If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:5:18

The conservator's eye: Marble statue of a wounded warrior

Video transcript

[Music] we're here in the ancient Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at an ancient Roman sculpture of a wounded warrior this is a dramatic decision made by the museum here to show only a fragment of this work he actually is missing some very important parts part of his head his nose both his hands presumably a weapon a shield some parts have been restored a huge portion of the figures proper right or so is lost and it's actually been resupplied here what would it look like without a big chunk of his abdomen maybe that's actually more distracting in a way than lacking a nose more distracting and harder to understand what the ancient Roman sculptor was after for the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks the human body was so important in that delineation of the muscles in the torso that would be hard to see if that big part of the torso was missing whereas the hands and the nose maybe we can live without those maybe but definitely if we were looking at this same exact sculpture a hundred years ago an artist would have been hired to resupply that nose those hands add a weapon and they may have been completely different from the original but that artist would have been trying to embellish this work make it look more beautiful we know artists like Bernini and Michelangelo were involved in helping to reconstruct ancient Greek and Roman works but I can always tell a Bernini foot or hand from the ancient sculpture Bernini wanted you to know what he did because he wanted his additions to be better than the original but you know as a conservator we never try to improve on the original what we try to do is to respect the original artists intentions as much as possible and the way I like to think about it is that we help the work aged gracefully we study the work we try to understand the original artists intentions but we don't falsify the historical record we acknowledge the fact that the work is quite old on the other hand we're not acknowledging the fact that this has been restored when I look at it I can see the seams unless you're looking at this map supplied by the Metropolitan or less here conservator with highly trained eyes you don't know that abdomen has been restored this is called invisible restoration if we look at another work of art in marble the Parthenon we realize that it's crystal clear which parts of the building are original in which parts are resupplied these are decisions that curators and museums and conservators are making with individual objects every day often when we think about restorers or conservators we think about them putting together fragments of sculptures or making sure that paintings don't have healing or flaking paint and that's half of what we do but certainly the aesthetics of our conservation are really important looking at this work I see that the patina is darkened I see the age of this work more than certain other works in the gallery here the patina of a work of art is the surface of it it's extremely thin what's important about it is first of all it's the part that you see but equally importantly that's the part that meets the oxygen in the air it's the part that meets the ultraviolet lights that can discolor many materials it's the part that meets the grime the soiling from being underground for such a long time it's also the part that meets your greasy fingertips if please don't do this but if you start touching works of art in museums so you're using this technical term of the patina but in some cases I feel like I'm seeing just dirt on the surface is that what you mean by patina well here's why this term can be really debatable marble like many materials is porous grime can go into the surface of marble and certainly it can discolor as it oxidizes over time so is that a desirable patina or not and in this case the conservators and the museum made a decision to retain this patina depending on when a work is restored say in the nineteenth century when a more aggressive cleaning was favored perhaps it's now looking rather bleached today rather white in fact in many cases these ancient sculptures were really brightly painted with by today's taste anyway very garish colors with ancient works we're used to seeing pieces missing we're used to seeing aged on the surface but if this was a modern work and it was missing a piece we might not be as comfortable with it the restorer might take a more proactive approach and actually fill something in the distance in time now between us and making of these objects has a lot to do with how much aging is acceptable if something is this old perhaps it's okay to have some grime in some chipping and some cracking but imagine if this is a 21st century sculpture those same cracks those same chips might be really distracting and might prevent us from appreciating the original artists intentions here my eyes understand that this work is very old part of the reason I'm here to look at this sculpture is that it is very old I want to know that what I'm most interested in this work is having both if I can I want to have this balance between understanding the artists intentions but I also want to understand the historical record so on the one hand conservators today are striving for objectivity we're trying to do the right thing but on the other hand let's acknowledge that our tastes are deeply conditioned by history even though we're trying to be scientific and objective still carry our historical moment with us and we want to make sure that however we favor interpreting these works today it's not the end of the story because clearly future generations will have different ideas and different restoration techniques as well you