ATLANTA - Conservators trying to restore a 1,900-year-old statue of
Venus have put their heads together with airline maintenance inspectors who
usually scrutinize welds and repairs in jet engines for any cracks.
Officials at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University this summer
bought the Roman marble statue and its head, which had broken off sometime in
the past 170 years.
On Thursday, they enlisted the help of Delta Air Lines inspectors at
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, who took X-rays of the statue
and the head to try to determine where the statue has been broken before and how
old repairs are holding up.
Conservators will look for rusting metal pins that might have been inserted
to fix cracks. Once they establish the condition of those repairs, which could
date from antiquity to as recently as 200 years ago, they will know how best to
put the 4-foot-6-inch statue back together.
"I spend two-thirds of my time reversing other people's good intentions,"
museum conservator Renee Stein said jokingly of old repairs.
The statue, by an unknown artist, is a copy of a Greek bronze sculpture that
many scholars say is the most widely reproduced female statue in antiquity.
While there are thousands of similar images of Venus in all sorts of sizes and
materials, this restoration is significant because few statues are as large and
nearly intact as this one, missing only the right arm.
"When statue pieces go down different roads, and they're recognized, bought,
and put back together, it's extremely noteworthy," said Francesco de Angelis, a
professor of Roman art at Columbia University. "This type of statue was
incredibly popular in antiquity."
The museum bought the charmingly prudish sculpture of the goddess of love for
$968,000 at a Sotheby's auction in New York on June 6. A private collector in
Houston, Texas, agreed to sell the head to the buyer of the body, and the museum
purchased it for about $50,000.
Delta inspectors, who have previously worked with the museum on a vase and a
statue, volunteered their time for the Venus.
"It's a privilege for us to assist and help the Carlos bring this kind of
history and art to our hometown of Atlanta," said Delta spokeswoman Gina
The statue portrays Venus ¡ª called Aphrodite by the Greeks ¡ª caught off guard
as she, having removed all her clothes to take a bath, glimpses an unseen
onlooker. She tries to cover herself with her hands, with a result that's more
provocative than protective. A small figure of Eros rides a dolphin at her feet,
a reference to the goddess' birth from the sea.
The statue probably stood next to a fountain or pool in the gardens of a
villa somewhere in the Roman Empire, possibly in today's France. It was first
documented in the collection of Napoleon's art adviser in the 1830s, said Jasper
Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Carlos.
An 1836 engraving showed the statue intact, and it is not known how or when
the head and arm broke off. The arm remains missing.
Stein will have to drill through the plaster keeping in place an old pin that
was inserted in the head to prop it up on a display stand, as well as a lead
insert on the base of the neck. She'll most likely replace it with a stainless
Because the jagged edges in the break between the head and the neck were
smoothed over, curators will have to study how much space to fill in once the
pieces are superimposed again.
Venus is expected to strike her pose at the Carlos sometime in the spring.