Chic Spotlight: Conserving The Retablo of St. Peter

Chic Spotlight: Conserving The Retablo of St. Peter

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The Cincinnati Art Museum is showcasing an important process that typically only occurs behind-the-scenes. See how you can witness it now through the end of April!

Serena Urry, Conservator
Serena Urry, Chief Conservator and Paintings Conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum with the Retablo of St. Peter

​Cincy Chic: What is the Retablo of St. Peter?
Serena Urry, Chief Conservator and Paintings Conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum: “Retablo” the Spanish word for altarpiece. So the Retablo of St. Peter is an altarpiece that was created for a church in Spain around 1400 by artist Lorenzo Zaragoza. It’s comprised of several parts, including 18 paintings, which show scenes from the life of St. Peter on a gilded background.

Cincy Chic: How did this piece find its way to the Cincinnati Art Museum?
Urry: The museum purchased it in 1960 from an art dealer who had offices in Barcelona and Zurich. And we found it at a time when the museum was looking to expand its collection of Spanish paintings.

Cincy Chic: Who’s in charge of cleaning it?
Urry: It’s just me cleaning the Retablo. I hold the dual role as Chief Conservator as well as the Paintings Conservator – so it covers both of my positions.

Cincy Chic: How long will the Retablo be on display?
Urry: Zaragoza’s Retablo of St. Peter will be an exhibition through April 24.

Cincy Chic: How are you going about cleaning the artwork?
Urry: I’m cleaning it using solvents as well as mechanical cleaning items such as little hand tools. I also have a little hot air gun to remove wax that’s been applied to the paintings over time.

Cincy Chic: How long will it be at the Cincinnati Art Museum?
Urry: It’s part of the collection, so the museum owns it. It will be back on view and staying in the collection when the treatment is completed, which will be in a few years.

Cincy Chic: What do you hope museum visitors will take away from seeing the art?
Urry: This is a behind-the-scenes thing that’s being brought out into the galleries. Visitors can either watch me clean it (if I’m in there), but if I’m not, there’s information and videos on the paintings. You can see the Retablo as well as what’s going on in the cleaning process. It’s the conservation of the piece itself that is on view, not necessarily me as the conservator. The museum has designed the exhibit so that it’s enjoyable to see the piece whether I am there or not. I must also remind readers who choose to visit the museum that if I am in there cleaning, it’s important not to ask me questions as it has the potential to scare me – I recently had that happen where I was using a scalpel to clean the paintings and someone came up to ask a question, which could have had a bad ending.

There’s something to be said for coming back over the course of the exhibit. Progress will be made, you can come back and see when it wasn’t cleaned and now it is. There’s a time factor – it’s a changing exhibit because the cleaning is going to go forward.

Cincy Chic: Where can readers go to learn more?​
Urry: Readers can click here for more information on the Retablo. It is formally an exhibition, so it’s part of the museum’s schedule, which means the viewing period for it will end in April.