Sometime around 1757, the renowned fresco painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo took to a ceiling in the Palazzo Porto in Vicenza to create The Triumph of Valor Over Time--the scene pictured above, which now is being feverishly restored in the conservation studio at Seattle Art Museum.
When SAM acquired the roughly 17-by-10-foot Tiepolo from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1961, the museum had to knock down walls to get it inside at the Volunteer Park location (now the Seattle Asian Art Museum). But once there, it "sort of became part of the furniture," said SAM conservator Nicholas Dorman. "People tended to walk past it."
Now that the museum will be reopening in an expanded facility on May 5, the Tiepolo is being thoroughly restored and rehung on a higher ceiling in a brighter room, one lined with sparkling cases of hundreds of pieces of porcelain.
Dorman recently took time out from restoring the painting--something he's doing with three other full-time conservators--to tell its story.
Originally made in fresco, The Triumph was removed around 1900 by a technique called strappo, which entails pasting a gauzelike material to the wall, waiting for it to dry, and then ripping the painting off the wall before reattaching it to canvas. (Funny thing is, when that's done, scant marks and indentations remain on the wall and the piece can be rebuilt. This is what happened with the Tiepolo at the palazzo, where another, similar but largely overpainted Triumph of Valor Over Time hangs--Dorman and SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa saw it when they visited Vicenza last year.)
After leaving the palazzo and before arriving at SAM, the Tiepolo changed hands a few times, once ending up as the centerpiece in the living room of a German collector who tore a hole and thrust a chandelier through its center. (The marks from the tear remain.)
At SAM, it was handled delicately but began naturally to sag over time in its oddly shaped wooden stretcher. In preparation for SAM's new building, the museum contracted with an Italian framer who made a new, superior aluminum stretcher. The conservators transferred the painting, cleaned it with swabs and distilled water, and now they are in-painting where the color has flaked away, or where previous in-painting by other restorers has discolored.
This is the crowning project in the studio's job before the reopening in May, but there are other works under examination, too, including a painting by Uccello and a sculpture by Donald Judd. Dorman gives a tour of all the art currently being prepared for its turn in the limelight.