When ancient works of art are disassembled in museums, it’s usually with the intent of putting them back together.
But the Bacchus Conservation Project at the North Carolina Museum of Art – working with a piece that dates back to at least the early 17th century – is the rare exception. It’s “one of the most daring and complex projects the museum has ever undertaken,” said Caroline Rocheleau, the museum’s curator of ancient art.
The process is billed as a “de-restoration,” rather than a restoration, and it will result in three separate pieces to display.
“De-restoration is the opposite of restoration,” Rocheleau said. “This is a piece that was put together 400 years ago. The torso is coming off, and the legs and torso will be separate. So is the left arm, which is not ancient.”
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As she spoke, Rocheleau was in a gallery of the museum, standing next to the headless torso of Bacchus. A series of red-dot lasers and lighted grids moved across it, the latest phase of the project’s data-gathering process.
The museum has had this statue of Bacchus – the god of the grape harvest and wine – since the family of John D. Humber donated it in 1958. When the museum’s then-director Justus Bier asked marble-sculpture experts to examine photographs of the piece, they confirmed that Bacchus actually consisted of three different patchwork components that had been fused together sometime before 1620: head, torso and legs.
The NCMA piece is one of only five torsos in the world of this vintage and in this particular pose (right arm raised with left arm at rest), and the only one in America. It is essentially priceless at this point.
Restoring its historical integrity by separating the parts has long been on the museum’s wish list of projects, and the head was actually removed long ago. It has been on display in the museum’s classical galleries.
But separating the Bacchus torso from the legs will be a delicate and complicated process, involving technology and expense that was beyond the museum’s means until relatively recently. With $300,000 amassed in grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Bank of America and private donors, the project is underway.
The current phase consists of digitally mapping the statue inside and out using gamma rays, black light and a structured light scanner. Conservationists are trying to learn as much as possible about its makeup before attempting to take it apart any further.
“It’s a three-year project, estimated, if everything goes as we expect,” said Rocheleau. “It could go faster, or it could go slower. Fingers crossed. The head came off just like that. It was held on there with plaster, so a little water and it came right off. That’s the dream of every conservator.”
Once the trunk and legs are separated, the ancient original torso will be displayed on its own. The legs, meanwhile, will be the basis of a re-creation of the entire piece with replicas of the head, torso and a newly constructed raised right arm (which has been missing for much of the statue’s history).
Rocheleau described the re-creation as “a homage to the anonymous sculptor who put it together” centuries ago.
“We haven’t yet decided how to re-create the torso,” Rocheleau said. “It might take something lighter, like plaster or another stone that’s not quite as heavy as marble. What can the legs support, we need to figure those things out.”
To that end, data collection goes on to determine structural stability as well as just how difficult it will be to separate the torso from the legs. For all the high-tech aspects of this project, it might ultimately come down to the application of brute force.
“We hope not to have to use diamond-coated piano wire to saw through it,” said Rocheleau. “I know colleagues at other museums who have had to do that.”