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Author Topic: Prized Monteleone Chariot at Met Gets Corrected Reassembly  (Read 135 times)
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« on: April 01, 2007, 08:13:19 PM »

A More Precise Version of Your Chariot Awaits

March 29, 2007

   For close to a century, schoolchildren have been paraded by the Monteleone chariot, one of the Metropolitan Museum's most prized objects. Teachers explained to them how in 1902 a farmer in a remote Italian village accidentally unearthed the remains of a tomb, which held the pieces of this 2,600-year-old Etruscan chariot.

    The Monteleone chariot at the Met, newly reassembled with an eye toward historical accuracy

   But the Met?s curators long suspected that the chariot might not have been correctly assembled in 1903, the year the museum bought and reconstructed it. Among their most nagging questions was, how could the horses pulling the chariot have been harnessed to a straight pole?

   Their doubts were confirmed in 1989, when Adriana Emiliozzi, an Italian archaeologist and the world?s leading expert in Etruscan chariots, stopped by the Met on a visit to New York.

   ?I left her alone with the chariot for an hour,? recalled Joan R. Mertens, a curator of Greek and Roman art. ?And when I returned, she said, ?Can I show you how it should be put together?? Then she asked if at the time the museum bought the chariot, there weren?t ivories found with it.?


   ?She was right,? Ms. Mertens continued. ?We did have a box of ivories that were in storage.?

   Dr. Emiliozzi?s insights set off a five-year restoration project, whose progress she oversaw on regular trips to New York. The timing was fortunate, coinciding with a re-examination of the Greek and Roman collection in anticipation of its move to new and vastly expanded galleries. The reconstructed and restored chariot, returning to public view after a decade?s absence, now has pride of place as the centerpiece of the 30,000-square-foot new space, which opens on April 20. It is considered one of the best-preserved Etruscan objects anywhere.

   ?Originally it looked like an easy chair on wheels,? Ms. Mertens said, though adding that ?it was a pretty good early restoration.? Because no examples of complete Etruscan chariots were available in 1903, the original restorer worked solely from chariots depicted on ancient pottery and other objects.

   Made from bronze and wood and decorated with ivory, the Met?s chariot is richly embellished. There are depictions of the mouth of a gorgon and the belly of a panther; heads of lions, rams, felines and boars; birds of prey; winged horses; and Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War. Art historians believe it was made as a parade chariot for an important dignitary, to be used only for the grandest occasions.

   ?Fancy cars always capture the imagination,? Ms. Mertens said, explaining the chariot?s popularity among visitors to the Met.

   ?The Etruscans wouldn?t have made these elaborate chariots had there not been a demand for conspicuous consumption,? she said. ?This is the ancient equivalent of the Beatles? famous Rolls-Royce.?

   Dr. Emiliozzi pointed out some clues ? in addition to the straight pole ? that indicated that the original assembly was faulty.

   There is a visible outline where a boar?s head had once been; the 1903 version placed the head further down on a support to which the bronze panels were mounted. There were the bronze lion heads that had been used as hubcaps in 1903; the tops of the heads showed traces of little feet, which could belong only to the youths adorning each side of the chariot.

   Even before she saw the chariot at the Met, Dr. Emiliozzi had had a hunch things weren?t right. ?I had already studied pictures of it before coming to New York,? she said by telephone from Rome. ?And I was immediately surprised to see that my research was basically correct.?

   Dr. Emiliozzi?s suspicions came from years of studying the remains of ancient chariots; there are about 300 in the world, but only 6 are reasonably complete. The Met?s chariot, she said, is a ?masterpiece of antiquity,? not simply because of its elaborate decoration but also because it is so well preserved.

   The two-wheeled vehicle consists of a horseshoe-shaped car made of wood and covered with panels of bronze, in which the driver and his illustrious passengers stood. Two horses, on either side of the pole, would be yoked to the chariot with leather harnesses.

   The Met?s conservators began the chariot?s restoration by taking X-rays. ?Through the wood you could see that the nails were mostly modern,? said Kendra E. Roth, a Met conservator, referring to the 1903 construction.
   After studying the X-rays, the team took the entire chariot apart, carefully laying out, numbering and identifying every piece, down to the nails. Simply removing the nails took several months. The delicate task required carefully drilling around the tip of the nail so that it could be delicately pulled out with dental pliers without damaging the surface. The conservators were gratified to find that the ancient sheets of bronze had enough flexibility that they did not break during this procedure.

   Next the sheets were pried from their wood frame. In the process, conservators discovered decorative details that had been obscured by the misplacement of some pieces. They also found bits of Oriental paper with ink calligraphy marks ? probably vestiges of the 1903 restoration ? glued to the back of the panels as a sort of Band-Aid.

   Dr. Emiliozzi recognized that the pole needed to bend so that the harness would fit over the backs of the two horses. Making the correct bend was not a problem for the conservators, and faint traces of lashings on the front of the pole helped her to confirm that it was complete.

   As the conservators studied the chariot piece by piece, Dr. Emiliozzi made a life-size foam model of it to make sure all the pieces would fit. ?We wanted to make a structure that fit original pieces,? she said.
At some point in its life, conservators discovered, the chariot had suffered a serious accident to its right side. This had broken off the lower legs and feet of the youths on that side and had damaged the right ear of the boar. It made the entire chariot asymmetrical.

   To reconstruct it correctly, a new substructure was made that took into account the chariot?s lopsided features. Part of the structure was fashioned from seasoned wood, samples of which were exposed to accelerated heat and moisture to see how it would age. The rest was made from modern materials like plexiglass and foam, painted to resemble ancient wood.

   In 1903 the bronze surfaces had been given a coat of lacquer, which discolored over time. Conservators removed the lacquer but, Ms. Roth said, ?we were careful not to take off any of the corrosion or burial soil.?
With the lacquer removed, the elaborate bronze figures came to life. Clearly visible now are decorative details like the boar?s eyelashes, the fawn?s spots and the rich patterns on the dress Achilles? mother wears.

   The question of how far to go in adding the original decorative flourishes to the chariot had to be addressed. The ivories were taken out of storage and carefully examined.

   ?We did not know precisely where all the pieces go,? Ms. Mertens said. ?And we didn?t want to just decorate it in a way that would take away from the wholeness of the object. So we chose to just put the tusks back on the boar?s head.?

   As the chariot is displayed now, it is missing the inlaid amber and other exotic materials that in ancient times would have embellished the eyes of an eagle, the boar and several mythological creatures. Asked why the museum decided not to introduce modern equivalents to replicate the chariot in all its original richness, Ms. Mertens replied: ?Our aim is to show things as they are. We aren?t a pastry shop ? and this don?t need tart.?


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