The gallery was roped off, but that didn’t stop the schoolchildren standing in the doorway from sneaking a peek at the 400-pound head being lowered onto a pedestal. Eyes darted to the towering headless figure standing at its side.
“It’s big,’’ said one 11-year-old.
She was not kidding. She and her classmates from Bow Memorial School in New Hampshire watched Wednesday as museum workers placed the 2,000-year-old marble statue in her new home. Juno is not just big. At 13 feet tall and 13,000 pounds, when the head is attached, it is the largest classical statue in the United States, according to the Museum of Fine Arts. (By comparison, the ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo is about 6 1/2 feet tall.) Starting Monday, the public can see the newly acquired work in the museum’s Behrakis gallery.
“The size is important,’’ said Christine Kondoleon, the museum’s senior curator of Greek and Roman art. “This is really a strong reminder of that impressive, colossal scale in which the Romans built.’’
The reveal comes six years after Kondoleon first saw Juno in a private garden in Brookline. Beyond its size, the statue is impressive because it features a long, flowing garment carved gracefully in marble.
Knowing she wanted the piece at the museum, Kondoleon worked to persuade the museum to buy the statue, negotiated with the family that owned it, and recruited the anonymous donor to buy it. All that time, she had to keep word of the treasure from others in the museum world.
“You don’t want your competitors to scoop you,’’ Kondoleon said. “If I went around bragging about this, the Met or Getty might have jumped in.’’
For the museum, Juno serves several roles. It offers museum visitors a window into the restoration process, as conservators work to clean and repair the statue in the gallery, in full view. The artwork also gives a hint of the promise of future renovations to one of the most worn-out sections of the building, a gallery currently housing Egyptian art. Juno is the first ancient Roman piece to arrive in the space. The museum plans to convert the gallery over the next decade, a project that will require considerable fund-raising.
In that spirit, the museum is putting a collection box near Juno and adding an online link through which visitors can donate to support the conservation of the statue and other works of art. It’s similar to the appeal made last year that led to the purchase of Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower.’’
Due to Juno’s size, it serves as a centerpiece of the gallery, a towering marble sculpture unlike anything else at the museum. Kondoleon believes there are only a handful of similar statues in the world, all in Europe.
She is also pleased that Juno arrives at the museum with an ownership history traceable to the 17th century. That’s important, as the museum and other museums have been forced in recent years to return antiquities to countries of origin after evidence showed those works were probably looted and illegally sold and transported elsewhere.
Kondoleon traced Juno to 1633 and the collection of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi in Rome. Bostonians Charles Franklin Sprague and Mary Pratt Sprague, a married couple, bought the sculpture from the Ludovisi estate in 1897.
In 1904, it was taken by a team of oxen to the Spragues’ estate. That is where it had been until the MFA acquired it.
Kondoleon first saw the statue nearly six years ago after a tip from Anthony Tuck, then a professor at Tufts University.
“It’s completely rare, and the fact that it’s in America with this wonderful provenance, or pedigree, is really exciting,’’ said Kondoleon.
Still, it was not always clear that Juno would be able to make the trip from Brookline.
Kondoleon and conservators found the work damaged by a century of standing outdoors. The surface was discolored and coated in dirt. There was also an enormous crack around the waist. Museum conservators wondered whether the piece could take the move from Brookline.
“It was bigger, heavier, and more complicated than anything I’ve done before,’’ said conservator Susanne Gansicke, who has been at the museum for 22 years.
She and her colleagues tried to use X-rays to examine Juno more closely. But the marble was too thick to see much. With the help of a Cambridge structural engineering firm, Weidlinger Associates, the MFA came up with a plan.
Workers cleanly cut off Juno’s head - which the museum determined is not part of the original piece and was probably created hundreds of years after the body was made - and then placed a steel rod through the body of the sculpture to create a spine.
For transporting Juno to the museum, the museum’s Jean-Louis Lachevra, a conservation engineer for 38 years, ruled out the standard use of ropes and pulleys. Instead, the museum had a steel cage built around Juno to stabilize and protect it. In December, a crane lifted the piece onto a truck, where it was hauled to an off-site storage site.
Juno could not come into the museum through the loading dock. It is too heavy to ride the elevators or roll over sections of the museum’s floor. So last month, a crane lowered the statue through a skylight near the museum’s Egyptian gallery, clearing by a few inches on either side.
Last Wednesday, a few days after Juno was put in place, museum staff rolled her head in from Lachevra’s office. Crew member Joe Morgan wrapped his arms around the head as it was lowered by a forklift onto a pedestal. That is where the head will remain for about six months, after which conservators will attach it to the body.
As the physical work is taking place, Kondoleon will be researching the piece. She notes that the statue is named after the goddess Juno because of her facial features. But in the course of examining the work, it became clear that the head was added possibly a century or more later.
“When Zeus is holding a thunderbolt, you know what it is,’’ she said. But in Juno’s case, the hands are missing, “so it’s hard to figure out what she’s holding,’’ she said. “We need to figure out who this is.’’Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.