INCISED AND EMBOSSED LEATHER
THIRD QUARTER OF THE XVI CENTURY
As is the case with a majority of known Renaissance leather parade shields, the one belonging to the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is characterized by a composition dominated by a large central field flanked by tondi framed with slender laurel wreaths with volutes of slim branches and little leaves arranged symmetrically. The subject in the central field seems to document passages in the XVIII and XIX books of the Iliad in which Tethys descends from Olympus to consign arms forged by Vulcan to her son, Achilles, while in the tondi are depicted Fame, the self-sacrifice of Marco Curzio (a hero of the Roman Republic), Hercules and the Nemean Lion (one of Hercules’ twelve labors) and the profile of a figure in a helmet, which could be Athena. On the back of the shield are depicted the figures of Fame and Muzio Scevola (another hero of the Roman Republic). Currently, it is not possible to posit theories about the shields’ workshops that, for different reasons, were situated in Milan, Florence and Ferrara. Homogenous only in appearance, incised and embossed parade shields are different in style and technique, even if similarities exist between them and arms worked in metal. Instead, these objects seem to have more in common with other kinds of objects in boiled leather. Neither is it possible to resolve definitively the problem of the date of the shield, which ranges from the late 1520s to the 1580s. Recently, it has been noted that a nucleus of examples dated between 1550 and 1570 exhibits a certain relationship with the museum’s shield.
The shield of the museum was restored by the ICR-Istituto Centrale di Restauro. Protagonist of a recent temporary structured visit to the museum that focussed particularly on children (2002) and an integral part of the exhibit on Caravaggio mounted in the museum’s spaces by the Region of Lombardy (2004), the shield is displayed in the Gallery of Arms, as it was originally intended to be.
The shield (about 54 cm in diameter, and weighing 29 kilos) has a convex shaped wooden structure covered with decorated leather. Xrays of the wooden structure show that it is made up of three thin layers of wood (probably poplar) covered with a fibrous layer, whose fibers were laid vertically in the outer areas and horizontally in the center. The curvature and the glueing of the layers probably was done on a mold with steam, or heat, in order to curve the wood permanently. The leather covering (treated with a vegetable substance, probably oak) consists in two disks fixed on the outside and inside of the wooden shield, although the original borders now are missing. The surfaces of leather have been worked in a way that seems blatantly to imitate the more prestigious metal examples, the effects achieved and the techniques used: incising, embossing, modelling and graining. Further, the technique used also resembles that used for other objects in cuir bouilli, or boiled leather. The covering is attached to the wooden structure with little wooden nails distributed regularly over the surfaces. The black coloring probably was intended to imitate the dark coloring of some metal arms. Even before the restoration, the wooden part of the shield had retained its original form and natural consistence, without too much distortion, and the fibrous stuff of the leather covering also was in a relatively good state of conservation. Nevertheless, ambient conditions and the vicissitudes of the shield when the building was still a home greatly influenced the material, and provoked damage reversible only in part, for example, lesions, deformations, stiffenings, and the progressive detachment of the leather covering from the wooden support. The metal elements (nails and hobnails) had tell-tale signs of oxidation, and their surfaces appeared covered and ofuscated by significant deposit layers of fatty substances that, in addition to retaining a notable quantity of dust and dirt, had filled in the concave parts of the design, thereby depriving the reliefs of their legibility. Further, these substances, being present in excess, prejudiced the exchange of humidity with the ambiance, thereby contributing to the progressive dehydration of the fibers and the contraction of the leather.
Restorer’s Technical Report (summary in part from the restorer’s report)
In the past, the shield had undergone a careful, yet radical, intervention geared to restoring the integrity and functionality of the object: removal of the leather layer from the wooden support, consolidation of the wooden support, reapplication of the leather to the support, lining up the outer edges of the back and front leather layers, filling in the lacunae, treatment of the surfaces with a black-colored fatty substance, and the application of two new arm supports covered in green velvet. Microanalytical examinations were done at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique in Brussels on the conservation state of the leather, while the chemical laboratory of the ICR did the tests to identify the fatty substances present on the leather. The intervention procedures were planned taking into consideration the display conditions in the museum, respecting the original collocation of the object without a glass case. The intervention had the following stages: removal of the surface fatty deposits; on the inside of the shield, removal of the nails that did not contribute to fixing the leather layer to the wooden support; reduction of the deformations of moderate extension; fixing of the parts of the leather covering where it had become detached from the wooden support using thin bracket headed nails made out of stainless steel wire in different thicknesses (0,8 mm, 1 mm, 1,2 mm), and then darkened; filling in of lesions and lacunae with stucco; pictorial reintegration of the stuccoed areas using colored varnishes (the parts of the wooden support that were visible were toned down using watercolors). Finally, the cleaning of the surface revealed the incisiveness of the reliefs, and make the reading of the subject matter possible.
For a complete copy of the restorer’s report, scholars are kindly requested to contact the museum.