“The Rape of Europa” is in the spotlight this season after joining five other Titian Renaissance masterpieces in a special exhibit. But in its absence, the painting’s permanent home — the Titian Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — underwent a quiet transformation worthy of attention.
The star? Textiles.
With the help of computer-assisted design and 18th-century French manufacturer Prelle, Gardner conservators have re-created 13 original fabrics to upholster the Titian Room walls — exact replicas of those the museum’s founder chose near the turn of the 20th century.
The red and yellow gold silks exude power and authority, said senior textile conservator Tess Fredette, setting the stage for a “visual dialogue” between pieces of the Venetian collection.
“The textiles are not merely decorative here,” she said in the shadow of the Gardner courtyard. “They have a contribution and a role. There is no other medium that provides the same richness.”
Four additional rooms at the Gardner feature fabric-upholstered walls, and textiles are just one part of the latest effort to refurbish this grand enclave. But the silk restoration holds “unique power” in the Titian Room, said director of conservation Holly Salmon.
She noted that the hues complement different elements of the 17 paintings, such as the billowing red cloth in “The Rape of Europa.” Without them, a crucial artistic choice is lost.
“It changes the way you experience the space and the way the individual works of art are displayed,” Salmon said.
The ambience changed in 1959, for example, when conservators replaced the first fabrics — sagging, fading, and damaged by light — with two alternative red patterns. Those remained up for 62 years. And while portions of the red fabrics have been periodically replaced, there hasn’t been a comprehensive overhaul until this year.
Finally, Fredette has brought Gardner’s vision back to the Titian walls.
“It’s all about the textiles,” she said. “Always.”
The restoration, which began in 2018, will be complete in January when “The Rape of Europa” returns from the Gardner Hostetter Gallery, where it has been on display.
During the process, Gardner employees worked on more than 30 collection objects and reattached decorative pieces to the heavy frame holding “Europa.” Technicians scrubbed aging varnish and coal dust off paintings. And conservators replaced the deteriorating pine parquet floors with stained oak planks — a reproduction of Gardner’s original vision. (Her will stipulates that the museum “remain for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”)
The process is not unlike the $1.5 million Raphael Room restoration conservators completed four years ago.
Fredette began the textile restoration by reviewing a historic catalog of the collection, commissioned by the museum’s first director. For the Titian walls, the description briefly read: “primarily Italian, primarily red, and mostly brocatelle,” Fredette said. Then she leaned on photographs taken before 1926 by T.E Marr (& Son). Those pictures guided her in piecing together the various patterns and ornate details, she said.
Some days, Fredette lined tape measures against the frames to pinpoint textiles’ dimensions. In the archives, she also found fragments of five textiles Gardner sourced in the 19th century, when fabrics, dyes, and spices ruled the world economy.
“It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together,” said Fredette, who started at the Gardner 18 years ago as an assistant textile conservator. “I’m figuring out what goes where and what Gardner intended, because she never documented her thought process.”
Fredette’s findings were handed to Prelle, a Lyon-based textile manufacturer founded in 1752. The specialists re-created the brocade and brocatelle weave structures with a Pointcarre Textile program and dyed the silks at a facility two hours from the factory. Sabine Prelle, the sixth-generation textile expert to lead the company, said its 25 employees also prepared thousands of threads and installed them on a mechanical loom.
It’s a meticulous process, she added. “Weaving is the fastest part, and everything before is a huge amount of work.”
The finished textiles prove how Gardner expertly incorporated history into her museum, Fredette said.
For example, a Titian Room wall houses a Velázquez portrait of King Philip IV of Spain. Tulipmania, an economic phenomenon that drove up the price of tulips in the Netherlands in the 17th century, greatly contributed to his wealth. So Gardner featured emperor tulips — an especially prized flower of his era — in multiple fabrics.
“She has to be making decisions about the upholstery very specifically,” said Salmon, the director of conservation.
The objects, too, are positioned with intent. “Cupid Blowing a Horn” is normally placed horizontally in front of “The Rape of Europa” to replicate the flying cherubs in the painting. And a chair positioned below the piece is decorated with roses, chrysanthemum, daisies, and cornflowers, not unlike those in the subject’s crown. Salmon said, “There is a vision Gardner wants us to see.”
Over seven weeks, Bruno Jounne from Soft Walls Associates Boston turned Gardner’s vision into reality by affixing the final textiles to the walls. Certain pieces fit sideways or even upside down. For Jounne, a Versailles native who moved to Boston 35 years ago, the Gardner installation gave him the chance to handle world-class fabric — “more beautiful than I’ve ever seen before,” he said.
The hope is that now the textiles will remain intact for decades to come. Fredette estimates a life expectancy of 75 years, during which time thousands of visitors will relish the fruits of the conservators’ labor.
“We are stewards for this time and place in history,” she said. “And we are ushering it into the future for the next generation.”