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At the Gardner, a goddess of the underworld rises

Director of Conservation Holly Salmon removes a plastic sheet once Persephone is placed safely on her new pedestal.
Director of Conservation Holly Salmon removes a plastic sheet once Persephone is placed safely on her new pedestal.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

On a recent Tuesday morning at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a small, all-star cast of curators, conservators, and riggers gathers for a high-stakes production. There have been no rehearsals, and there can be no second takes. There has been only meticulous planning — in this case, four years of it. And in the center of it all, the object of this ensemble’s collective expertise and extensive collaboration is one inimitable leading lady: Persephone, goddess of the underworld.

She is no ingénue. This Persephone, all 5 feet and 1,000 ancient Greek marble pounds of her, has graced the earth with her flowing drapery and delicate, sensuously carved feet for some 2,000 years. She has lost her forearms but not, remarkably, her head, with its middle-parted updo, intact nose, and serene gaze.

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Preparator David Kalan removes some of the protective housing while a team of experts hoists the statue into position.
Preparator David Kalan removes some of the protective housing while a team of experts hoists the statue into position.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But Persephone is fragile. Centuries buried in the dirt and, later, exposed to the elements, eroded her surface, if not her almost incandescent presence. And gravity took its toll: For more than a century there in the northeast corner of the museum’s courtyard, Persephone was sinking.

While the palace that Isabella Stewart Gardner built on the erstwhile swampland of Boston’s Fens was shored up on pilings, the courtyard wasn’t. Even in Gardner’s lifetime, it settled, taking Persephone with it. That the venerable queen of the darker realm appeared gradually to be returning to it might seem fitting. That was not, however, what Gardner intended, either for this or the other goddesses, nymphs, and naiads that lend the space its air of the feminine divine.

So on this day, Persephone will be restored to her original height. As ever with the star of the show, it will be her supporting cast and behind-the-scenes crew that does the heavy lifting.

“To be planning for something for so long, with so many people who have done so much work, to have a moment that comes down to today…” says Holly Salmon, director of conservation at the museum. She trails off, moved by the moment, then gestures to an invisible presence above her head and says: “I often imagine her and feel a lot of pressure from above, from Gardner.”

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The exacting lady in question purchased the statue in 1901, urged to do so in a letter from the Rome-based archeologist Richard Norton. “From the point of view of Greek sculpture,” Norton wrote to Gardner, “you ought to have it.”

More than a century later, Persephone lies horizontal at the edge of the courtyard. “I’m feeling a little emotional about the prospect of seeing her upright again,” Salmon says.

How she’d get there was not obvious. “There are so many high points on the sculpture that there is not an easy point from which to hold the piece, to lift her up,” Salmon says. “It has taken a lot of problem solving.”

Among the problems: how to elevate and move a statue as vulnerable to damage as it is heavy. The Gardner’s senior preparator, David Kalan, together with Ivan Myjer, an independent building and monuments conservator and the Gardner’s go-to stone whisperer for 25 years, helped solve it. “I have spent many sleepless nights wondering how we lift her and turn her horizontally,” Myjer says. “We had to look for places where we could apply pressure. We decided that we would lift her entirely from the bottom.”

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A view of the statue's delicate toes.
A view of the statue's delicate toes. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Kalan devised and built a stacked plywood, aluminum, and high-density foam housing around her, complete with a ⅝-inch steel angle under her base, to prevent her weight from tilting forward. “Her toes — there is very little marble there,” Kalan says. “We had to make sure she didn’t rock forward and break off her toes.”

It’s not just her pretty feet at stake. “It doesn’t take much to snap the head off,” Kalan says. “There are a lot of headless ancient sculptures around. She’d already lost her arms. You can never be 100 percent sure where there may be a faultline.”

In early July, riggers from Shaughnessy & Ahern Co. lifted Persephone, formidable housing and all, up and out of the courtyard. Myjer drilled a pair of marine-grade, stainless steel threaded pins into her concave base, for securing her to her new plinth. And Coleman Mullen, a pile driver operator from Chutehall Construction, drove four 28-foot helical steel screws into the soil at an angle to create resistance for a newly poured concrete foundation. Persephone would never sink again.

In what Mullen took to be a happy portent, he learned of the Gardner job just as he and his expectant wife had settled on a name for their unborn first child, if it was a girl: Persephone. And not long after Mullen completed his work, Persephone Brid Mullen, 7 pounds, 11 ounces, was born. “She has the voice of a goddess,” says her father. “Hades himself would tremble at it.”

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Director of Conservation Holly Salmon, preparator David Kalan, and Curator of the Collection Nathaniel Silver converse once Persephone is placed on her pedestal.
Director of Conservation Holly Salmon, preparator David Kalan, and Curator of the Collection Nathaniel Silver converse once Persephone is placed on her pedestal.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

And now, back in the courtyard late last month, Persephone is rising. Three men, led by foreman Brian MacLeod, from Shaughnessy & Ahern, winch her up on heavy chains attached to an impressive steel gantry. The riggers stand back, let go, and Persephone dangles in space.

The horticulture team pauses to watch. Assorted Gardner staff peek out from windows above the courtyard. A hand bearing an iPhone camera appears at the Ca’ d’Oro balcony. This vast space suddenly feels small, constricted by a collective holding of breath. Holly Salmon places her hand on her heart and inhales deeply.

Then it’s back to work. Myjer moves in with a green rubber bowl of slow-setting mortar, a spatula, and a spray bottle of water. As the riggers inch the goddess down above Myjer’s head, he spreads mortar on the pedestal’s holes, sprays water, repeats.

“Come up just one more notch,” says Myjer, who slides shims of varying thickness around her base.

Salmon and Nathaniel Silver, curator of the collection, consult a photograph of the statue from Gardner’s time. In it, Persephone faces an ancient headless woman, named Peplophoros for the draped garment she wears. “We wanted to align the two figures’ collars,” Salmon says, inspecting Persephone’s height and angle.

She is almost there. The riggers remove the chains, and Kalan moves in with a blue stepladder to take apart the housing, piece by piece. As he slides the steel angle out from under her, Salmon whispers, “Yesssss!”

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More micro-adjustments by men in gloved hands, and then it’s Salmon’s turn on the stepladder. With scissors, she cuts the plastic enveloping Persephone as though slicing a dress up from the hem. It is a slow unveiling. On tiptoes, Salmon splits the plastic at Persephone’s face.

“That’s nice,” she says, in the understatement of the day. “She looks like she is smiling.”

It’s true. She does. Two and a quarter feet higher, Persephone stands at just over 7 feet. She strikes a red carpet-ready pose, left hip jutted, right knee bent, her right foot angled up, its pinky toe curled. She is all curves and movement and grace.

Persephone stands tall on her new pedestal in the museum's courtyard.
Persephone stands tall on her new pedestal in the museum's courtyard.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Myjer remarks on Persephone’s waist, holds his hands up to show how slender. “I fall in love with each new piece,” he says, softly.

“There is a celebratory sense that is beyond the usual here,” Silver says, “a feeling that we have about her returning to her rightful place.”

Salmon agrees. Her brown eyes shine above her mask — this is, after all, a COVID-era production. “It’s just so great to see her at this height. It feels like the courtyard has a completeness to it that it really didn’t before,” she says, adding, “I’ve been waiting for her and Artemis to be able to look at each other.”