In early June, staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum began reinstalling the museum’s crimson Raphael Room, a $1.5 million restoration project that’s been three years in the making.
The gallery-wide project includes new flooring and lighting, as well as the restoration of around 50 objects, including an 18th-century Italian guitar that underwent a CT scan and the room’s fireplace, which received 120 hours of laser cleaning.
One area of intense focus has been the room’s many textiles: the velvet and damask that cover its walls and furnishings. All told, the room’s walls boast some 20 fabrics that Gardner arranged in elaborate grids. (One particularly complicated wall had 32 panels.)
The fabric was last replaced during a 1950s-era renovation that did not precisely reproduce all of the originals. By mapping historical photos of the room and of Gardner’s earlier Beacon Street home, modern conservators were able to better grasp the original fabrics’ patterns, origins, and arrangement.
“We only had two original fabrics” that were definitely from the gallery, said textiles conservator Tess Fredette, who noted that the originals were mainly Italian from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. “I really had to depend on these photographs.”
Fredette consulted with a host of other museums, scouring their collections to track down patterns similar to those used by Gardner.
In some cases, she and her colleagues found the originals in storage. In others, they used a computer program to add missing details to similar patterns they’d found. And in still other cases, the museum opted for facsimiles — patterns that, while not an exact replica of the original, are similar in density and design.
Armed with such research, Fredette worked with a fifth-generation fabric manufacturer in France to recreate 13 of the textiles.
The result is a sumptuous, ruby-colored gallery that gives a fresh frame to some of its treasures, including Raphael’s “Count Tommaso Inghirami,” Botticelli’s “Tragedy of Lucretia,” and Crivelli’s “Saint George Slaying the Dragon.”
Staff have also replaced the gallery’s 1930s-era parquet floor, restoring it to its original color and pattern. They have installed a new LED lighting system, and conservators have restored two large wedding chests, a marble bowl, and many pieces of furniture. The conservation of three 18th-century Italian stools required a particularly detailed level of attention.
“With this room we brought it to a different level,” said Fredette. “With a lot of textile projects I’ll try to make it look a little faded so there’s not an incongruity between new and old. Here we were able to elevate everything.”
1) Velvet topping
The stool’s cushion was originally covered in red velvet, which according to museum records had already begun to go bald by 1926. In the 1960s, restorers replaced the original velvet covering with a red cloth. Conservators have now returned to the original fabric, topping the stool in red velvet.
2) Upholstery cake
Conservators opted to leave the stool’s original cushion, or upholstery cake, intact, reasoning that it’s an original part of the stool. The cushion is covered with new linen batting, and conservators placed a clear sheet of Mylar on the bottom of the stool to prevent pieces of the cushion from falling through a split in the wood. The clear sheet allows curators to see a small drawing on the bottom of the stool.
3 ) Legs
The stool’s turned and gilded legs are original and were not addressed during the conservation. The legs show signs of insect boring, which conservators say is not active and was likely evident when the stool originally entered the collection. Conservators may touch up the gilding if it looks shabby in the newly restored gallery.
4) Wood apron
The wood apron that holds the stool’s cushion was likely added at a later date. The apron conceals a portion of the turned legs. Had it been original, the concealed upper portion of the legs would have no need to be so elaborately rendered. Conservators left the apron intact.
5) Chenille trim
The elaborately woven chenille trim may have been added along with the wood apron. In the 1960s, conservators applied a chemical preservative to the trim, encasing it in a vinyl-like sheath that made the chenille brittle and flattened its appearance. By opening an overlapping seam in the trim, modern conservators found an unaffected portion that revealed a rainbow of original colors. Conservators formulated dyes to color fresh skeins of chenille before re-creating the three-dimensional weave. Conservators also found pieces of paper with an Italian script stuffed beneath portions of the trim, adding volume. Could the words on the paper eventually provide clues to when the trim was added?
6) Turkish knots
Turkish knots encircle the stool. Microscopy revealed that they were made of silk wrapped around a pliable core of natural fibers. When conservators opened the seam in the original trim, they also discovered that one of the knots had been preserved beneath, giving them a sense of the tie’s original color and shape. A Parisian trim shop re-created the pattern using a yellow silk similar to the original.
Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.