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Piecing it together

Getty Villa is a conservators' heaven, with elevated responsibilities.

January 31, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

BATHED in natural light, a larger-than-life Roman statue of Empress Faustina greets the public in a gallery devoted to images of women and children at the Getty Villa. About 1,850 years old, she's a bit worse for the wear, but she has a new nose and chin.

Long before J. Paul Getty purchased the marble figure, in 1951, a restorer had replaced broken parts of her face with newly carved marble. The process involved cutting away damaged areas to create flat surfaces and drilling holes for metal pins to hold the additions in place. Those restorations were later lost or destroyed and replaced with plaster, but when the Getty's antiquities conservators prepared the collection for its new installation at the villa, they decided that Faustina needed help.

Purists advocate removing old restorations to reveal an unadulterated ancient core, said Jerry Podany, head of antiquities conservation at the villa, but what's left is often so damaged that the remaining artistry is difficult to appreciate. That was the case with Faustina. The early restorer's mechanical cuts and holes were probably far more distracting than the original damage. Even after the holes were filled, the sculpture looked like a victim of bad surgery.

"We wanted to bring some unity back to this important portrait statute," Podany said.

That required reconstructing the nose, chin and surrounding area. He made a plaster cast of the face and used it to model a clay nose and chin section based on ancient portraits of Faustina in stone and on coins. They indicate that she did not have a dainty nose, but visual evidence triumphed over today's notions of beauty.

"Sculpting a nose is fun," Podany said, "but for me the interesting thing was making sure we were in the ballpark of the right nose, even if we didn't quite like it." When satisfied, he cast the modeled clay in an acrylic resin mixture resembling marble and affixed it to the marble head.

Philosophies and practices of art conservation have changed considerably over the years, Podany said, and that fact can be seen at the villa. Labels for some sculptures contain images of the works with restorations from different periods outlined and color-coded. The gallery known as the Temple of Herakles, in particular, is a mini history of restoration as well as a spectacular showcase for three Roman sculptures. The dominant statue of Hercules and the smaller "Leda and the Swan" and "Satyr Pouring Wine" have undergone significant changes since they were created, as labels explain. The restorations are part of their history.

Conservators in spotlight

With a mandate to help conserve the world's artistic heritage, the J. Paul Getty Trust has had a high profile in the field for many years. But the reopening of the villa has focused attention on the antiquities conservators' particular role. While staff members of the Getty Conservation Institution pursue projects around the world and conservators at the Getty Museum in Brentwood minister to collections of European art and an international holding of photographs, Podany's crew concentrates on ancient art at the villa in Pacific Palisades.

The staff of six conservators, including Podany, and three mount makers work in facilities that doubled in size during the renovation. Two refurbished labs, for stone and ceramics, are in the ranch house originally used as a part-time residence by the museum's founder. Two new labs, for metal and organic materials, are housed in a separate two-story building. Another new building, attached to the ranch house by an archway, was designed for a fledgling master's degree program on the conservation of ethnographic and archeological materials run by UCLA and the Getty.

All three structures face a square courtyard in a complex on the north side of the campus. With views of surrounding trees and -- from a few vantage points -- the Pacific Ocean, it would appear to be conservators' heaven.

"We have been living in an incredible pressure cooker," Podany said, reveling in the view while recounting years of labor on the new installation and other projects that had to be done in cramped, temporary quarters. "Now we're back home. It's time to do great work at a pace that is sane."

The agenda includes collaborative ventures involving antiquities from other museums that will go on view at the villa after treatment. And that work is already underway. Seated at a microscope in a new lab with floor-to-ceiling windows and toxic-fume-removing hoses suspended from the ceiling, Marie Svoboda examines an ancient Greek lekythos. Clumsily pieced together a century or so ago, it was recently dismantled at the villa. The slender ceramic vase, on loan from the Antikenmuseum in Berlin, will go on display at the villa in "The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases," an exhibition opening June 8.

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