The Sembrich’s Victorian Casts of “Cantoria” Restored
As though to affirm the continuity between the old civilization and the new, cultured Americans of the Gilded Age surrounded themselves with artifacts of the best that Europe had produced in the preceding centuries. Marcella Sembrich was no different. In fact, if anything, she was a more avid collector than many of her even wealthier contemporaries.
For Sembrich, whose career as a singer and teacher was the product of classical traditions, and who had been forced into exile by the outbreak of World War I, it was, perhaps, even more important to surround herself with artifacts of a civilization that appeared to be on the verge of extinction.
Among the objects with which she decorated her teaching studio in Bolton Landing were 19th century plaster casts of marble panels from Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria, which the sculptor carved for the Florence Cathedral in the 15th century.
According to Richard Wargo, the artistic director of The Sembrich, the Cantoria is an interpretation of Psalm 150, which includes these lines: “Praise (the Lord) with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the psaltery and the harp. Praise him with timbrel and the dance; praise him with the stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals; praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”
Della Robbia began working on the panels in 1431, finishing seven years later. The panels were removed from the cathedral in 1688 and eventually installed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.
(Three of the panels will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia this fall, the first time any portion of the work has ever been exhibited in the United States.)
“We don’t know if Marcella Sembrich acquired these casts in Europe or from a gallery in New York, but it would certainly be appropriate for someone immersed in music to want to surround herself with reproductions of one of the greatest sculptoral evocations of music ever created,” said Wargo.
In recent years, the casts have begun to show signs of age, and as a consequence, the Sembrich’s Board of Directors voted to remove them from the museum and have them restored.
To help defray the costs of the project, the Sembrich sponsored a 50/50 raffle throughout its summer season last year. Linda Galusha of Bolton Landing purchased the winning ticket, and funding became available.
Rebecca Smith, the Board’s Secretary and an artist who divides her time between Bolton Landing and New York, spearheaded the effort.
“When I came on the board I thought that with my experience taking care of the artwork of my father, David Smith, I could help with conservation of the Sembrich Collection,” said Smith. “I thought the Della Robbia reproductions could use cleaning and some conservation, a project that had already been on the Sembrich’s radar. I recommended using Marc Roussel, one of the nation’s pre-eminent art restorers and conservators, because he had done excellent work for us at the David Smith Estate for many years.”
Works that Roussel and his company, Roussel Art Conservation, have restored include Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ at Lincoln Center, Daniel Chester French’s ‘Forward’ atop Wisconsin’s State Capital dome, AT&T’s iconic sculpture ‘Spirit of Communication’ and Rockefeller Center’s ‘Atlas’ and ‘Prometheus’. The studio was also enlisted to help restore the Statue of Liberty.
Although the casts lack the prominence (and provenance) of those works, Roussel said they “were a pleasure to work with. The panels are Victorian-era casts of casts. They’re copies of copies. They are, nevertheless, intrinsically beautiful. They are, after all, cast from a great piece of sculpture.”
Earlier this spring, Roussel traveled to Bolton Landing to supervise the installation of the newly restored panels.
According to Roussel, the panels were last repaired in the 1960s or 70s with fiberglass, a product introduced to the area through boat dealers and marinas.
Roussel said he removed whatever elements were not original to the Victorian casts, such as paints, cleaned them thoroughly, treated them for a mold which had developed over years of exposure and repaired whatever pieces had chipped or worn away.
“Once the panels were cleaned, we could clearly see what the plaster casts were intended to resemble: white carrera marble. To achieve that appearance, to bring it out, we applied a clear microcrystalline wax that gives them a reflective glow,” Roussel said.
Roussel also prescribed a conservation plan that will help the Sembrich maintain the panels in their restored condition well into the future.
The Sembrich opens for the season on Sunday, June 15 and will remain open daily through September 15. The museum is located at 4800 Lakeshore Drive in Bolton Landing. For more information, call (518) 644-2431.