Slice of Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum's Conservation Department

click to enlarge CAM chief conservator Serena Urry
CAM chief conservator Serena Urry

It’s the 15th century, and remnants of the Middle Ages hang over Europe as it unknowingly waits for the Renaissance. In the dim candlelight somewhere in Spain shines an altarpiece painted to depict the lives of St. Peter and Jesus Christ along with images of the Virgin Mary and other saints. With its impressive strokes of paint and gold and silver leaf, Lorenzo Zaragoza’s “Retablo of St. Peter” is remarkable to behold.

More than 600 years later, the altarpiece rests under the skilled hands of Cincinnati Art Museum’s chief conservator Serena Urry. With only the clack of museum visitor’s shoes disturbing the quiet peace, the setting resembles the serenity of the piece’s original home.

Zaragoza’s piece has stood the test of time, more or less. While it has been admired by thousands of Cincinnati Art Museum visitors since the museum purchased the piece in1960, it was taken off exhibit in 2010 due to its poor condition. It is now back on exhibit through April 24, as visitors can watch Urry bring the retablo to life again through cleaning all 18 of its panels.

It’s a two-in-one exhibit, giving visitors an insider’s look at the work done by the museum’s conservation department while they view and learn about the piece. Established in 1935, the museum’s conservation department is one of the oldest in the country. Since then it has grown from one part-time paintings conservator to four professionally trained conservators, each of whom have their own specialization in paintings, paper, textiles or objects. The department is in charge of conserving the museum’s entire collection (with the exception of works that are on loan to the museum).

Urry proposed the exhibit because the retablo needed to be treated before it could go back on view in the galleries. However, this is no small task — the retouching is not expected to be complete for another few years. On view in the exhibit is only the first step of the process: cleaning and consolidating.

“Museums usually put conservation on view to the public when the work of art is simply too big to remove it from the gallery or garden,” Urry says. Before the retablo was taken off exhibit, it was the only piece in the room it occupied.
Conserving a work of art like the retablo first involves examining them closely under infrared and ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light reveals differences on the painting’s surface that are not visible to the naked eye; infrared light reveals what is underneath the paint on the ground layer.

Urry says determining the full condition of a piece of art before beginning its conservation treatment is the hardest part of conserving art. The two most important tenants that guide painting conservation are reversibility, which ensures that nothing will be done to the work that cannot be removed later, and dissimilarity, which means suing conservation materials that are not found in the original painting.

Of course, Uri’s conservation efforts are not the first for the retablo. With a piece of art this old, it is common for there to be many years of retouching — the first effort to conserve the retablo may have occurred around the early 1500s. It is believed that the central sculpture of St. Peter was created to replace the original lost piece.

Urry’s work includes using a variety of solvents, hand tools and a hot air gun to remove the effects of older retouching campaigns, such as discolored varnish and wax. This includes a layer of wax added by the Art Museum in 1960 to contain flaking. Since then it has become clouded with dust and grime, and the wax tinted to match the gold leaf of the painting has discolored to a greenish metallic hue.

After cleaning, painting conservation also involves structural treatments, such as modifying or replacing the canvas, its lining and stretcher. There may also be surface treatments done to conserve paintings, such as filling losses of paint, toning the fillings and adding layers of varnish.

“All of the paintings in a multi-piece work like this should be worked on together to ensure consistency,” Urry says. “The gallery space gives me an opportunity to have all of them on view as they are conserved.”

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.