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Restoration of Antonio Canova’s sculptural group Cupid and Psyche in the New Hermitage’s Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting

Cupid and Psyche (Cupid and Psyche’s Kiss)
Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822).
The sculptural group. Marble. Height 172,0 cm.

The sculptural group Cupid and Psyche is one of the best-known and most popular in the Hermitage collection. It was created by Antonio Canova (1757–1822), an Italian who was the most important representative of Neo-Classicism in European sculpture. The State Hermitage possesses a large collection of his works, which are displayed in the Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting in the New Hermitage.

The sculptor produced the group Cupid and Psyche (Cupid and Psyche’s Kiss) in marble twice. The first version is in the Louvre, the second in the Hermitage. The subject is based on the poetic tale by the Roman writer Apuleius about the winged god Cupid’s love for the mortal maiden Psyche. Canova’s work captures the moment when Cupid descended from the heavens and restored Psyche to life with a kiss. Sergei Olegovich Androsov, a scholar of Canova’s oeuvre, Keeper of Sculpture and head of the Department of Western European Fine Art in the Hermitage, described the sculptor’s concept in this way: “The very fact of Canova turning to this moment in the romantic story became an innovative and rare occurrence in sculpture (sculptors usually depicted Psyche bending over the sleeping Cupid).”

This sculptural group of Cupid and Psyche was ordered and bought directly from Canova by Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1751–1831), who from 1783 to 1789 was in Italy on Russian diplomatic service. The sculpture was created in 1794–97 and delivered to Saint Petersburg in 1802. For a few years it adorned Yusupov’s palace on the River Fontanka in the city, before being moved to the Arkhangelskoye estate outside Moscow in 1810, where for more than 20 years it occupied the central place in the Psyche Salon. Nikolai Borisovich’s son, Boris Nikolayevich Yusupov (1794–1849), acquired a palace on the embankment of the River Moika in Saint Petersburg and, after his father’s death, began transferring the collection of artworks there from Arkhangelskoye. The sculpture was kept in the palace’s Canova (or Small) Rotunda until 1926, when it was transferred through the State Museum Fund to the Hermitage collection. Here it joined a group of statues and sculptural groups that that Canova had produced for the most influential client of that time – Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, Empress of the French. Today’s visitor can note that the standard of execution of the “Yusupov” marbles is just as high and delights the eye just as much as that of the pieces from Josephine’s collection.

The history of the acquisition, delivery to Saint Petersburg and transportation to temporary exhibitions led to the sculpture being repeatedly subjected to considerable strains, while the composition of the work and the way individual parts of it were made are not intended for such stresses. Numerous chips could be seen on the piece as well as traces of previous restorations – visible joints on Psyche’s arms and legs.

The state of Cupid’s left wing was particularly concerning: it was cracked with the upper part misaligned, the joint enlarged and soiled. The upper part of the wing needed to be removed.

Before restoration

 

In the course of restoration, the sculptural group was completely freed from dust and washed: it was necessary to remove layers of dust and persistent soiling, while leaving the historical patina on the sculpture.

The main task lay in very carefully removing the old adhesive and removing the wing. This was the most important part of the entire process, as the wing was inclined backwards at a quite difficult angle and needed to be disassembled correctly and safely then reattached in its place. The assembly of the wing was carried out in a particular order so as to ensure the correct and reliable positioning of this important detail with respect to the group as a whole. To hold the wing in a fairly awkward position until the adhesive had completely hardened on the dowels and in the joint, a system of braces and counterweights was devised and set up (based on the old and already forgotten technology of fastening stone elements with an arrangement of braces that was in use in Europe and Russia right up to the late 19th century).

  • During restoration
  • During restoration
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All the joints, cracks and minor defects in the marble were filled with a special restoration mastic that matches the physical and chemical properties of marble as it contains calcite and meets the requirements of modern-day restoration. On the outer side of the right wing, at the site of the joint, cleaning away of old applications of mastic revealed quite substantial losses. Those were filled with restoration mastic and the losses of feathers were modelled by hand using a special tool. After the joints and cracks were filled with mastic, the areas of the surface that had been made good were tinted.

As a result of the restoration work, the sculptural group acquired an appearance close to its creator’s original intention.

The restoration work was carried out on a specially constructed stage installed in the Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting by a team of joiners from the museum’s Chief Engineer’s Department: V.F. Ekimov, U.V. Leontyev, M.G. Pchelin, A.E. Pertsev.

The photographic recording of the sculptural group before and after restoration was performed by A.Y. Lavrentyev, an artist-photographer from the Editorial and Publishing Department.

The working group for this project consisted of:

S.O. Androsov, Head of the Department of Western European Fine Art, Keeper of the Collection of Western European Sculpture

A.A. Androkhanov, Head of the restoration work, an artist restorer of the first category in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Sculpture and Semiprecious Stone

I.A. Tsvetkova, A.V. Kanis, artists restorers in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Sculpture and Semiprecious Stone

S.L. Petrova, project curator, head of the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Sculpture and Semiprecious Stone

E.V. Fedorov, project coordinator, head of the Sector for Project Finance.

The project was realized with the support of the Cytomed company.