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The eternal embrace: conserving the Tetnies sarcophagi

A project initiated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to conserve two of its most prized works of classical art, the Tetnies sarcophagi, has revealed an intimate world of ancient rituals

1 February 2013

In July 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, embarked on a two-year project to conserve two of its most prized works of classical art: a pair of impressively large, richly sculpted Etruscan stone sarcophagi, which originate from Vulci and date to between the late 4th and early 3rd century BC. Carved out of volcanic tuff, the first sarcophagus carries an inscription identifying it as the coffin of Ramtha Vishnai, the wife of Arnth Tetnies. The larger one, made of travertine, was the resting place of their son Larth Tetnies and his wife, Thanchvil Tarnai. Both were brightly painted in antiquity. The primary goals of the project, generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, have been to improve both the stability and the appearance of the sarcophagi and to conduct a technical study of their original materials and method of manufacture. The results have been nothing short of illuminating.

Sarcophagus lid depicting Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai (Late 4th–early 3rd century BC), Etruscan, Travertine.

Sarcophagus lid depicting Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai (Late 4th–early 3rd century BC), Etruscan; Travertine. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The ancient Etruscans prepared extensively for the afterlife, furnishing their family tombs with richly painted walls, precious and imported objects, and elaborately decorated coffins. They practised both inhumation and cremation, and produced caskets in various sizes, the most common of which are cinerary urns made of alabaster and terracotta. What makes the Tetnies sarcophagi unique among the few surviving examples of expensive, full-sized, stone sarcophagi are the emotionally moving portrayals of intimacy between the married couples on their lids.

05_Sarcophagus-and-lid-with-portriats-of-husband-and-wife

Sarcophagus lid depicting Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai (Late 4th–early 3rd century BC). Etruscan; Volcanic tuff. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Both couples are featured in loving – and most significantly eternal – embraces. The commemoration of an affectionate marriage for eternity reflects a major difference between ancient Greek and Etruscan societies – namely, the more visible participation of women in Etruscan rituals and public life. Accordingly, Etruscan funerary art is replete with images of married couples. The two Archaic period (c. 575–480 BC) terracotta sarcophagus lids in the Villa Giulia, Rome, and the Louvre – both are known as the ‘Sarcophagus of the Spouses’ – are prime examples; each depicts a couple banqueting together, propped up on their elbows, with the husband’s arm around his wife’s shoulder. Even so, the intimacy of the Tetnies couples, with their tender gazes and nudity, is unprecedented in Etruscan art.

The MFA sarcophagi are carved in differing styles and draw their imagery from independent traditions: whereas Ramtha Vishnai’s sarcophagus adheres closely to established principles of Etruscan art, the monument to her son and his wife integrates Greek models, prompting some to suggest that it may have been carved by a Greek artist living in southern Italy. In the former, Ramtha Vishnai and Arnth Tetnies wear contemporary 4th-century Etruscan jewellery and hairstyles. Depicted as middle-aged – his chin disappears into his neck – they pull each other close to one another, leaving no space between them.

Relief depicting Ramtha Vishnai and Arnth Tetnies flanked by attendants; Ramtha Vishnai and Arnth Tetnies sarcophagus. Etruscan; Volcanic tuff.

Relief depicting Ramtha Vishnai and Arnth Tetnies flanked by attendants; Ramtha Vishnai and Arnth Tetnies sarcophagus. Etruscan; Volcanic tuff. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The imagery that decorates the long side of the sarcophagus is less personal and more public, demonstrating this couple’s elite status in Etruscan society. (The other side is undecorated and lacks any traces of paint, indicating that it was situated against a wall in the tomb.) In the centre of the sculpted relief stand a man and a woman who represent the couple and are flanked by four attendants on each side. They shake hands in a gesture of marital unity. To the left of the female figure, attendants carry luxurious and ceremonial objects: a kithara (a type of lyre), a fan and a pail (objects likely to have been made of bronze or precious metal), an incense box, a pitcher and a large parasol to shade her from the sun. The man’s entourage brings his folding seat, rods (possibly for divining) and several musical instruments, including two types of trumpet and double pipes.

The relief very likely portrays a religious ritual – it has sometimes been interpreted as a marriage scene – and may suggest the status of Ramtha Vishnai as a priestess. Another plausible interpretation holds that the scene depicts the couple reuniting in the afterlife; the two short sides of the coffin illustrate husband and wife departing for the under-world in chariots attended by Etruscan death demons.

