Two alabaster statuettes from the Kunstkammer.
Restoration and art-historical background
The Kunstkammer Vienna houses two charming sixteenth-century alabaster statuettes about which we know next to nothing: Leda and the swan and her counterpart Ganymede and the eagle. Handling and composition suggest they form a pair. We have, however, neither documents regarding how and when they were produced nor can we trace back their respective provenance. They entered the Kunsthistorisches Museum on different routes. This is why they were long not exhibited together. In addition, Ganymede and the Eagle was damaged and not well preserved. The statuette has now been comprehensively restored to its original condition in the Kunstkammer’s conservation workshop. From October 2002-January 2003 the two statuettes are on show together in Room 33 of the Kunstkammer.
»Conservation and Restoration of the Alabaster Statuette ‚Ganymede and the Eagle’, KK 7494«
Prior to the intervention, the object was in a fragile and unstable condition. Numerous older breakages and subsequent repairs threatened its survival and had made the statuette look mottled and unattractive.
The figure was carved from pale alabaster with a slight reddish tint and some dark veining. Alabaster’s specific properties make it a sensitive material; it is a mineral of fine uniform grain, appreciated since antiquity for its delicate lustre and translucent appearance and often used for portraits. Unlike marble, which looks similar, alabaster is very soft and can even be scored with a fingernail. Another characteristic that affects its conservation is its susceptibility to water. Like gypsum, alabaster is soluble in water, so cleaning interventions or storing the object in humid conditions can damage it.
The figure of Ganymede showed damages and losses typical of alabaster such as scratches and an eroded surface. Other damages to the object may have been caused by mechanical interventions, e.g. by someone touching or bumping into it, or the statuette toppling over or even falling to the ground, which led to several separate repair interventions that, from today’s point of view, have also resulted in damages to the object.
Before embarking on the conservation and restoration intervention, we carried out a comprehensive examination of the object and compiled a detailed condition report. This mapping documents some of the existing damages that will be discussed in more detail in the following texts and pictures.
The surface is soiled, scratched and degraded in areas where contact with water has resulted in alabaster crystals becoming detached from the mineral.
Some of the cracks – indicated in orange in the mapping – may be traced back to natural separation planes in the rock. They may also be the result of tensions caused by earlier repairs. Discoloration along the cracks is probably the result of earlier consolidation attempts.
We believe there were at least four earlier restorations. Entries in the museum’s restoration books and old photographs suggest that all repairs comprising gluing cracks and/or filling them with putty were carried out before 1900.
At present, a total of 19 fragments are held together with glue and reinforcements. Examinations using GC/MS (an analytical method to identify organic compounds) identified rosin (also known as colofony, a solid form of resin obtained from pines), which was used in some places as a glue to reattach fragments that had broken off. The resulting losses were then filled with a variety of putties.
The numerous breakages and losses can be traced back to at least three major incidents. The extent of damages is shown in the mapping.
Some of the damages can be traced back to old gluings and fillings-in. Some reattached pieces were not fitted properly, distorting the object’s appearance. In some places the edges of a breakage were touch-sanded, resulting in a loss of material and the alteration of the original surface.
We can also identify seven stone replacements. These are losses that have been replaced using alabaster. Some of these inserted pieces of alabaster may have come from the statuette and were then used to repair natural losses in the mineral. This is most obvious in the case of the circular or oval stone replacement, but also in the eye of the eagle, where we cannot identify a prior loss or damage, suggesting they may have been inserted by the artist who produced the figure. Other additions are probably the result of earlier repairs. Note one such example on the beak: both its lower and upper part were missing and were replaced; the lower part was modelled in putty but the upper part was carved from a piece of alabaster.
In addition to gluings, some of the breakages were repaired with reinforcements. X-rays show that they were drilled into the alabaster. These findings and a visual examination suggest that three different materials were used for these reinforcements, which are indicated in this mapping.
Most of the reinforcements are made of iron. In addition to classical reinforcements, which are completely hidden inside the object, the anonymous restorer also employed a visible clasp and wire for thinner areas such as the eagle’s “tail”. Two reinforcements are made of wood. In the X-rays we can easily differentiate between wooden and metal dowels, because only iron ones are clearly visible. A third material was used for reinforcements at the base, next to Ganymede’s feet. In the X-rays the clear straight edges of the brass dowels contrast with the corroding iron dowels. We may assume that these are the most recent reinforcements, carried out independently from the others and thus the result of a different incident in which the statuette was damaged.
