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Jennifer L. Mass
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science, Bard Graduate Center

“Nineteenth-Century Black Patinas on Ancient Bronzes: Chemical Innovations and Asian Influences”

Metalworkers have used black patinas on high-status bronzes in the Mediterranean and the Far East from antiquity. Important examples include the Egyptian alloy hmty-km (black copper), kyanos in Classical Greece, and Corinthium aes or hepatizon in the Roman period (there is some disagreement about translation here). The textual evidence for the preparation of these black bronzes is ambiguous and incomplete, although Pliny, Zosimos, and Pausanias all refer to the alloys. As a result, there has been substantial scientific examination of these objects to identify the chemistry behind the formation of their magnificent velvety blue/black patinas. Complicating our understanding of these bronzes, however, is that many black bronzes currently in museum collections have been blackened with selenium. There are multiple hypotheses about the origins of these selenium-blackened bronzes. Conservators and cultural heritage scientists who identify selenium patinas have variably concluded: 1) that the objects being studied are fakes, 2) that they are antiquities that were patinated in the nineteenth century to imitate shakudō in the Japonisme fashion of the period, or 3) that these patinas represent an undocumented early twentieth-century restoration technique (possibly responding to Art Deco aesthetics and the concurrent fashion for blackening African sculpture). Professor Mass will briefly review the categories of objects found to have selenium patinas and explore the origins of this technology in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century technical literature.

Tuesday, September 22, 12:15 pm

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A Zoom link will be circulated the morning of the talk.