Conserving Albrecht Dürer’s Monumental Arch

Conserving Albrecht Dürer’s Monumental Arch

Freyda Spira: Working in a collection where
there are 1.5 million objects, you often find hidden treasures, and I feel very lucky that
as a scholar of German printmaking from the Renaissance, I was able to open the doors
of the storeroom and find this incredible thing. The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian was commissioned
around 1514 by the emperor, and the arch was modeled after Roman arches, so instead of
having a marble arch, he wanted something more ephemeral, but he still wanted to give
it impact. And the wonderful thing about prints is that they’re mobile. You could advertise
about yourself by using prints. The arch itself is made up of thirty-six sheets,
and it’s twelve feet high and ten feet wide. And it’s one of the largest prints ever
made during this time. It contains his entire genealogy, all of his alliances, all of his
land territories, and he worked closely with a set of artists, Dürer among them. Dürer is the greatest German printmaker of
the Renaissance. He also advances the techniques in significant ways, so that it’s not just
about line and white, it’s about tonality, it’s about scale of sort of the blacks into
the grays. What’s interesting is that our Arch is in
none of the literature. In even the most recent books about the Triumphal Arch, there was
no indication that The Met had this. I immediately realized what this was, and
I reached out to Rachel Mustalish, our paper conservator, and brought her into the discussion
immediately. Rachel Mustalish: When you study works on
paper, you’re looking at works from across centuries, and each era has its own characteristics,
each country, each culture, about the inks they used, the paper they used. You’re looking
at them intensely to see how they’re made and the conservation problems. Freyda Spira: This work was acquired in 1928
by our founding curator, and he had them line the sheets to stabilize them and put on false
margins, so that all of the sheets were the same size. Rachel Mustalish: They didn’t have the original
look that they should’ve had. So in discussion, we decided to do some initial examination,
some testing, to see what is possible. And what we found was that the set was a beautiful
impression; it’s really, really rich ink. But the paper has suffered a bit just from
time, from the lining, from some handling, and so there was some staining, tears, areas
where the lining was incomplete. And because this was such a fantastic set, we decided
together that this would be a set that should undergo a large conservation project to not
only preserve it for the future by taking out the acidity, by taking out the color,
by repairing the tears and remove the lining, but also bringing it back to a more original
beauty that it had when it was made. Very standard practice in looking at works
on paper is to use with what’s called a stereo binocular microscope. It gives you
a sense of three-dimensionality when you’re looking at a magnified work of art. And through
this, you can see the incredible fineness of the lines that the artists and artisans
were able to achieve: everything from the way that the ink indents on the paper; you
can see the way the fibers sit on the surface. Each piece itself, being twenty-four-by-eighteen
inches, for paper conservators, is a fairly large size work on paper, particularly when
you’re doing what are called wet treatments. And we did, in fact, submit these to a fairly
invasive type of treatment. These were put into baths; they had their linings removed.
Now, of course, it’s not just a regular bath of water. It’s a particular type of
what’s called deionized water that has then been further modified by various ions and
chemicals to make sure that the pH, the conductivity, and other issues are the most appropriate
for the paper, for the ink, which was what we found through testing and early examination. Freyda Spira: We realized that our arch is
a proof edition, because on our arch and on first editions, you see text corrections that
were all printed, and then laid down on top of the original text. We discovered that there
are sixteenth century inscriptions on the back of the sheets, and so we could see the
history of this object as it moved through time. Rachel Mustalish: What we wanted to do was
look at it as a set, to get a sense of what it looked like as a whole. So we laid them
out, and it was thrilling to see how it actually came together as a set, how the artists themselves constructed this incredibly intricate rendition of this arch.

2 thoughts on “Conserving Albrecht Dürer’s Monumental Arch

  1. I love these so much

  2. Makes a lot of sense not using gloves

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