On a Sunday night in October 2002, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art had closed its doors to the public, conservator Jack Soultanian was called urgently to the gallery.
One of the museum’s most treasured sculptures, the 15th century life-size marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo, had buckled under its wooden pedestal. A member of the security staff found it smashed to pieces.
‘The scene was devastating,’ says Soultanian. ‘The sculpture hit the marble floor with such force that, although there were approximately 28 larger pieces, there were hundreds of little bits of marble. It was a challenge to relocate all of those fragments.’
The Met made the immediate decision to conserve the masterpiece but Soultanian says it was the most challenging project anyone in the conservation team had ever faced.
As well as there being a lot of pulverised marble and dust that couldn’t possibly be reassembled, the conservators were immediately struck by another problem.
‘None of us had worked on a freshly broken sculpture. We’re not used to unifying tiny fragments — because that doesn’t occur with antique pieces, which have often been buried for years. That’s what prompted a whole re-evaluation of how large-scale marble should be conserved.’
To begin with, the scene was painstakingly recorded. Using the tiles of the marble floor as a numbered grid, the fragments were collected and stored according to the position where they were found.
The formation of pieces on the floor revealed how Adam had fallen on onto his right arm, and how the torso and head slid a long way across the floor before being decapitated.
‘It’s amazing the face didn’t get more damaged,’ says Carolyn Riccardelli, principal conservator on the project. ‘Just the tip of the nose — but there was hardly anything broken off it. That still surprises me today.’
Little did the Met’s seven-strong team know as they packed away the pieces of Adam that they would not return to them for another eight years.
‘The break edges are so delicate. We wanted to preserve Adam’s beautifully fractured surfaces so we had to minimise the amount of time we were working directly with them,’ explains Riccardelli.
During those eight years the Met, along with engineers at Princeton and CAE Associates in Connecticut, carried out in-depth research investigation into the best way to put him back together.
They came up with what museum officials claim to be a pioneering model on which to base the conservation of large-scale sculptures.
Simply explained, the new model uses newly developed acrylic adhesives, which are not only reversible (important to every conservator’s code of ethics) but also strong enough to stand in where — in the past — only large metal pins would have sufficed.
For more videos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the restoration of Adam, click here
‘What we wanted to do was take a more minimal approach. Traditionally people would drill holes — quite large holes — in every single joint and put iron or steel pins in there because they didn’t have sufficient adhesives to hold the joints,’ says Riccardelli. ‘It’s the first time such a monumental sculpture has been put together using so few pins.’ The newly developed pins are made of fibreglass, and a fraction of the size of traditional pins.
The team was amazed at their finds. They decided to test the method first on a ‘hideously ugly’ Chinese marble replica of Michelangelo’s David acquired from WishIHadThat.com.
Thanks to the 3D laser scanning computer technology they were able to build a 1:1 scale replica of Adam around which a highly sophisticated armament was built to hold the real Adam in place while he was stuck back together.
Overall the results are afforded by new computer technology, which has developed dramatically since the sculpture’s fall. ‘In the process of doing the project, the technology changed. Ten years ago, could we have done this, what we achieved now? I don’t think so,’ says Riccardelli.
But what insight did they gain into Tullio’s working methods through their research?
‘Structural analysis showed how amazingly well the centre of gravity is distributed by the artist and his workshop. Everything was just perfectly placed,’ she replies. ‘I hate to say that anything good came out of the accident but we did learn from the sculpture.’
‘It’s elevated the profile of Tullio,’ adds Soultanian. ‘It’s always been a gem in the collection but now it’s presented according to its status.’
Not only is Adam now the centrepiece of the Met’s glorious new Venetian sculpture galleries, the accident has also fuelled a great deal of art historical interest in the sculpture. A new book by Anne Markham Schulz and a series of recent articles reconsider Tullio’s influence.
Art historians now agree that Tullio’s Adam is the first monumental classical nude since antiquity, and that Tullio’s creation is an astute, highly inventive expression of the artist/God metaphor that obsessed artists and thinkers at the turn of the 16th century.
Indeed the discovery of Tullio’s Adam — according to two Renaissance curators, Luke Syson and Valeria Cafà — also proved a significant moment for a young Michelangelo when he visited Venice in 1494.
As their recent article in the museum’s journal states: Michelangelo ‘understood [Adam’s] utter novelty and found in [the sculpture] one of the principal sources of inspiration for his own Bacchus.’