One Tapestry, Many Hands: Film Chronicles Conservation in Action
By Jennifer DePrizio, Director of Interpretation
Tapestries were once the most expensive and valued works of art. In the 1570s Catherine de’ Medici, a member of one of Florence’s most influential noble families and queen mother of France, commissioned a set of eight tapestries to promote the wealth and power of her ruling family, the Valois. Six of these tapestries are the centerpiece of the CMA’s fall exhibition Renaissance Splendor: Catherine de’ Medici’s Valois Tapestries, beginning November 18.
Considering these tapestries are almost 450 years old, they are in extraordinarily good condition. Since being brought to Florence in 1589 by Christina of Lorraine, the granddaughter of Catherine de’ Medici, they have mostly been in storage. Despite this safekeeping by the Medici family and, ultimately, by the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, the textiles, by their nature, have suffered over time — dust, stains, and wear took their toll.
In 2016 US-based Friends of the Uffizi Gallery funded an ambitious conservation campaign to clean and restore these monumental and glorious works of art.
For the exhibition, it was important for the CMA interpretation team to highlight the extensive and complex conservation work that has resulted in the glittering, glorious tapestries. We decided that a film would be the best way to explain the process. In May 2018, I was fortunate enough to travel to Florence along with other CMA staff to oversee the production. We were fortunate to work with Clay Westervelt of Imaginuit Productions, Los Angeles, on this project. The film highlights the work conducted by a dedicated team of textile conservators with Restauro Tessile di Beyer e Perrone Da Zara, a company based in Italy dedicated to the restoration and preservation of antique textiles, costumes, ecclesiastical vestments, embroidery, upholstery, and tapestries.
The resulting film explores the steps taken to clean and repair the Valois Tapestries. Through this film you have a chance to get a truly behind-the-scenes experience of the tapestries in a way that you cannot when viewing them in the galleries.
One of the unique features of these particular tapestries is the abundance of metallic threads, which were meant to shimmer and shine in candlelight, making the depictions of the “magnificences” — elaborate public festivals and celebrations orchestrated by Catherine de’ Medici — even more magnificent.
Because of the recent restoration, you can better see these metallic threads that had oxidized and corroded over time. But what the film allows, which otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye, is an opportunity to see these fibers at a microscopic level. Indeed, the conservators closely examined the tapestries under a microscope to restore the threads, which are extremely thin strips of gold and silver wrapped around a silk core. Seeing these threads magnified gives a firsthand look at the richness and intricacy of these monumental textiles. My mind now can imagine the millions of threads that make up these enormous textiles, some as large as 13 by 20 feet.
Yes, the Valois Tapestries are spectacular, but some of the original colors have faded over time. Removing years of dust and dirt made the colors clearer in some cases, but the original color cannot be fully restored. However, the back of a tapestry, which is better protected over time, hints at the original vibrancy of colors. Here is another place that the film can show you something you will never experience in the gallery. In the two images below, compare the sleeve on the woman’s dress, noting the areas of bright pink outlining each section of yellow on the reverse.
In addition to examining, documenting, and cleaning every square inch of the tapestries, the conservators also made repairs. To do so, wool and silk had to be sourced to match the original fibers. Modern recipes replicated the original dyeing process, producing colored threads to match the cleaned originals. The book in the image below is full of recipes used to make dyes.
These are just a few of the highlights of the film, which offers many more rich details. Spending a week in the conservation lab, up close and personal with one of the tapestries, made me think deeply about the impact of the many human hands in the life of this one tapestry. The story begins with the commission by Catherine de’ Medici, but the credit belongs to all those who brought her concept to life. The story continues with the artists whose work contributed to the imagery. Then the weavers come into focus, and their work is supported by those who spun and dyed the threads. When these were on view in the French court, how many people admired the display of wealth and status inherent in this endeavor?
The tapestries then traveled to Florence with Catherine’s granddaughter and became part of the Medici collection before ultimately joining the collection of the Uffizi Galleries and being tended to by museum staff. As the film shows, the safekeeping of these objects continues with the conservators who took great care of these tapestries. And we are brought to this present moment, in which you and I can experience these tapestries at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
This film is indeed a conservation story, but what I hope is that it also emphasizes that these objects represent a human story — one of production, propaganda, and power, inviting us to think more deeply about how and why things are made.