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Undoing a 19th-Century Art Restorer’s Overzealous Handiwork

Funerary Vessel with (B) Orestes Seeking Sanctuary at Delphi; Nike Sacrificing a Ram; and a Horse Race; and (A) a Dionysian Scene; a Boar Hunt; and a Horse Race South Italian, from Ceglie del Campo, Apulia, about 350 B.C. Associated with the Iliupersis Painter (South Italian (Apulian), active about 350 B.C.) Terracotta H: 44 1/8 x 22 x 19 1/2 in. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin VL.2008.5
Conserved Funerary Vessel, South Italian, from Ceglie del Campo, Apulia, about 350 BCE, associated with the Iliupersis Painter, Terracotta, Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (courtesy Getty Villa)

The 19th-century art restorer Raffaele Gargiulo was so good at reconstructing Greek vases, one antiquarian called it a “dangerous perfection for knowledge.” Filling in broken gaps with his own paintings, mending cracks with brass staples, his work was a potential threat to history. One of his creations was recently undone, and the six-year conservation project is central to Dangerous Perfection: Funerary Vases from Southern Italy, now at the Getty Villa in California.

The Getty Villa is hosting an interactive online presentation on Gargiulo and a krater found at Ceglie del Campo in southeastern Italy. The feature doesn’t have any fancy bells or digital whistles, but it’s an intriguing narrative account of the reconstruction and deconstruction of the funerary vase.

UV Light on the conserve Apulian vase (screenshot by the author from Getty Villa)
UV Light on the conserve Apulian vase (screenshot by the author from Getty Villa) (click to view larger)

After its discovery in hundreds of pieces, the vase was given to Gargiulo to work his magic. As the Getty interactive explains, he was then known to “produce restorations so seamless that even a discerning eye found it difficult to tell what was original and what was restored.” With a deft hand for cohesive detail, he rebuilt the vase and filled in missing areas with figures of his own imagination, such as a seated Athena to go with the scenes referencing a victorious afterlife. Two centuries later, between 2008 and 2014, the Getty collaborated with the Antikensammlung in Berlin to undo his handiwork. Their X-rays exposed Gargiulo’s staples holding the thing together, and a UV light revealed the 19th-century pigment. Black patches now are fixed where his fanciful Athena addition once sat.

The vase is one of 13 Apulian vases in Dangerous Perfection. Gargiulo is certainly not the only person in history to put his own skillful imagination ahead of accuracy. For example, a restoration frenzy on many of the churches in Victorian England left them thoroughly redecorated in an elaborate Gothic Revival style, and in the early 20th century archaeologist Arthur Evans gave the ruins of Knossos on Crete a heavy-handed restoration with concrete. The newly conserved funerary vase at the Getty is now up to the highest contemporary standards, but maybe in another century that black void where Gargiulo painted his Athena will be filled in with another restorer’s design.

The online presentation about the conserved vase is at the Getty Villa siteDangerous Perfection: Funerary Vases from Southern Italy continues at the Getty Villa (17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades, California) through May 11. 

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