Matthias Manzini using a ZEISS stereo microscope. Being a conservator is both a profession and a vocation
A conservator’s main job is to protect art and heritage artifacts, preserving them authentically and sustainably for future generations. Almost all the item a conservator works on are irreplaceable originals, witnesses to human history. Clearly, these paintings, statues, and similar objects can’t simply be altered without due care and attention.
How do you become a conservator? Matthias owes his calling to his art teacher in high school, who suggested an internship in conservation.
From the age of just 14, Michaela Morelli, a textile conservator at the Imperial Carriage Museum, was able to start learning to embroider, weave, dye, and print fabrics in the upper grades of the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. A chance encounter helped her on her way; during a bus ride, she met a textile conservator who offered her a one-month trial internship. One month turned into a year and a half, and the foundation for her future career had been laid. After studying in Cologne, she ultimately returned to Vienna.
As a conservator, you use both your head and your hands.
Michaela Morelli, a textile conservator at the Imperial Carriage Museum
She’s hit the nail on the head there; restoration involves a combination of science and craftsmanship. Good conservators need practical skills, artistic sensitivity, theoretical knowledge concerning the fields of art and culture, and technical know-how. They need to be able to identify the age of an object and trace its history. And on top of that, they need a solid expert understanding of chemistry, physics, and microbiology.
Conservators need a comprehensive understanding of all the equipment associated with the artifact. The Imperial Carriage Museum in Vienna
The work conservators do behind the scenes is the foundation that allows museum visitors to admire the carriages, clothes, and other items on display.
Exhibitions on display The imperial fleet Schoenbrunn Palace
The Imperial Carriage Museum in Vienna comprises multiple collections. Taking care of them requires the full range of professional conservation and restoration activities.
The museum houses vehicles from the Viennese court’s formerly 600-strong fleet of conveyances – from state carriages to baby strollers.
Vehicles from the Viennese court
Royal carriage for use during a period of mourning at court Child’s carriage Carousel carriage
From the 19th century onwards, the court carriages – which always had right of way over other carriages – were identified by their paintwork in courtly green and gold. The width of the gold stripes on the wheels of the carriage indicated the rank of its passengers.
The stripes on the wheels indicated the rank of the carriage’s passengers.
Until 1918, the countless elegant equipages of the court were an important feature of the Viennese streets. After this date, the court carriages (which were considered historically important even then) were gifted to the Carriage Museum. The utility vehicles were painted over and continued to be used. If they find their way back to the Carriage Museum nearly a century later, like Emperor Franz Joseph I’s carriage from Budapest has, it’s an unparalleled stroke of luck – and a big challenge for the conservators!
Manzini works with a wide variety of materials when restoring carriages.
Gilded wooden structures, glass windows, padded interiors, embroideries, metal traction elements, paintings on the wooden elements: a carriage represents the interaction of a wide variety of materials.
Textiles, varnish, wood, and metal all require very different analysis and treatment methods. He uses UV light or stereoscopic grazing light, with different microscope contrasts if necessary, to view the layers of the craquelure-covered paint surface. The metal composition of the wheels is determined using electron microscopy and EDX detection, and textile fibers are best analyzed using the polarization contrast on a light microscope.
The Emperor’s new clothes
And speaking of textiles – after the collapse of the monarchy, the no-longer-needed liveries of the Office of the Master of the Horses, along with the wardrobes of the Habsburg Orders (the Golden Fleece, the Order of St Stephen of Hungary, the Order of Leopold, and the Order of the Iron Crown), were given to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. These form the core of the Court Robes and Uniforms collection, one of the most important collections of court dress from the 19th and early 20th centuries in the world. The Court Robes and Uniforms collection is being constantly expanded through systematic acquisition activities. The imperial garments are the highlights of the collection, including items such as the train from Empress Elisabeth’s wedding gown.
Sisi’s wedding train is one of the few surviving items of the Empress’s clothing.
Morelli is the textile conservator for the Imperial Carriage Museum and the Court Robes and Uniforms collection. There are a particularly large number of items of clothing alleged to have been owned by Empress Elisabeth – also known as Sisi – in circulation. Assessing whether an item is an original or a fake isn’t easy. With a twinkle in her eye, Morelli points at a pretty chenille dress and explains that it was adjusted for a different, later wearer – one of the Empress’s nieces. Morelli uses the ZEISS Axiolab light microscope with polarization contrast to analyze fibers, assess the condition of the material by age, and to document any damage caused, for example, by moths. With the help of the contrast, she is able to differentiate between linen and flax and is sometimes able to pin down the age of a garment.
Conservator examines royal fabrics.
With plenty to do every day, the conservators have no time to be bored. There are donations to be assessed and existing collections to be conserved. Temporary exhibitions on exciting topics such as the Congress of Vienna, the Empress Sisi, and the Napoleonic Era place Manzini, Morelli, and the collection’s third conservator, Daniela Sailer, in contact with new artifacts – and new challenges – every day.
The Imperial Carriage Museum is located on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace in the Hietzing district of Vienna and houses over 30,000 objects. Of the roughly 200 vehicles in the Carriage Museum, 101 come from the fleet of the Viennese court, while the others belonged to families that were members of the courtly nobility. The museum, which is part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, represents one of the most important collections worldwide.
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