In contrast, and in all aspects of its form and decoration, the sarcophagus of Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai takes the Etruscan theme of a couple’s eternal embrace and boldly transposes it into a Greek visual idiom. Here, both husband and wife’s hairstyles and jewellery – his long, stylised beard and twisted wire bracelet, her disc and pendant earring – are noticeably in keeping with contemporary Greek fashions. Their facial features are idealised and, unlike the parents’ snug embrace, they hold one another at a slight distance. The sides of this sarcophagus are carved with scenes popular on Greek monuments of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, such as Greeks fighting Amazons and horsemen attacking armed men on foot. There are also Greek architectural details such as the sculpted bead and reel motif above the figural scenes and, above that, a painted meander that gives the illusion of a three-dimensional perspective, which has been revealed by the current conservation project.

Relief depicting Greeks and Amazons engaged in battle; Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai sarcophagus. Etruscan; Travertine.

Relief depicting Greeks and Amazons engaged in battle; Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai sarcophagus. Etruscan; Travertine. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The chronological sequencing of the two sarcophagi has been debated and, in the absence of firm archaeological evidence, the arguments rely almost entirely on style. But even if, as seems likely, we will never know which was made first, the sarcophagus of Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai is a fascinating reminder of how younger generations strive to distinguish themselves from their predecessors; for them, that meant choosing to be remembered for their positive reception, even emulation, of Hellenic culture – without abandoning their reverence for Etruscan values.

The careful detail of these sarcophagi sits in ironic contrast to the haphazard nature of their discovery. They were unearthed in March 1846 in the Ponte Rotto necropolis of Vulci, a wealthy Etruscan settlement in central Italy that flourished between the early 6th century and late 4th century BC. By the mid 19th century, the discovery of richly painted tombs and their luxurious contents had already established its eminence as an archaeological site. The necropolis itself had been discovered in 1828 when a team of ploughing oxen lost their footing and accidentally fell into one of the tombs; at the time, the area surrounding the Ponte Rotto necropolis formed part of the estate that Pope Pius VII had awarded to Lucien Bonaparte, the first Prince of Canino and Musignano and brother of Napoleon I.

Recognising the vast commercial potential for Etruscan tomb contents – particularly imported Athenian vases – on the burgeoning art market, Bonaparte initiated mercenary excavations which he personally supervised until his death in 1840. Workmen under the direction of his widow, Alexandrine de Bleschamp, discovered the spectacular Tetnies sarcophagi in a tomb found in a deep grotto on the banks of the Fiora River. Removed immediately to the castle at Musignano, word of their magni-ficence spread quickly to the Commissione Consultiva di Antichità e Belle Arti. Only one item of the sarcophagi’s contents was recorded as having survived: a red-figure vase, presumably Athenian, with a Dionysian scene. The rest had been destroyed or lost during the excavation and hasty reburial of the tomb.

In May 1846, Princess Alexandrine offered to sell the sarcophagi to the Papal States, asking 3,500 scudi for the wider travertine coffin and 1,000 scudi for the narrower monument. Negotiations ended the following December, with an offer of no more than 1,000 scudi for both. In 1859, two years after the Princess’s death, her daughter, Maria Bonaparte Valentini, presented the Papal States with another opportunity to purchase the sarcophagi. Yet again, no deal was made.

By 1883, the Tetnies sarcophagi were in the possession of James Jackson Jarves (1818–88), an American diplomat and art critic resident in Florence since the 1850s. Originally from Boston, he presented the sarcophagi that year at the American Exhibition of Foreign Products, Arts and Manufactures in the city’s since-demolished Mechanics Hall. The fair’s ‘Handbook for Visitors’ noted that Alessandro Castellani, the celebrated 19th-century Italian jeweller and antiquities collector, had included the pair in his inventory of Lucien Bonaparte’s antiquities and valued them at 200,000 francs. Castellani apparently offered a large sum for them which was declined by Maria Bonaparte Valentini because her cousin, Napoleon III, intended to buy them for the Louvre – a plan thwarted by his capture in 1870 at the Battle of Sedan.

Three years later, in 1886, it became clear that the sarcophagi were destined to remain in Boston, when the MFA purchased the travertine sarcophagus and the Boston Athenaeum bought its tuff counterpart. The latter was loaned to the MFA in 1887, where it remained until its acquisition in 1975. A photograph from the MFA archives shows the pair displayed together in the terracotta room of the museum’s original building on Copley Square. They were moved to the current building when it opened in 1909.

View of the sarcophagi in the original MFA building on Copley Square (1902).

View of the sarcophagi in the original MFA building on Copley Square, 1902. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

According to MFA records, neither sarcophagus had been scientifically examined or treated at the museum until the current conservation programme began. The challenges were multiple: both objects suffer from structural weakness due to flaws inherent in the stone, a fragility that was compounded by ageing repairs and numerous cracks radiating through the stone lids and bases. The weight of the lids exerts excessive pressure on the weakened bases, further comprising their stability. The stone surfaces had been blackened following decades of exposure to the urban environment and visitor handling.

