Museum Home Past Exhibitions Fragment to Vase: Approaches to Ceramic Restoration

December 18, 2008–June 1, 2009 at the Getty Villa

Conservator Jeff Maish positions ceramic fragments
Conservator Jeff Maish restores the painted decoration on a fragmentary mixing vessel.

Terracotta vessels make up the majority of objects that survive from ancient times, but most are found only as fragments.

This exhibition explores historical and contemporary approaches to the restoration of classical vases and provides a behind-the-scenes look at how fragmentary vessels are reconstructed at the Getty Villa to reveal their original forms and painted designs.

Repaired Storage Jar with Cavalrymen / Greek
Repaired Storage Jar with the Apotheosis of Herakles, attributed to the Bareiss Painter, Medea Group, 530–520 B.C.
learn_more See a close-up of the ancient repair to the vase's neck.

Ancient Repair

In antiquity, highly valued vessels were repaired using a variety of techniques, including metal pinning and stapling. Adhesives such as animal and vegetable glues may also have been used, though little evidence remains to identify them. Ancient repairs were often removed during 18th- and 19th-century restorations, but today conservators preserve them as historical evidence.

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See an X-ray view of a cup repaired using a bronze pin.

When part of a vase was missing or badly damaged, ancient craftsmen sometimes added a similar section from another vessel to make the repair. This amphora (storage jar) broke in ancient times and was repaired with the rim and part of the neck of a vase with a parallel shape, but a different floral design.

Water Jar with Dionysos, Satyrs, and Maenads / Darius Painter
Restored Water Jar with Dionysos, Satyrs, and Maenads (above) and Greeks Battling Amazons (below), attributed to the Darius Painter, 330–320 B.C.
learn_more See the large area of plaster on the interior of this vessel.

18th- and 19th-Century Restoration

Enthusiastic collecting of antiquities in the 1700s and 1800s created a market for classical vases painted with interesting scenes. The restoration practices of collectors and dealers of this period focused on presenting the illusion of an undamaged, complete object. In many cases, restorers reshaped fragments, painted over the original surface, and invented iconography or inserted pieces from other ancient vases to make scenes more appealing.

Some restorers also added drapery to nude figures for social propriety; such restorations often led to later misinterpretation of vase iconography.

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See a drawing of an ancient vessel with drapery added to conceal nudity.

One of a pair, this water jar was found in the early 1800s at a grave site in Ceglie, Italy. As was typical of the 19th century, the broken object was restored to appear intact. The vase was reconstructed using natural adhesives and reinforced internally with a plaster lining. In addition, filled losses, cracks, and surrounding areas of the ancient ceramic were painted to conceal damage.

Following the exhibition, this vase will be conserved as part of a collaborative project between the Department of Antiquities Conservation at the Getty Villa and the Antikensammlung in Berlin. Treatment will include disassembling the vessel and removing degraded 19th-century restorations. After the fragments are cleaned, the vase will be reassembled and fillled using stable, reversible materials.

Conservation intern Allison Lewis studies a vase under a microscope
Antiquities Conservation intern Allison Lewis uses low-power microscopy to distinguish ancient design from modern restorations on a vase in the Museum's collection.

Contemporary Techniques

Before beginning a restoration project, Getty conservators and scientists employ a variety of non-destructive methods to analyze ancient vases for information about their manufacture, condition, and past attempts at repair and restoration. Methods of examination range from visual inspection aided by low-power microscopy to ultraviolet (UV) visible fluorescence, X-radiography, and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy. Even a few fragments can provide a wealth of information.

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Learn more about examination methods used to analyze vase fragments.

Following inspection, conservators develop an approach to the restoration of a vase. A vessel's dimensions and painted design are determined based on measurements and drawings of the surviving fragments, as well as studies of similar vases.

Reconstruction of form is guided by the fragments' painted scenes and decorative motifs as well as by technical details such as fragment contours, wall thickness, turning marks, and color. Digital imaging is frequently used to assess different approaches to restoring vase-painting. Getty conservators use only reversible materials, ensuring the long-term preservation and appreciation of ceramic works.

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See how digital imaging was used to visualize options for a group of vase fragments.

While 18th- and 19th-century restorers often strove to create the illusion of an unbroken artifact and 20th-century techniques emphasized the difference between modern fills and ancient areas, the current approach to restoration at the Getty Villa strives to visually integrate filled areas and make them less obtrusive while still distinguishing them from the original ceramic and preserving an object's history.

For example, painted silhouettes are often added to areas of loss to unify fragmentary figures, define their interrelationships, and reestablish original scenes.

Mixing Vessel with Greeks Battling Amazons / Syleus Painter
Restored Mixing Vessel with Greeks Battling Amazons, attributed to the Syleus Painter, 480–470 B.C.
interactive Interactive feature: two approaches to vase-painting restoration

Case Study: A Mixing Vessel

This unusually large krater (mixing vessel) was recently restored at the Getty Villa from a number of fragment groupings. It depicts an Amazonomachy, a battle between Greeks and Amazons (women warriors).

Although only about a third of the vase survives, the fragments provided sufficient information to re-create the vase shape. The fragments also include iconography, poses, costumes, and attributes that offered clues to their original placement, allowing conservators to reconstruct the vessel's dynamic battle scene.

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Learn more about how conservators placed the fragments and restored the painting.

Wine Cup with Dionysos and a Fluting Satyr / Euphronios
Restored Wine Cup with Dionysos and a Satyr, attributed to Onesimos as painter and Euphronios as potter, 510–500 B.C.

Case Study: A Rare Cup

The restoration of this kylix (wine cup) at the Getty Villa was prompted by its rarity. It is one of only three known cups decorated using an unusual combination of techniques: black-figure painting, outline drawing, and added-clay relief over a white ground.

Guided by close examination of the surviving fragments as well as studies of similar objects, conservators were able to re-create the vase shape, position the pieces, and provide options for completing the painted figural scene.

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Learn more about how conservators determined the cup's original size and painted decoration.

Restored Oil Jar with a Deceased Youth Seated at a Tomb, associated with the group of Huge Lekythoi, about 400 B.C.

Case Study: A Funerary Jar

This monumental funerary vessel was pieced together from 136 fragments in the 19th century.

In 2005 the vessel was loaned by the Antikensammlung, Berlin, to the Getty Villa, where it was re-treated in consultation with curators and conservators from Berlin. Its current reconstruction exposes the ancient breaks, making visible the vase's history.

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Learn more about the re-restoration of this vase.

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