There is nothing more heartbreaking for an art museum than learning of the destruction of a beloved piece in its collection. While paintings can be cleaned using a combination of plaster and resin treatments, restoring broken sculptures is altogether a much more difficult task. Last year, however, a team of conservators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City used cutting-edge technology that combined computer science with visual art to restore Italian Renaissance artist Tullio Lombardo’s iconic marble masterpiece “Adam” after it collapsed in 2002.
The story of saving this sculpture will make up part of the Neukom Institute’s Winter 2015 Donoho Colloquium, where members of the Metropolitan Museum’s conservation team will give their presentation, “Saving Adam,” on the process of reconstructing one of the most beloved sculptures of the Italian Renaissance.
Led by art conservator Carolyn Riccardelli and Computer Aided Engineering Associates engineers Patrick Cunningham and Michael Bak , the presentation will discuss the day that “Adam” fell and the 12-year journey it took to return him to his rightful spot in the Metropolitan Museum.
Director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science and computer science professor Dan Rockmore said that the restoration is an example of how the sciences and arts can team up on projects.
“It’s a remarkable accomplishment,” Rockmore said. “It would be hard to point out all the places where the conservators fixed the statue.”
Ever since Lombardo sculpted Adam in 1490 for the funeral of Venetian doge Andrea Vendramin, viewers have hailed the depiction of the biblical figure. The over six-foot tall figure, which is one of the few Venetian Renaissance nude sculptures left on display in museums, was crafted out of carrara marble and features a young Adam standing in a classical stance with the majority of his weight resting on his right leg while his left leg balances in a relaxed, bent position. As he stares into the distance, his right hand loosely holds the branch of a nearby tree, and his left hand holds what is presumably the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. A fig leaf that covers him represents the shame that would eventually be felt by him after he disobeyed God and bit into the fruit, according to the Metropolitan Museum Journal.
Art history professor Adrian Randolph said that Lombardo’s “Adam” offers an intelligent response to ancient models.
“The fig leaf is not something used in antiquity,” Randolph said. “It represents an intriguing moment in the history of the Western nude, where there is an openness but concern about the naked human body.”
Since the Met acquired Adam in 1936, thousands of people have reveled at Lombardo’s creation, which it seemed could withstand the test of time.
“Adam” collapsed on Oct. 6, 2002, however, after its plywood pedestal buckled under the weight of the statue, causing him to shatter into 28 large pieces and hundreds of smaller fragments at the site of the fall. His head, face and torso remained unscathed despite the sudden impact, but his arms and lower legs were severely damaged.
Rather than diving into salvaging whatever remnants of Adam they could, the Met’s team of conservation specialists took a step back and decided to conduct research over eight years from 2003 to 2011 on an innovative method that relied on computer engineering before restoring the statue. The specialists meticulously mapped out the floor of the Vélez Blanco Patio, where the statue was located, into smaller grid areas and photographed the pieces in each square before collecting them.
Working with CAE Associates, Riccardelli and senior conservator at the Met Lawrence Becker put together virtual representations of Adam to indicate which parts of the sculpture needed the most support for the upright bodice. They targeted the ankles and the knee joints as areas of stress that would need specific attention and used carbon fiber straps to secure embedded pins within the fragmented joints.
From 2010 to 2014, the conservators worked to reassemble “Adam” to his former glory. On top of re-adhering the pieces, Riccardelli and Becker also needed to address the layer of dirt and grime that had built up over time to ensure the aesthetic presentation of the sculpture would be a true representation of Lombardo’s work.
After successfully attaching the 28 major fragments together, the team put the finishing touches by filling the smaller cracks and faults to give the sculpture a smooth and unified surface.
The “Adam” restoration, art history professor Jane Carroll said, is a story of heroes.
“Some of the stone was literally powdered,” Carroll said. “The patience, persistence and invention of this group of conservators are to be applauded.”
The “Saving Adam” presentation will take place on Monday at 5 p.m. in Filene Auditorium.