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Museums Special

Gardner Museum restores ancient fireplace

Gardner staff gives fireplace a fresh look

A conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum works on restoring the fireplace in the Tapestry Room.

For decades, the fireplace has largely been hidden from view. That’s because the Tapestry Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been used for the museum’s concerts and, as part of the set up, a stage was built in front of the fireplace. Now, the Gardner’s preparing for the 2012 opening of its expansion, a second building that will feature a new entrance, galleries, and a music hall.

That has allowed the Tapestry Room to be restored for its intended use, the display of art. The chimney has been an added bonus. Once the stage was removed, the conservators realized they had an added feature in the room, one which they’ve put in an estimated 650 hours to strip, clean, and fix-up.

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Still, even in its improved state, the fireplace remains somewhat of a mystery. The Gardner’s records on the 1906 purchase of the piece are uncharacteristically scant. That has left the mantel, made up of 13 blocks of stone, open to interpretation.

Oliver Tostmann the Gardner’s curator of collections, laughs as he points at the many figures carved into the piece. As much as he’d like to use those icons to create a narrative, he says they likely reveal little about the history and meaning of the piece.

An ape with a collar touches a goose. A dragon bites into its own tail. Two deer seem to be running away. “I wouldn’t go too far in any interpretation,’’ says Tostmann. “Since this always had a function, these symbols could have been simply decorations.’’

Purchased: The Gardner’s records indicate it was purchased in 1906, in Paris, and arrived in Boston on July 24 of that year. No purchase price was listed, though the piece was given an appraised value of $20,000, likely for insurance purposes, in the 1930s.

Where it came from: An entry in the museum records says Mrs. Gardner stated that the fireplace is from “a chateau of Francis I in Touraine with royal arms in centre, salamander at right.’’ Tostmann thinks it is unlikely the piece was actually in the home of Francis I, king of France from 1515 to 1547, because while it’s special, it is not special enough for the country’s leader. He also can’t figure out where the salamander might be and assumes Gardner misspoke or meant to describe another object. Though he can’t be sure, Tostmann interprets that the piece was carved in the late 15th century because of the style of the angels and particularly that the sculptor left them with some leg and knee exposed.

Pre-restoration state: Soot and grime and a crusty material that had either been built up over time or applied at some point. “Nobody knew there was any color at all under that soot and grime,’’ said Holly Salmon, the Gardner’s associate object conservator.

Cleaning process: For the crust, staffers used scalpels. For dirt and grime, they used ammonium citrate and their own saliva, dipping cotton swabs into their mouths. “Your saliva is acidic and has an abundance of enzymes that work in cleaning,’’ said Salmon. Finally, the Gardner has a laser that can be used for cleaning. (It’s non-museum use? Typically to remove spider veins and tattoos.)

Curator’s choice: Tostmann’s favorite features are the colors revealed by the restoration. “Discovering original colors in medieval sculptures is very rare,’’ he said. “If you look at how varied they are, this red and blue and yellow, it’s very beautiful.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com
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