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After three years of highly-detailed, painstaking work, a $1.25 million restoration of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's Raphael Room is in the homestretch.
Senior objects conservator Holly Salmon has been managing the ambitious project, which included taking the signature gallery's walls down to the studs and rebuilding them — all while keeping the room open to the public.
About 50 historic objects — including precious Renaissance paintings, furniture, antiquities and textiles — have been assessed, cleaned, repaired and rejuvenated to bring the space back to the way it looked in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s day. The astute art collector brought the first painting by Italian Renaissance painter Raphael to the United States in 1898 — which explains the ornate room's name.
On a recent tour, Salmon explained that the goal was to approach the massive undertaking in the same detail-oriented, holistic way the museum's founder would have.
“It’s important: the relationship between the painting, the furniture underneath it, the wall fabric behind it and then the sculpture next to it,” Salmon said. “So for us, it makes sense to do a project like this looking at it the same way. It’s very personal, and it shows her passion and attention to every detail. The textiles on the walls are just as important as the Botticelli that’s hanging on them.”
It was no small task to follow Gardner's famously particular sense of color, place and style to the letter. For instance, the brilliant, red velvet and Damask fabrics that swath the room's walls contain 19 patterns and textures, Salmon said.
It was textile conservator Tess Fredette's charge to make sure the replacements would be up to snuff. According to Salmon, Fredette commissioned Prelle, a 200-year-old luxury fabrics factory in Lyon, France, to weave the wall coverings to Gardner's standards.
Among the paintings and objects that needed some major TLC was a marble bowl located in the window space overlooking the museum's verdant, indoor courtyard. Salmon described — with great affection and satisfaction — the turnaround she was able to achieve on her quest to make the piece appear how it did originally.
The wide basin features two cats, believed to be panthers, crawling up the side. Salmon recalled cleaning it with steam to remove decades worth of collected dirt from the delicate surface without damaging the stone.
When she and her team first lifted the bowl from its pedestal they discovered a perfectly clean space where it had been resting. “We could see how dirty it was,” she recalled, “and so the drama of cleaning it, and uncovering this beautiful, marble pattern with veining, was thrilling,” the conservator said. “At one point in the day the sun shines right through the bowl and it glows.”
Everything — from the wood floor to the upholstery on the room's carefully curated pieces of fine furniture — has also been brought back to life. Salmon predicts the restoration will enhance the visitor's experience of the elements that make the Raphael Room glorious — as it's doing for her.
She pointed at a pair of paintings – both titled “A Hero of Antiquity,” circa 1500 by Neroccio di Bartolomeo de' Landi. Each work features a single hero, both donning red footwear and gold armor. “They were cleaned, and the red fabric behind them was replaced,” Salmon said.
After being re-hung, she recalled, “I had a little gasp because the red booties just pop now that the paintings are clean.” The crimson backdrop boosts the effect.
One of the more novel projects was an unlikely collaboration that involved an intricate 18th century guitar. The instrument was made by a luthier named Jacopo Mosca Cavelli. Because he placed his maker's label on the inside of a guitar — with very few, tiny holes to peer through — the museum was uncertain of its origin date.
So the conservators collaborated with the Boston Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital to examine the guitar's interior. The instrument underwent an endoscopy and a CT scan to find and read the interior label with the Cavelli's name and the date (they were able to see "172," but the last number was missing).
Then there's the room's grand, Venetian-style fireplace. “It was cleaned with a laser,” Salmon said, “it’s the same technology that’s used to remove tattoos.”
The only objects left for restoration until the room is complete are the heavy, ornate hangings that flank the fireplace.
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