At the Gardner, death gets a new lease on life

After months of restoration, the Farnese Sarcophagus is again on display at the Gardner Museum in a new exhibit.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
After months of restoration, the Farnese Sarcophagus is again on display at the Gardner Museum in a new exhibit.

The Queen of Spain loved it. Napoleon Bonaparte nearly stole it. Pope Pius VII rescued it. And, when it went up for sale in 1897, near its 1,672nd birthday, Isabella Stewart Gardner had to have it.

Since arriving in Boston over a century ago, the Farnese Sarcophagus — a 7,500-pound marble coffin constructed by Turkish craftsmen around 225 — has enchanted patrons of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with its sensual depiction of Greek mythology.

Now, after months of restoration and cleaning, the nearly 1,800-year-old artwork is the centerpiece of “Life, Death, & Revelry,” at the Gardner.


“This is a work of art made for eternity,” said Gardner curator Christina Nielsen . “It shepherds us, and takes us through this passage from life to death.”

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The exhibit, open until Sept. 3, at first feels funereal: windowless charcoal walls, dim overhead lighting, and on a central platform the elevated sarcophagus, as if on a catafalque at a state funeral.

But the exhibition’s title is neither sardonic nor ironic. Under spotlight the sarcophagus glows like honey. Its four sides depict some three dozen satyrs, maenads, and putti, cavorting and gathering grapes. Nielsen says that the images, which are chiseled in high-relief, “absolutely teem with life.”

To remove dirt, grime, water staining, and pollution crust, a team of conservators labored for months with steam, lasers strong enough to remove tattoos, a custom-made gel with controlled pH and viscosity, and simple, old-fashioned cotton swabbing, used painstakingly to scrub debris from the surface of debris.

The clean-up required special precautions, thanks to specks of surviving colorant that freckle the surface. Now chalk-white, the marble sarcophagus once wore the most vivid colors of the pre-modern world: gold, pink, red, orange, and Egyptian blue, a royal cerulean thought to be the first man-made pigment. Gardner conservators have confirmed its presence with infrared photoimaging.


“In conservation, our priority is preservation,” said Holly Salmon, senior objects conservator. She describes restoration as a combination of art history, science, and physical studio art. “Even if we have to leave a little bit of dirt, or evidence of pollution behind, it’s worth it to maintain the original,” she said.

Behind the sarcophagus in the gallery’s main room runs a 3-D film, “Maenads & Satyrs,” by the artists Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie. The 13-minute film, set to a special recording of Kaija Saariaho’s cello composition “Petals,” uses a custom-built artificial intelligence algorithm to render intimate and disorienting close-ups of the sarcophagal figures. The result is at once erotic and ethereal. Some segments look empyrean, as though the viewer is stargazing while the sarcophagus floats through the heavens.

“It feels cosmic to me, like you’re looking at the afterlife,” said Kaiser, who called the sarcophagus the “masterpiece” of the Gardner. “This piece couldn’t have been made ten years ago,” he said, referring to the technology.

Pieranna Cavalchini, curator of contemporary art, sees past and present bridged in the two works — one an ancient relic and the other a hyper-modern projection at the vanguard of artistic technology . She hopes that the 3-D installation will encourage visitors to re-approach the marble monument with greater curiosity.

For 116 years the sarcophagus, which weighs more than a pair of SUVs, occupied a spot between two pillars on the west side of the museum’s central courtyard. A team of riggers spent two days slowly sliding the sarcophagus over a series of small tubes — the same basic technique that conservators believe the ancients used.


Moving the sarcophagus from the ground floor to the exhibit on the second took eight hours. Raising it onto its pedestal — a mere two-foot lift —
required another half-day, according to Salmon.

The fragile treatment belies the durability of an object that has been lugged across continents, crossed an ocean, and endured the elements for almost 1,800 years.

Believed to have been quarried in Docimium, an ancient city in west-central Turkey, the sarcophagus was shipped to Italy and likely buried in a small hillside town outside Rome. According to Nielsen, it is unknown who or how many were buried inside, and the original lid and contents have been lost.

The sarcophagus then languished underground for 1,300 years, until amateur archaeologists unearthed it around 1530. Its name comes from the governor of the region, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, who acquired the object for his family collection.

In the garden of the Palazzo Farnese, a palace in central Rome, the sarcophagus inspired a series of influential drawings and prints from Renaissance artists. There it endured climactic conditions for 270 years, until 1802, when the sarcophagus was sent to the studio of Italian sculptor Carlo Albacini for cleaning and repairs. Albacini performed a number of surgical operations on the object, replacing limbs on the figures and scrapping some parts that had been damaged.

The sarcophagus wound up in Boston after the descendants of King Charles III of Spain — who had inherited it from his mother, Elisabeth Farnese — sold it off in the 19th century. In 1897, an American art dealer encouraged John and Isabella Gardner to purchase it on the grounds that “even Boston would [not] object to its frank but slight sensuality.”

Graham Ambrose can be reached at