The second portion of my time in San Gemini was spent learning about the process of restoring, conserving, and transporting archaeological ceramics. My instructor for this part was professional restorer-conservator Elena Raimondi. I also had the joy of working with Clarrisa Pilato, a student at the Intituto Superiore per la Conservazioneed il Restauro, Rome’s premier university specifically for conservation and restoration. It was especially interesting to learn about the restoration education in Italy. From these incredibly knowledgeable individuals, I learned the three guidelines for archaeological restoration: the restorative techniques must be reversible, visible to the naked eye, and be only for the purpose of assisting in understanding the original purpose of the object.
Each pair in our program was given fragments from different excavation sites in Italy to restore completely. My object was from the 7th century BCE, and I still cannot believe that I was allowed to work on such an ancient and irreplaceable item. The steps to restoration include documentation, cleaning, consolidation, restoration of the original shape, and integration. There are many different methods to document the restoration of a piece that include photography, drawings, and textually. For the first step, documentation, we used photography and text because of its relative ease and speed in documenting the process. Since there were only two weeks to complete the restoration and the class consisted primarily of beginners, speed was crucial so time would not be lost. We photographed before, during, and after restoration in order to show the progress of the restoration as well as kept detailed notes of the conservation condition of the object.
The next step, cleaning is perhaps the most important. Using a variety of tools and methods, the surface and fractures of all the pieces were cleaned of the soil encrustations, dirt, and vegetative matter. Because my object was so archaic, it was also inherently extremely fragile so as I cleaned it, I ran into several issues. Firstly, the object had not been fired very well originally so when I attempted to clean the surface, parts would chip off with the dirt. This meant that it was really easy to over-clean the object which would change the integrity of the object, negating the entire purpose of restoration. The fractures of the object also proved a challenge. We concluded that given the simple design and poor surface condition that the object was most likely used to hold food meant for use in the afterlife or as a gift to deities. It was really neat to see how the inside of the object was badly destroyed from holding decaying food. Usually when cleaning the fractures of an object you can use a stiff-bristled brush to get rid of the dirt, but because the clay of my object was so soft when I tried this, the clay body of the object began to rub away too which would make putting the entirety of the piece back together extremely difficult. In the end, I cleaned as thoroughly as I could, given the challenging parameters of my object.
Next, before reattaching the pieces together the fragments must be consolidated which involves using what is essentially a diluted superglue called Paraloid B-72. Paraloid B-72 is actually a thermoplastic resin used throughout the restoration process in different concentrations. In a 2% concentration, the Paraloid is brushed over the entire surface of the object in order to strengthen it. Then a 5% solution is brushed just in the fractures before reattachment. After all of this is dried, the reattachment process can begin. A 25% solution of the Paraloid is brushed in the fractures that are going to be attached, then with the help of a partner the pieces are pressed together and held until the glue dries a little. Then medical tape is used to hold the pieces together while they dry completely.
The finishing touches of the restoration process are known as integration and depend on the object but for mine, we used a plaster to fill the holes and gaps left by the poor conservation state of the object. The plaster has to be colored using a variety of natural pigments to match the surface of the object. Then it was applied by backing the hole with a pliable wax and using a small spatula to press the plaster without creating any air bubbles. After this has dried, the plaster was mechanically worked with a scalpel and sandpaper to lower the surface to be the same as the object. For some reason, this was my favorite part of the process since it felt so hands-on and has an instant gratification factor as well. Finally, the whole object was brushed over with the 2% Paraloid to strengthen the final shape. Ta da the piece is restored!!
One of the most incredible parts of my whole experience was the opportunity to tour the official Italian restoration labs in Perugia, Florence, and Rome. I had the opportunity to meet professional restorers who spoke to us about various projects they were working on and what it is like to work as a professional restorer. I was completely in awe of the entire operation. Seeing irreplaceable pieces of art so close up that I could nearly touch them was indescribable. The restorers also talked about how techniques differed from school to school, which was particularly interesting. For example, when painting in a filling in a 2-D piece, Roman school teaches that regardless of the shape of the painting you paint in short vertical lines, while the Florentine school follows the shape of the painting. The resulting difference is especially fun to spot in museums like the Uffizi and the Vatican. It was absolutely remarkable to learn all about the restoration profession from people who have made this their life’s work, and for this I am immensely grateful!