These reinforcements were massive interventions requiring drilling that resulted in the loss of original material. Some damages (cracks, breakages and losses) can also be attributed to them. The iron reinforcements especially are potentially hazardous as the material can corrode. They also discolour the mineral. Corroding iron increases in volume, creating the danger of tension in the soft alabaster, which may even cause new cracks or breakages.
The entire surface of the statuette was covered with a residual yellowish film left over from some earlier restoration. This resulted in a mottled and distorted appearance and bore the danger that the presence of unknown materials might trigger chemical-physical processes in the alabaster.
An analysis of these residues using GC/MS has shown that the film probably consisted of bees’ wax mixed with a dry oil containing traces of resin (colofony).
An examination of the figure in UV-light told us more about its condition. The residual organic film and the various putties luminesce in different hues. In areas with iron dowels the normally pale translucent alabaster turns black. This phenomenon can be explained by iron molecules entering the porose structure of the rock.
Based on the findings of visual and analytical examinations, we devised a concept for the necessary conservation and restoration interventions; the work took around six months in total.
One of the first conservation measures we undertook was to remove the residual film. The appropriate mix of solvents and the use of a system of compresses proved successful, as documented by the before and after images of the statuette taken in UV-light.
The danger to the object caused by the corroding iron meant we had to remove gluings and reinforcements. The iron dowels were carefully cut using tiny saw blades.
As far as possible we removed all old putties, glues and iron reinforcements. However, before every intervention to repair a breakage or remove a reinforcement we had to evaluate the respective dangers of acting and not acting. This is why some gluings and reinforcements remain.
The fragments were then glued together again using a synthetic state-of-the-art glue.
In order to create a homogenous appearance, we decided to replace some of the losses. Both the recipe for the material used and the method of application were the result of a series of tests: it needed to be similar in colour and transparency to the original alabaster but also to be reversable and to age well.
For every loss we produced an individual silicone negative form to cast the required replacement in the bespoke material developed in the series of tests.
Once a separately-cast replacement had dried and hardened, it was carefully fitted and glued in place and then retouched.
Mapping documenting all the gluings and replacements carried out during our conservation and restoration intervention.
The object before (left) and after (right) the conservation and restoration intervention.
Following the completion of the conservation and restoration intervention, the statuette is now in a stable condition. Removing materials used in earlier restorations reduced potential hazards to the alabaster. By removing putties and reinforcements and by re-gluing breakages, we created a homogenous surface. By replacing losses, we created an aesthetically pleasing appearance that allows museum visitors to see and appreciate the object anew.
ART HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
»Leda and Ganymede, the Lovers of Zeus«
Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce and make love to Leda, the Queen of Sparta. And he changed himself into an eagle to abduct Ganymede, the handsome shepherd and prince of Troy whom he made cupbearer to the gods on Mount Olympus. Leda and Ganymede - these two lovers of Zeus were often shown together, both in classical antiquity and in the early modern era. We find them side by side on ancient Roman sarcophagi.1
At around the time our two alabaster statuettes were carved, Correggio and Benvenuto Cellini also focused on these divine love affairs. Correggio painted his celebrated series for Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua in 1530, and these four paintings depict loves of Zeus/Jupiter: Ganymede and the eagle (now in the Picture Gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna), and Leda and the Swan (Berlin, Staatliche Museen), as well as Danae and the Golden Rain (Rome, Galleria Borghese), and Jupiter and Io (also in the Picture Gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna).
Around 1540, Cellini depicted Leda and Ganymede on the base of a now lost silver candelabra in the shape of Jupiter commissioned by the King of France.2
Composition and handling of the two alabaster statuettes reveal them to be companion pieces. Until now, only Leo Planiscig had written about this Ganymede, and he, too, identified the two artefacts as a pair.3 But as they took very different paths to enter the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna they have never been displayed together.
Ganymede has now been expertly restored in the Conservation Dept. of the Kunstkammer Vienna (see the essay by Theresa Lamers), which is why both statuettes are now on show side by side – perhaps for the first time ever or at least for the first time in centuries.
