Art

Watch the British Museum Conserve Its Largest Print, a 16th-Century Dürer Woodcut

Albrecht Dürer’s “Triumphal Arch” is one of the largest prints ever made, and after a century on view at the British Museum, its conservation was a colossal task.

Albrecht Dürer’s 1515-17 “Triumphal Arch” is one of the largest prints ever produced, made with 195 woodblocks on 36 sheets of paper that stretch four by three meters. The first edition at the British Museum is the institution’s biggest print, and was acquired in 1834. As curator Giulia Bartrum explains in this video recently shared by the museum, it was assembled in the 1890s, and was on permanent display ever since. So when they finally got the funds and opportunity for its conservation, the process of cleaning, mending, and assessing the condition of the paper was quite a colossal task.

Albrecht Dürer, “The Triumphal Arch” (1515-17), woodcut (courtesy British Museum)

Along with this video that chronicles the conservation up to its final stages, when the newly conserved pieces of the print are temporarily reassembled for a portrait, the museum has been sharing each delicate step of the project on their blog. After a 2014 exhibition featuring the “Triumphal Arch,” and months of planning that “generated the fattest risk assessment folder ever seen,” it was relocated to the paper conservation studio, rolled on a specially designed tube system, and photographed in high-resolution and with infrared and ultraviolet imaging. The degraded linen backing was carefully peeled back to separate the original sheets, and old adhesives were washed off. Unconventional tools were employed to tackle its size and fragility, such as a borrowed lifting frame used by the National Gallery to move their altarpieces, a nasal aspirator to distribute pulp infilling, and cosmetic brushes “softer than a squirrel’s tail” to lift away dirt.

On the British Museum’s site, you can find an interactive image of the print, which was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and was intended to be pasted up and hand-colored on palace walls. The fine details include scenes from Maximilian’s life, like his 1477 marriage to Mary of Burgundy and his 1486 coronation as King of the Romans, with portals below to “Praise,” “Honor and Might,” and “Nobility.” At the top of the narrative architecture is an allegorical scene with a lion symbolizing power and an eagle indicating wisdom, while Egyptian hieroglyphics and busts of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar reinforce the visual message of power and his right to rule.

The “Triumphal Arch” sheets will be stored individually until a future reassembly, and Paper Conservator Sam Taylor and Western Art on Paper Conservator Agnieszka Depta note in a blog post accompanying the video that “putting the jigsaw back together again properly will be a whole new story!”

Read more about the conservation of Dürer’s “Triumphal Arch” on the British Museum’s blog

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