosophies. Throughout the Pergamon's extensive collections, most of the earlier restorations have remained in place and reasonably intact, though they are increasingly unstable. In many ways, the collection not only represented the artistic and technical ability of ancient sculptors, but the variety of sensibilities imposed upon these objects by later centuries through restoration.

This collaboration offered a unique and complex opportunity for the conservators of both institutions. One of the most unusual features of the Marcus Aurelius sculpture is the fact that the early restorations remained intact and provided an opportunity to directly study early restoration techniques of large-scale sculpture, including types of adhesives, surface coatings, and tools used in the restoration. Since so much has changed in the restoration of sculpture, this gave the Getty and the Pergamon conservators the chance to look back and examine techniques that will inform us and offer insight into past restoration methods and approaches.

Project Objectives

The project offered the conservators the opportunity to apply and further develop reassembly techniques that originated in the department of antiquities conservation. A strong emphasis was placed on the structural stability of the statue by employing sound mechanisms for reassembly using highly reversible adhesives and stable, inert materials. A mechanical approach to reassembly, now referred to as the "zone system," was executed to reassemble the Marcus Aurelius statue. This design and application offered a safe method of mechanically attaching and reattaching selected groups of smaller fragments that had already been assembled. This method will allow for the safe and easy disassembly of the sculpture in the future, with minimum impact on the fabric of the sculpture.

The collaborative project had a number of objectives that focused upon the stabilization of the aged and deteriorating restorations and structural joints of the sculpture, as well as upon the final presentation of the piece in the Pergamon galleries.

  • Fully document all aspects of the sculpture, particularly the physical evidence of the methods and approach employed during earlier restorations
  • Stabilize the sculpture in a manner that will allow for easy disassembly of the object in the future and that is in accordance with contemporary conservation ethics
  • Present the object as one which displays the cultural and aesthetic tastes of restorations during the 18th and 19th centuries