February 1848: An announcement is published in the Bullettino dell’Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica. Fragments of an ancient Greek krater (a mixing vessel) bearing a depiction of the mythological Underworld had been discovered in the vicinity of Altamura, in the boot heel of southern Italy. Three years later, another announcement appears in the same bulletin—the krater had been reassembled.
No longer was it possible to tell what was original to the ancient krater, and what was reconstructed and repainted by a nineteenth-century restorer’s hand. As a German scholar noted in 1888: “This riddle is now insoluble, but it is to be hoped that here, too, cleaning and re-examination of the vessel will bring clarity.”
What happened to the vase in those three years between its rediscovery and its reconstruction? Scholars have been looking for the truth ever since.
The Altamura Krater is today part of the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (National Museum of Archaeology in Naples), one of the most significant archaeological museums in the world.
Dating to the 1750s, the Museum is home to thousands of ancient treasures that have been unearthed in Italy since 1738, when workers building a summer palace for the then-king of Naples came across the ruins of an ancient city, later identified as Herculaneum. Over the next 270 years, archaeological excavations from Herculaneum, Pompeii, and southern Italy uncovered wall paintings, sculptures, pottery, gems, bronze cups, jewelry, coins, and other artifacts, all of which became part of the Museum’s collection.
Today there’s a world-famous piece in every room, and in storage there’s yet more. The history of classical archeology is contained in the Naples Museum.
The Naples Museum also has one of the largest conservation facilities in Italy, with nearly 20 staff dedicated to caring for the collections. Yet, even with a staff this size, its collections are so vast that much of it is kept in storage—including the Altamura Krater.
Artifacts are keys to understanding the history and culture of ancient Mediterranean societies, but they require careful study. For instance, during the krater’s reconstruction between 1848 and 1851, the restorer filled in gaps and completed missing figures, sometimes even painting over areas of the original decoration. While the additions are visually appealing, they may distort our understanding of the vase. Indeed, scholars citing features or figures as evidence for ancient beliefs or society may have been relying on elements that had actually been painted in the nineteenth century.
Beginning in 2009, a collaboration between the Naples Museum and the Getty advances scholarly conversations by providing conservation treatment and close analysis of choice objects in storage at the Naples Museum, producing case studies that benefit the broader archaeological community.
Supported by the Getty Villa Council, it’s an ambitious partnership, says Naples Museum director Paolo Giulierini, that seeks to establish “new directions for research, scholarships, and cultural exchange. The Pacific coast and the Gulf of Naples will soon be closer than they seem.”
David Saunders has been working as a curator at the Getty Villa since 2008, and contributing to the partnership with the Naples Museum since it started. It has been an exciting collaboration, he says: “We have an opportunity to dig deep, explore, and learn from colleagues who know so much about these objects.”
Over the past eight years, David—working with Luigia and Getty Museum conservator Erik Risser—has worked on three major collaborations, in which magnificent objects have traveled from Naples to the Getty Villa, home to the Getty Museum’s antiquities collection, for study, conservation treatment, and temporary display.
The most recent is the Altamura Krater.
When an object arrives from Naples, the “get-to-know-you” stage begins. The Getty Villa team must learn as much as possible about its history and condition in order to come up with a plan for treatment.
Their ultimate goal is to stabilize the vase so that, once back in Italy, it can move out of storage and on to display at the Naples Museum. In the process, the team will also help answer some of the long-standing questions about the vase’s decoration.
The Altamura Krater arrived at the Getty Villa in the winter of 2016, and David remembers his first impression of it as it was carefully unpacked and moved into the conservation studios. “I was blown away by the scale of it. Watching our preparators and the team from Naples move it made me think about the heft. I thought about how it might have been maneuvered into a grave, about how the painted images are intertwined with ritual…with death…and about how excited I was to study it.”
Kraters were used in antiquity as vessels for mixing wine (Greeks favored their wine diluted). Created in the fourth century B.C., the Altamura Krater is a monumental example of such a vessel—it is as tall as an average person—but it has a hole in the bottom, which means it is unable to store liquid. These features allow scholars to identify the krater as a display piece, one that would have played a role at the burial of a member of the local elite.
After the history of an object is well understood, the team moves on to a comprehensive study of its condition to develop a plan for treatment. For the krater, this includes identifying which areas of paint are modern and which are ancient by examining it with various technical methods.
While the only way to clarify this in the nineteenth century was to clean the vase with chemicals, today experts can use imaging techniques that do no damage to the vase’s surface.
As a conservator, Erik’s aim is not to remove the nineteenth-century overpaint or take apart the vase and return it to the fragmentary state in which it was found. He seeks instead to understand its life story and stabilize it for current and future generations to see, study, and enjoy.
After the vase arrived in Malibu it was photographed (very carefully!) from all sides on a turntable in the Getty Villa’s photography studios. It was then transferred to a multipurpose laboratory, and turned upside down; because of its fragile state and rounded base, this is the most stable position.
Under Erik’s guidance, the vase was photographed under visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light to identify areas that were overpainted. X-raying the vase was also helpful, because it revealed the mosaic of fragments that had been pieced together to restore it—the modern pieces are more dense, and so show up distinctly under X-ray.
Finally, X-ray fluorescence is being used to determine the chemical composition of both the ancient and modern pigments on the vase. “These findings will help the team refine their questions about the nature of the materials used in the restoration work, to understand how those materials have altered over time, and what impact they may have on the ancient portions of the vase,” says Erik.
At long last the vase is receiving the analysis that nineteenth-century scholars hoped it would, but complicated work still remains to be done: the original restoration is showing its age in the cracks around the krater’s base.
Preparing it for display will involve working closely with Luigia and the staff in Naples to finalize a treatment plan. Erik will then carry out the necessary conservation treatment, which will allow visitors to see the krater in all its glory in a temporary exhibition at the Getty Villa. All this will happen before it returns home to Naples, where it can continue to spark questions and conversations with all who see it.
Rich layers of histories live within objects, and it’s the job of scholars and scientists to listen closely to what those objects have to say. “If a scholar comes along today or 200 years from now, he’ll see both the ancient and modern changes to the krater simultaneously,” says Erik. “With every project we add to the growing universe of information for colleagues to tap into. Imagining what our work today will do for the archaeologists and historians of the future is extraordinary.”