Unknown and unloved
The Fountain of the Three Graces had been somewhat hidden away for years in one of the Bread House rooms in Brussels. Because of its dark brown finish, minimal lighting and inconspicuous placement, half hidden against a column, this sculpture was of little appeal to museum visitors. As a result, it escaped the attention of researchers for a long time.
Concerned about the many fractures in the pedestal, the museum contacted the Institute for a restoration. Given the many questions regarding the materials used, the restoration history and the origin of the fountain, the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage put together an interdisciplinary research team. They were to collect all the necessary data with a view to restoration.
Firstly, we meticulously photographed the fountain to determine its state of preservation. Every lacuna, crack, scratch and even hairline crack was mapped. Weathering and erosion has weakened the sculpted forms in several places. The legibility is further disturbed by cracks and cavities, in combination with the brown finishing layer. Moreover, poorly executed plaster fillings detract from the expression of the sculpture.
The material analysis also revealed that the fountain, which consists of a truncated pyramidal plinth with the three Graces on top, was made entirely of Italian Carrara marble. Petrographic analyses and an isotope analysis confirmed this identification. The beautiful white marble, with its subtle colour nuances and veins, had already been covered by a brown finishing layer in the 19th century. This layer was probably applied for protection or as an artificial patina, but its colour differences and blotchy character give it a very heterogeneous and disturbing appearance.
A new masterpiece
Comparative stylistic research and archive study led unexpectedly to it being attributed to the Guglielmo Della Porta - Niccolò da Corte atelier. Jean V de Hennin-Liétard is said to have ordered the fountain directly from the Genoese atelier in the first half of the 16th century for the courtyard of his castle in Boussu. Hence, this Italian masterpiece is one of the few marble Renaissance sculptures you can admire in Brussels today.
Test treatment to pave the way
A trial restoration followed the study. Various products and methods were tested, which form the basis for a detailed restoration protocol. A test treatment also makes it possible to estimate the expected result and feasibility of the final restoration. The cleaning tests aimed to remove the disturbing brown finishing layer and other contaminants without damaging the marble. Completing the missing parts with a mortar adapted to colour and texture will improve the readability and show the sculpture in all its beauty again.
A new beginning
This study was subsidised by the Fondation Périer-D'Ieteren. It provided a good insight into all the valuable aspects of the fountain. It also underlined the importance of thorough restoration. The Museum of the City of Brussels is currently drawing up the restoration file and will then launch the commission. After a thorough renovation of the building, everyone will be able to admire the masterpiece of the Three Graces again in all its glory.