“Juno,’’ all 13 feet and 13,000 pounds of her, didn’t make a peep as the wraps came off last week. The Museum of Fine Arts staffers who got a glimpse of the statue’s new nose and mouth found it harder to keep quiet. After all, they are not made of marble.
“She looks beautiful,” said curator Christine Kondoleon.
Conservator Susanne Gänsicke, sitting at the foot of the towering statue, smiled as she watched a milestone moment in a project that entered “uncharted territory.”
The MFA has been working steadily on “Juno,’’ the largest classical statue in a museum in the United States, since it arrived last March. By Wednesday, scaffolding will be removed from the front of the piece, allowing the public to see the work without a barrier for the first time. For the museum, it marks an important step in a job that has required both the touch of a sculptor and the investigative skills you might imagine on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Just getting “Juno’’ into the museum required an inventive plan. It would not fit through any door. So engineers worked with museum staff to build a steel cage and lower “Juno’’ through a skylight. Then, the museum’s researchers and conservators began the process that will culminate with the completion this week of what is arguably one of the highest-profile restoration projects in the museum’s history. That is because much of the work took place in the Behrakis Gallery in full view of the public.
“This was something that was off the scale for us,” said Gänsicke.
It has been seven years since Kondoleon, the museum’s senior curator of Greek and Roman art, learned about the existence of “Juno’’ from a Tufts University professor. The sculpture, twice as tall as “Venus de Milo” and dating to the early second century, had been in the garden of a Brookline estate since 1904. The MFA, thanks to an anonymous donor, bought “Juno’’ and moved her to the Egyptian Gallery.
That is where, starting last April, conservators began cleaning up her marble surface and repairing sections damaged by more than a century outdoors. They filled in chunks of missing stone at the statue’s waist, and they tried to figure out how the head, added in Italy hundreds of years after the creation of the sculpture, had been attached to the body.
Conservators tried taking X-rays, but the marble was too thick. They ended up detaching the head at the point in the neck where it had been attached so many years earlier. Then, the curators and conservators began to discuss one of the most important issues: whether to repair the statue’s cratered face.
Sometime in the last century, the statue’s nose and mouth had broken off.
Many classical works in museums are left in a decayed state, but the more conservators looked at “Juno,’’ the more they felt she needed to be restored.
“The damage in the face was really disturbing,” said Gänsicke. “When you looked at it, it really looked more like an injury and your eye was drawn to the losses, rather than her other features.”
The MFA’s conservation engineer, Jean-Louis Lachevre, is a masterful sculptor with four decades of restoration work at the museum. But fixing the face would take more than his soft touch with clay.
“It’s important to do this so we use the same style and period of modeling and not my interpretation of what it looks like,” Lachevre said as he smoothed plaster on the statue’s neck last week. “You have to be very careful. I don’t want to put a 19th-century nose in there if it’s of a classical period.”
That is where he drew on Kondoleon’s research.
The curator had tracked “Juno’’ to 1633 and the collection of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi in Rome. It crossed the ocean when Bostonians Charles Franklin Sprague and Mary Pratt Sprague bought the statue and, in 1904, placed it on their estate.
Kondoleon was able to find a photograph from the 19th century showing “Juno’’ with facial features. But the head, she knew, had been added hundreds of years after the original piece. Simply replicating the nose and mouth spotted in the photo might not be historically accurate.
Searching through photographs of antiquities in art history books, Kondoleon came up with some likely relatives of Juno. Images of these heads were printed and, with blue painter’s tape, attached to a board in the museum’s first-floor conservation studio. And that is where Lachevre and Gänsicke went to work.
Using Photoshop, Gänsicke captured an image of the nose and mouth of a Roman head that seemed particularly similar and pasted it onto a photo of the damaged face of “Juno.”
Lachevre created three separate casts of the head, two in plaster and one in fiberglass. He used one of these heads to create a steel spine that attached to the body. He used another head to create a clay nose and mouth. It was not easy.
“The nose, depending on how long or short, you can change a lot of the structure of the lip,” said Lachevre. “It was fully critical to get the right proportion of the upper lip and nose. It was very hard. You could bring the mouth up more or make it look up more.”
When the curators and conservators signed off on the re-creation, Lachevre created a mold and poured plaster into it to create the piece that he eventually attached to “Juno.”
Still, even with the statue’s face restored, more work needs to be done. Kondoleon wants to know more about the statue’s history: where it originally stood, who commissioned it, and whether it has “sisters” in other collections around the world.
For now, though, she is pleased with where it stands.
“Its first life was in an ancient Roman architectural complex, the second is in a Roman Baroque collection,” she said. “Then, the next time we hear about it [it] is moving to Brookline to be a lawn ornament. And its fourth life is in our collection.”