The similarities are striking. The mirror-image compositions of these pairings of human and bird both place the smaller avian protagonist on a rock overgrown with plants (the eagle’s base also features a snake and a lizard), allowing it to converse more or less eye-to-eye with the larger human figure. Touch and gaze play a seminal role in the subtle, carefully differentiated rendering of both love stories. There is much tenderness between the pair comprising swan and woman. The sculptor has focused on the lovers’ desire, capturing a moment of erotic tension. Their caresses are still timid and shy – Leda is using only the tips of her fingers to touch neck and wing of her feathered paramour, while his chest almost accidentally brushes against her thigh. But their eyes are locked, and both have cocked their heads, which, together with their direct gaze, suggests a tentative invitation. Here, the loving union is but a heartbeat away. We can easily imagine that soon their caresses will become more passionate…. How much more reserved, in contrast, is the encounter between eagle and youth, between Zeus and Ganymede. We do not have to agree with Planiscig who believed the eagle had grabbed hold of the boy and was hitting him. Instead, we could read the way the powerful bird of prey has placed its wing on the youth’s back and its leg on his thigh as a fatherly or at least a friendly gesture. But the stern look the „King of Birds” is giving his young companion does remind one of a teacher sizing up one of his more unruly pupils. The latter seems to resist: although Ganymede’s body is shown in a more or less relaxed contrapposto, his pose appears stiff, unnatural and uncomfortable. This impression is mainly caused by the angular position of his raised right arm, which suggests he is not very happy touching the bird’s neck. Here, too, the two protagonists are cocking their heads but their eyes do not seem to meet. The youth’s features suggest instead he is trying to avoid the raptor’s gaze. But as Ganymede’s eyes do not have pupils, we cannot determine the direction of his gaze; he may be casting a – then highly skeptical – sidelong glance at the eagle. His half-opened mouth with its thick lips also makes the boy appear annoyed. In his left hand he is clutching some fruit to feed to the bird but this Ganymede does not appear to feel at ease. Despite the youth’s beauty, the composition lacks eroticism. This, by the way, is also not emphasised in the original version of this myth (Homer, Iliad); it appears to be a later addition first found in versions dating from after the death of Homer.4 However, we do not know if the author of our alabaster statuette was aware of this. In any case, the contrived juxtapositioning of the figures makes it quite clear that Ganymede did not want to be abducted to Mount Olympus. With Leda, Zeus seems to have almost succeeded in seducing her, but Ganymede looks as if he still needs a lot of convincing.
Style and handling of the two groups have much in common. Note the similarities in the rendering of the birds’ plumage. Individual, oblong bundles of feathers are generously arranged in rows next to each other or overlapping like scales. Interestingly, only the swan’s wings and legs are covered with feathers, its body and neck remain smooth and thus similar to Leda’s body. The handling of the bodies of the two human protagonists is extremely soft. Compared to the rest of her body, Leda’s arms and legs appear heavy and massive yet soft. Thighs, hips, chest and arms almost doughy. Her right hip juts forward into space. The same with Ganymede. His chest appears almost as soft as a girl’s. Muscles are merely intimated on his torso. The faces of both human protagonists feature large, cat-like eyes with strongly emphasized upper and lower lids. Planiscig attributed the Ganymede-group to a “Florentine artist in the direction of Sansovino between 1530 and 1540”,5 which we can now more or less confirm. Jacopo Sansovino conceived the base of his statuette of John the Baptist in Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice (1534) as a rock overgrown with plants, and the Baptist’s dreamy face with its cat-like eyes and thick lips may have informed the work of the artist who produced our two groups. However, the choice of alabaster suggests it originated in Tuscany rather than in Venice.
So, are these two statuettes true counterparts, produced to be displayed together? Or do they merely represent independent templates successfully repeated by a workshop? The mirror-image arrangement of the human and avian protagonists – the swan is on Leda’s right, the eagle on Ganymede’s left – rather suggests the former, though a trawl though the inventories has not revealed any connection. If they are a pair they must have been separated at an early date. The statuette of Leda and the swan is first listed in the inventory of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm’s Kunstkammer compiled in 1659: “No 115. A nude Leda in full-length pose made of white marble, clasping the swan with both hands. Antico. Exactly 2 span high” (“No. 115. Ein nackhendte Leda gantzer Postur von weissen Marmel, welche mit beeden Händten ein Schwanen halt. Antico. Hoch 2 Span genaw”).6 There can be no doubt that this entry refers to object KK 4382. The description of Leda embracing the swan with both hands is as correct as the recorded height “2 span”; a span equals 20.8 cm, and our alabaster statuette measures 43 cm. The recorded material “Marmel” (marble) may surprise at first, but in old inventories alabaster is often mistaken for or identified as marble. In the 1659 inventory, the term “Antico” is always used to describe a non-contemporary work (“Moderno”).
Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, Regent of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647 to 1656, bought up a number of paintings and statuettes when the collections assembled by King Charles I were auctioned off in Antwerp after his execution following the end of the English Civil War. Many of them he had, in turn, acquired when the Gonzaga collections in Mantua were sold in 1628. Several statuettes formerly in the Archduke’s Kunstkammer can be identified among the works listed in the Mantuan inventory.7 This is why it was long assumed that our Leda, too, originated there – the inventory compiled after the death of Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua and one of the greatest collectors and patrons of her time, lists no less than two marble statuettes of Leda, which were displayed on the ledges of her grotto.8 Ultimately, however, these descriptions are too vague to identify our statuette with certainty. If our alabaster group really was in Mantua, it was shown without a Ganymede in the Marchioness’s grotto, because no Ganymede is listed in the 1540-1542 inventory. If our statuettes were, in fact, conceived as a pair in the sense of corresponding counterparts, they were already separated at this early point in their history. It therefore seems more plausible to assume another, earlier provenance before the entry in the 1659 inventory of Leopold Wilhelm’s collection, but we cannot (yet) prove that.
The Ganymede group only came to Vienna two centuries later, and it took a very different route – it really did come from Northern Italy. It was moved from the Este Collection in Catajo to Vienna in 1896 but was only listed in the inventory of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna in 1923. So far, we have not been able to reconstruct an earlier provenance, i.e. before 1896.
Although they clearly complement each other in material, handling and composition, the statuettes have been separated at least since 1659. We do not (yet) have answers to any of the important questions regarding their production. However, their joint presentation in the Kunstkammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna reunites them for the first time.
1 Lippold 1954, passim.
2 Schaeffer 1924, 292.
3 Planiscig 1919, no. 123, 81.
4 Sichtermann 1953, note 21, 16.
5 Planiscig 1919, no. 123, 81.
6 Inventarium 1659 (Berger 1883), CLXIX.
7For instance the Striding Youth, KK 62003, and a number of other statuettes by Antico that are now in the Kunstkammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna - see Leithe-Jasper 1986, 78.
8 Ferrari 2003, 347, nos. 7273 and 7277. Hermann 1909/1910, 216, note 2, was the first to connect these entries with KK 4382. Brown 1976, 327, followed his lead.
Clifford M. Brown, Lo insaciabile desiderio nostro de cose antique: New Documents on Isabella d’Este’s Collection of Antiquities, in: Cultural Aspects of the Italian Renaissance. Essays in Honour of Paul Oskar Kristeller, Manchester 1976, 324-253
Daniela Ferrari, Le Collezioni Gonzaga. L’Inventario dei Beni del 1540–1542, Milan 2003
Hermann Julius Hermann, Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, genannt Antico, in: Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, vol. 28, 1909/1910, 201-288
Inventarium 1659 (Berger 1883)
Inventarium aller vnndt jeder Ihrer hochfürstlichen Durchleücht Herrn Herrn Leopoldt Wilhelmen Ertzherzogen zue Österreich, Burgundt etc. zu Wienn vorhandenen Malhereyen, Zaichnungen, Handtrüesz, item der stainenen vnndt metallenen Statuen und anderen Figuren […], ed. by Adolf von Berger, Inventar der Kunstsammlung des Erzherzogs Leopold Wilhelm von Österreich. Nach der Originalhandschrift im fürstlich Schwarzenberg’schen Centralarchive, in: Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, vol. I, part II, 1883, LXXIX-CLXXVII
Manfred Leithe-Jasper, Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Washington DC 1986
Georg Lippold, Leda und Ganymedes, in: Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, no. 3, 1954
Leo Planiscig, Die Estensische Kunstsammlung. Band 1. Skulpturen und Plastiken des Mittelalters und der Renaissance, Vienna 1919
Emil Schaeffer (ed.), Leben des Benvenuto Cellini von ihm selbst geschrieben. Übersetzt von Goethe, Frankfurt 1924
Hellmut Sichtermann, Ganymed. Mythos und Gestalt in der antiken Kunst, Berlin 1953
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