The conservation work, which is being carried out by a team of MFA object conservators, conservation engineers, analytical scientists and other specialists, began with a thorough examination of the condition of the sarcophagi. In addition to charting conditions such as soiling, losses, surface deposits, former repairs and cracks, the team conducted an in-depth analysis of the original paints, the majority of which are undetectable to the naked eye. Examination under a stereo microscope has yielded valuable results, enabling the identification of a palette of red, yellow, pink, blue, white and black paints. Visible-induced luminescence (VIL), a powerful and relatively new infrared imaging technique, has revealed traces of Egyptian blue, a common pigment in antiquity. Since the pigment becomes luminescent (emits light) in the infrared range, the technique allows conservators to chart the remnants of this blue pigment precisely. The picture below illustrates the presence of Egyptian blue on the Ramtha Vishnai sarcophagus; the bright white areas visible in the black-and-white image show the pigment concentrated on the death demon’s wings and in the background above its right arm. Further instrumental analysis – scanning electron microscopy
with X-ray microanalysis – detected vermilion pigment in the demon’s wing. These discoveries reveal that the background of the relief was painted blue, while the wings of the demon are likely to have been purple or pink; together, they add considerably to our knowledge of the original appearance of the sarcophagus as a vividly painted narrative tableau.

Another exciting discovery has been the detection of a red painted design on the Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai sarcophagus. In this case, a series of lines were already faintly visible along the top of the coffin base, but it was impossible to decipher the entire pattern under normal lighting conditions.

Detail of the base of the Ramtha Vishnai sarcophagus showing the winged death demon (L). Enhanced VIL image of the winged death demon (R). This relatively new infrared technique is used to reveal pigment traces.

Detail of the base of the Ramtha Vishnai sarcophagus showing the winged death demon (L). Enhanced VIL image of the winged death demon (R). This relatively new infrared technique is used to reveal pigment traces. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Conservators used Adobe Photoshop channel mixers, which allow the conversion of colour photographs to black-and-white images by controlling the level of input from the numerous colour channels, to enhance the visibility of the red paint. Correlating the data yielded from the computer-enhanced images with information gained through visual examination, the team was able to reconstruct the pattern and identify it as a three-dimensional perspective meander. This finding has art historical significance: though common in Roman art, the pattern seldom features in Etruscan art. It is, however, prominently displayed in the wall paintings of the François tomb, an important Etruscan tomb also discovered in the Ponte Rotto necropolis – prompting curators to investigate further the relationship between the Tetnies tomb and its neighbour.

Reconstructive drawing of meander placed on coffin base; Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai sarcophagus.

Reconstructive drawing of meander placed on coffin base; Larth Tetnies and Thanchvil Tarnai sarcophagus. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Once the surface examinations had been completed, the team developed cleaning strategies sensitive to the presence of pigments and the inherent vulnerabilities of both types of stone to reduce grime ingrained in the surfaces (Figs. 9 and 10). Conservators used sponges made from cross-linked polyvinyl alcohol, together with a solution of deionised water saturated with precipitated calcium carbonate, to clean the travertine sarcophagus. Compounds such as diammonium citrate and solvent/water emulsions have been used for increased cleaning strength. Finally, tests performed with two different types of lasers show promising results for those areas that have proved particularly difficult to clean, where dirt is trapped deeply within the recesses of the porous stone.

The volcanic tuff sarcophagus required a different cleaning strategy, since the stone is sensitive to both water and laser cleaning. In this case, the oily soiling from visitor handling has been reduced with cotton pads and non-aqueous solvents. Throughout the cleaning process, conservators have been alert to the presence of original paint, relying on the scientific team to analyse substances removed from the surface and evaluate whether any original materials have been disrupted during treatment.

Structural work to address the networked cracks in the stone and the deteriorating pre-existing repairs is also underway. Stone fragments that adhered with animal-hide glues more than a century ago have been dismantled and rejoined with modern, acrylic adhesives. Custom-fit mounts are set to accomplish the majority of the structural stabilisation. Conservation engineers are currently fabricating steel pallets that will support the lids and bases and ensure that they can be handled and displayed safely. Steel armatures concealed within the sarcophagi will reinforce the lids, reducing stress on the damaged bases. And after careful consideration, the team has concluded that the iron pins added in the 19th century to mend fractures in the stone will remain in place, since removing them is likely to damage the surrounding stone. Better humidity controls in the gallery will reduce the possibility of future corrosion.

The conservation project will draw to a close at the end of July 2013. In its final months, the remaining objectives are to complete surface cleaning and restoration of the lids and to install the custom-fit mounts. Analysis of the surface decoration and digital reconstructions of the painted passages will also continue. Finally, new gallery designs will incorporate a protective barrier to deter visitor handling in the future.

Phoebe Segal is Mary Bryce Comstock Assistant Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Mei-An Tsu is Associate Objects Conservator at the MFA.

From the February 2013 issue of Apollo. Subscribe here.

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