Buried by Vesuvius: The Drunken Satyr


We know the year AD 79, following some earthquakes, the volcano erupted spectacularly and destroyed both Herculaneum and Pompeii and other sites on the Bay of Naples, paradoxically destroying and preserving them. The Villa dei Papiri was discovered accidentally by well-diggers in 1750, having hit this spectacular polychrome marble floor. Karl Weber was the excavator and he found various statues of marble and bronze, and it was—we know from the plan and his notes—in July of 1754 that what turns out to be one end of the long peristyle of the villa that
Weber and his crew found the Satyr. I’m Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities
at the Getty Villa. The Getty Villa, being a replica of the Villa
dei Papiri at Herculaneum, we here have very strong ties to our colleagues in the Bay of
Naples, and particularly the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which houses the bulk of
the material from the Villa dei Papiri. Our collaborative relationship goes back many years and the work we’re doing today on the Drunken Satyr is but one of a series of projects that we have done—a kind of collaborative loan conservation exhibition program beginning with the Apollo from Pompeii, which brought in also Apollo’s sister Diana, then the Tiberius from Herculaneum was here and a large ceramic mixing vessel, the krater from Altamura. Our conservation project here at the Getty
Villa is going to read the object itself to try to determine what is ancient, what is
modern, what was done when, both in 1759 and, perhaps, in subsequent restoration phases. Upon arrival we examined the Satyr to identify its condition. We also wanted to identify for documentation purposes what was ancient from the sculpture and what was eighteenth century and potentially modern. Over the years, the statue has suffered. The extended limbs could use reinforcement, the surface corrosion needs treatment, we’re looking at stabilization. This is conservation rather than restoration—the statue is complete, but we want to make sure we preserve it for future generations, and
also that we understand it better, that we understand which are the ancient bits and which are the additions of the eighteenth century. The rock is eighteenth century; most of the skirt of the lionskin and wineskin are eighteenth century. But by looking inside, through X-rays, through metal analysis, we can better pinpoint not only what is what with this statue, but what were the processes and procedures of the restorers working in the eighteenth century. So, fuller understanding of this work can
help us understand the work done on all the other statues from the villa. It both helps us with the steps that we will take for conservation, but also it helps the curatorial staff in terms of their research
as well. So we visually examined the Satyr, we also X-rayed the Satyr. This helped us identify the original manufacturing techniques. You have an eighteenth-century fragment, and you have an ancient fragment with eighteenth century— with two types of eighteenth-century repairs here. So this is the eighteenth century, this is
the portion of the drapery and lion’s paw that actually went over the left elbow, so
sort of the last piece put on, therefore the first piece taken off. Now with analysis we can come in and say, okay, what chemicals did they use, are these copper nitrates, are these sulfates, what
chemicals are being used to achieve this color? What is choosing—what’s oxidizing? What’s then doing this color? It’s another form of oxidation, but is that
a chloride, a sulfate, a nitrate—each of those are going to give you a different color. So after X-raying the Satyr we did some scientific analysis to determine what the ancient metal was—the composition of the ancient metal versus the eighteenth-century metal. And that’s the drapery, as well as some of
the repairs that were done on the Satyr. So the next step: we worked with the scientific department and we used a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument to identify the composition of
the metal. So we are using X-ray fluorescence to understand what is the composition of the metal. We are going to get information about the
elements present in the alloy, which are going to be, from what we are seeing right now,
copper is the major element, and then we see tin—so, typical bronze—and we see a good amount of lead, which is okay for this period and is typical of the Roman period. And we see a difference between the figure and the drapery, which is instead eighteenth century. We don’t have a lot of information about how the Satyr was found, but we’re very fortunate that Karl Weber, the Swiss mining engineer who was working for the King of Naples, recorded what he found, where he found, and how he found it. So we know that the right arm and the left
hand had been detached from the Satyr, but they were recovered. Also scraps of the lionskin and wineskin on which the Satyr was resting were recovered. But not the base—and the back of the Satyr shows evidence of damage; it seems to have been hit by this really strong volcanic force and knocked off of its base, and been partially broken. We’re used to seeing lots of Roman marbles and we think of lost Greek bronze originals—so bronzes are incredibly highly prized by us,
but we know from ancient literature and surviving bases of statues that bronzes were everywhere. They’ve just been melted down and reused for their metal. And they survive so rarely because the metal could be reused. But we see in this statue the capability of
bronze to defy gravity. To have the right arm raised on high, snapping the fingers, calling for more wine. The right leg extended out into space, which, with marble, would be much more difficult because of its greater weight and lesser tensile strength. So this statue in a way, encapsulates for
us the potential of bronze, and so it’s very valuable for us in that sense too. In June 2019, we’ll complete the conservation work and the Drunken Satyr will go on view to the public in the exhibition “Buried by
Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri.” Then, it will return to its home institution,
the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. Throughout this entire collaborative program, our singular goal has been to ensure that this incredible piece of the ancient world
is preserved, so that it can be studied, and enjoyed, for centuries to come.

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