MANUFACTURED IN OUDENNARDE (FLANDERS)
SILK AND WOOL WITH GOLD THREADS ADDED TO THE SURFACE
MIDDLE OF THE 16TH CENTURY
The two Flemish tapestries of the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum called Mercury and his Children and The Sun and his Children, might be the extant portion of the Renaissance series, thought lost, once belonging to Philip II, although the hypothesis may be difficult to prove. The design takes up the ancient iconography of the zodiac, and develops the theme of the planets and the humans, who, in virtue of the influence of the planet under whose sign they were born, are their “children.” First disseminated through prints from Burgundy dating between 1460 and 1470, then through the admirable series of prints (1513) by Georg Pencz of Nuremburg, the images of the tapestries are inserted fully into this much loved iconographic theme. Further, they seem to form the oldest surviving Flemish tapestry on this theme, slightly earlier than a series from Bruxelles (now conserved in Munich). The Mercury was restored thanks to a contribution by the Region of Lombardy.
To Mercury–identified thanks to the zodiac signs under his influence, Gemini and Virgo–are attributed cold and wet “humors” (essential fluids once believed to course through the body), which provoke influxes similar to those believed induced by Saturn, often associated with creative genius, and which render those thus afflicted inclined to melancholy, speculation and study. In a word, scientists, mathematicians, and doctors, as seen in the museum’s tapestry. Presumably acquired in the 1880s by the brothers Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi in order to decorate their Milanese home, the tapestries–traditional signs of wealth and nobility–are displayed on the first floor at the opening of the entrance stairway, as the brothers originally wished them to be.
According to the research records, the Mercury tapestry, measuring 336×468 cm (excluding the restored margins), was woven with an undyed woolen warp and a weft of wool and silk, whitened, or of various hues. The original margins were of blue wool. The light colored areas in the clothes, the brocaded areas of the textiles, and some elements of the clothing accessories, such as the sword of the figure on the extreme right, were then completed by embroidery with golden and silver threads posed in a parallel manner to the warp, and then couched. Embroidery used to complete a tapestry was not infrequent, but it is unique that couching was used (it is the first time that this application was encountered in 25 years of activity at the restoration center). Less clear is the situation of the embroidery in the figure on the front righthand plane: in the sleeves of the tunic and the band knotted at the waist, the embroidery–whether in material, or technique–is similar to usual examples, while in the pallium, the silver thread is thicker, and is not only perfectly preserved, but also sewn with a less refined technique, very visible on the back. Further, the underlying fabric is not silk, but wool of a slightly different color, and it is clear that it was realized knowing full well that embroidery was to be used there. During the long period necessary to weave a tapestry, it is not unusual that variations were introduced, for reasons that are difficult to divine. Even more difficult to accept is the hypothesis that this is the work of a later antique dealer. Only an analysis of the threads will be able to shed further light on this.
On the back of the tapestry there are traces of four vertical bands and two horizontal bands of reinforcement (of the latter, the lower band is 25 cm. ca. away from the border, while the upper is 55 cm. ca. away from the border), both removed at some point in the past. The areas once covered by these bands are characterized by colors that are more vivid, a clear sign that even the back of the tapestry, once without a lining, has faded due to exposure to the sun. Present at the time of the restoration was a complete lining made of linen (or hemp?), about 70 cm. high, and sewn by machine. The lining was fixed to the tapestry using a running stitch, placed vertically and equidistant, using a fairly thick cotton thread.
The vertical margins were cut irregularly at some point in the past, while the horizontal margins had been removed completely. The metal threads were coming off, and some had been lost completely. Dust and polverized fats floating in the atmosphere had dirtied the tapestry. Quite degraded were the areas of the brown and silk weft; in both cases, the lacunae had been filled at some time in the past with stitches incongruous in color and design. Aside from these problems, the Mercury tapestry was essentially intact, while the Sun tapestry currently is being restored (July 2006).
Restoration: Technical Report (summary)
Numerous were preceding restoration, or maintenance, interventions, of which remain traces not always easy to interpret. The most recent of these was effected with the tapestry in place, in an attempt to eliminate the bulging in the lower part of the tapestry, which had developed because the weave had relaxed after the reinforcing bands had been removed. After the lining was removed, the tapestry was vacuumed, and tests had been performed, the tapestry was washed with water-based detergents containing 1 gram to 1 liter of non-ionic tensioactive substances and 0,4 grams to 1 liter of sodium carboxymethyl cellulose. The tapestry then was rinsed with de-ionized water. The procedure was effected while the tapestry, protected by a layer of nylon tulle, was laid on a stainless steel net. The detergent was applied with sponges, once on the back and twice on the front. The dirtier areas were subjected to a more thorough application. Each washing phase was followed by a rinse phase; the water was applied with sprinklers. Each phase was accompanied by a monitoring of the pH, which was brought from 4,5, during the first treatment effected only with de-ionized water, to 5,8, where it was stabilized at the conclusion of the final rinsing. Drying occurred naturally, and was favored by the dehumidification of the area and a light circulation of air.
In addition to being clean, the tapestry was then much less rigid, and the vast grayed area had substantially disappeared to such an extent that the composition was again legible (for example, touches of pink had reappeared in the cheeks of the figures). Small areas where the gray patina had not been removed satisfactorily were subjected to local treatments with a mixture of 1:1 water and ethyl alcohol.
It was decided to consolidate the tapestry using a total support made up of a cotton and polyester fabric, chosen because of its extreme resistance and durability, accompanied by great flexibility and lightness. In order to avoid tension between the old fabric and the support, the latter was left slightly larger than the former (about 5% more). The lining was fixed to the tapestry by hand. The metal threads that had come loose were repositioned and fixed using the original couching technique. The sections where the original sewing was less resistant were covered with a protective layer of nylon tulle.
Predictably, the tapestry shrunk a bit because of the washing (a few cm., both horizontally and vertically). The margins, which had been added at a later time, had been taken off; after the cleaning, they were reapplied about 2 cm. farther out. In this way, part of the original margins were left visible.
The 19th century elements of the tapestry are no more than 1-2% of the surface, and are localized in such a way as to not provoke substantial disturbances to the composition. In fact, they are relegated to the internal areas of the figures, almost always in the light zones in silk for the depiction of the clothes, or the profiles of the figures in dark brown wool. Only in a few cases did the 19th century intervention constitute an “interpretation” of the design, and, even here, only in areas almost always modest in size. The consequences of these interpretations, though, are a cruder rendering of details and profiles and an alteration of the shininess of the threads, when compared to the original choice of materials, or the alterations due to successive interventions.
The general criteria adopted regarding these past interventions was to leave them in place where they did not constitute a grave interference with the image, or where their removal would have provoked a heightened fragility of the object. All other past interventions were removed, after which it was possible to re-weave (using widely spaced threads in the correct color) the lacunae over inserts of the same color. No kind of integration was effected, except for the shading of the eyes of the two small figures on the left; this was done to restore the gaze to an acceptable level. Corresponding to this approach was the choice of the color of the new threads, so that they were essentially indistinguishable from the originals (already having been distinguished by placement).
For the full Italian version of the restoration record, scholars may contact the museum office.